For Bank of America, It's About Cost Cuts, Not Growth

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Bank of America ( BAC) is set to report fourth-quarter earnings Thursday morning, and investors will be looking for signs the bank is beginning to make progress with much-anticipated cost cuts.

Analysts are looking for Bank of America to earn 2 cents per share, which is flat with the third quarter and below the 15 earned a year earlier.

Cost cuts are a big part of the bullish argument for the bank's shares.

Atlantic Equities analyst Richard Staite calculates Bank of America can save $10 billion in annual costs as the housing market recovers and it can shut down a division known as Legacy Asset Servicing that focuses on delinquent home loans. He calculates another $8 billion in savings from a program known as "new BAC." Staite upgraded Bank of America Oct. 24 when the shares were at $9.36, upping his price target to $12 from $8. The bank's shares passed that target Jan. 2, and took a tumble a week later after Credit Suisse analyst Moshe Orenbuch argued they had gone too far, too fast.

"Current valuation appears to be ahead of the company's near- to intermediate-term performance and appears to be discounting significantly faster improvements in efficiency than we would be expecting," Orenbuch wrote as he downgraded the bank's shares to "neutral" from "outperform."

In the same report, Orenbuch allowed that Bank of America could surprise him by showing an additional 5% improvement in its efficiency ratio, which would be equivalent to 30 cents per share. However, he notes this would be 40% of the anticipated cost reductions from the Legacy Asset Servicing division. He believes it will take until 2015 for the bank to reach that goal.

Revenues have been a big challenge for Bank of America, which has been selling off and winding down a substantial chunk of its businesses. Bank of America sold its Canadian credit card business for $8 billion in 2011, along with a $2.5 billion stake in money manager BlackRock. It has also been selling off its mortgage servicing business. Last week, it announced the sale of servicing rights on $306 billion worth of mortgages, about 20% of the bank's total servicing portfolio, according to Orenbuch, who believes it will unload more of such assets.

"We think it will be hard for Bank of America to grow revenues faster than the 'average' bank," Orenbuch wrote. He expects "incremental improvement in fee income in 2013 relative to 2012 with growth in service charges, investment banking income and trading."

In the meantime, far more than peers like Citigroup, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), Bank of America has relied on "releases" of capital it set aside to cover bad loans in order to boost its earnings. Such reserve releases equaled 86% of Bank of America's earnings last quarter and 163% of the bank's profits in the fourth quarter of 2011, according to Morgan Stanley analyst Betsy Graseck. She predicts such releases will equate to 72% of Bank of America's earnings in the fourth quarter. That compares to 17% at JPMorgan, which announced its fourth quarter earnings Wednesday.

Of course Bank of America's success will in many ways be tied to the overall economy, as Wells Fargo analyst Matt Burnell contended in a Jan. 7 report.

"In our view, Bank of America 's business remains the most dependent of its peers on U.S. economic growth. However, we would not expect the stock to trade at or significantly above tangible book value until management demonstrates greater progress in resolving legacy mortgage issues and restoring a more meaningful dividend," he wrote.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

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