The fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off Tuesday with many U.S. banks reporting profits that either matched or fell short of Wall Street expectations. Topping the list of big lenders to report modest earnings was Wells Fargo ( WFC). The California-based lender said its fourth-quarter profits rose a modest 8% from a year ago to $1.9 billion, up from $1.8 billion. In the quarter, Wells Fargo earned $1.14 a share, compared with $1.04 a share a year ago. Revenue rose 4% to $8.5 billion. Earnings came in a penny shy of the Thomson First Call consensus forecast of $1.15 a share, a figure that already had been reduced by a penny in recent days. Revenue came in slightly ahead of the consensus estimate of $8.45 billion. Fourth-quarter earnings were weighed down at Wells Fargo by a surge in consumer bankruptcy filings, as individuals raced to beat the filing deadline for escaping a new and tougher federal bankruptcy law. The new bankruptcy law is expected to be one of the many drags on bank earnings in the fourth quarter. In the quarter, Wells Fargo reported a $203 million increase in net charge-offs for bad loans. Of that total, the bank attributed $171 million to the impact of the new bankruptcy law. But Wells Fargo did a better job of managing the other big expected problem for banks in the quarter, which was the narrowing spread between short- and long-term interest rates. In the quarter, the bank said net interest income rose 9% in the face of a so-called flattening yield curve that has made it difficult for many banks to generate fat profits off their deposit and lending operations. By comparison, Fifth Third ( FITB), the big Midwestern regional lender, reported a 2% year-over-year decline in net interest income. Net interest income is the difference between what a bank makes on its investments and loans and the money it pays out to depositors.
Better yet, Wells Fargo said its net interest margin, a measure of the profitability of a bank's deposit and investment operation, was relatively unchanged from a year ago. "During a year in which the Fed raised rates eight times and the yield curve became 'nonexistent,' our net interest margin remained essentially flat -- declining by only 4 basis points -- and at 4.84% remained the highest margin among large bank holding companies," said Wells Fargo CFO Howard Atkins, in a press release. Other big banks that reported largely in-line fourth-quarter profits were US Bancorp ( USB) and AmSouth ( ASO). Profits at Minneapolis-based US Bancorp rose 8% to $1.1 billion, up from $1 billion, fueled mainly higher fee income. In the quarter, the bank earned 62 cents a share, up from 56 cents, which matched the Thomson Financial forecast. AmSouth, the large southern regional bank, earned $182 million, up 3% from $177 million. In the quarter, the bank earned 52 cents a share, up from 49 cents a year. Earnings exceeded analyast estimates by 2 cents.