Bank of America Is Sticking to Its Knitting: Moynihan

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Brian Moynihan spent most of his career in mergers and acquisitions.

Today, as CEO of Bank of America ( BAC), he is in relatively unfamiliar territory as he figures out how to generate organic growth at a too-big-to-fail bank.

"I spent most of my career consolidating this industry. It could never happen again," Moynihan said at a Wall Street Journal breakfast event in New York Wednesday. "Companies like us who made acquisitions now have to think of organic growth for decades."

Bank of America is still paying dearly for its 2008 acquisition of Countrywide, which stuck the bank with legal losses that have now exceeded $40 billion.

And in the new regulatory regime, growing through acquisitions is not even an option for the biggest banks. Regulators do not want to see big banks getting any bigger.

Which is fine as far as Moynihan is concerned. "We don't need to be bigger to serve our clients," he said. He also sees plenty of potential for organic growth even without growing the balance sheet. "We need to get rid of $40 billion in home equity loans and replace them. We can grow with just that."

Revenue growth has largely eluded big banks in recent years as low interest rates chipped away at the spreads earned in their lending business. Fee income has also been volatile.

Banks have instead been focused on trimming costs, with Bank of America leading the way with its cost-savings initiative Project BAC. Bank of America eliminated 31,000 full-time jobs, or just under 11% of its workforce, between the second quarter of 2011 and the second quarter of 2013.

Generating revenue growth is also challenging at a time when the bank is still fighting off a mountain of lawsuits.

Bank of America has been focused on settling lawsuits wherever possible and moving on, but the bank said in a recent filing that it could see legal losses exceed reserves by more than $5 billion.

JPMorgan Chase ( JPM), which now finds itself in the same position of defending itself against a litany of lawsuits, is merely toeing the line of Bank of America in settling cases to resolve the legal uncertainty.

"No one is more educated about these cases than Bank of America unfortunately," Moynihan said when commenting on JPMorgan's legal battle.

Moynihan would, however, rather not get lost in the debate of whether regulators are unfairly prosecuting the two banks for pre-crisis behavior of entities they acquired at the height of the crisis.

"What's fair and unfair is an interesting debate to have at 10:00 in the night by myself," he said.

Right now, he says, the bank's focus is on "responsible growth" and finding the right balance in the various businesses to rein in overall risk. That might mean giving up some revenue in some cases.

"We need to stick to our knitting. This might make some people unhappy. We have to be customer focused but we should not kill ourselves," he said.

Indeed, the future that Moynihan envisages for the bank is quite boring and might drive the exit of those Wall Streeters who get a kick out of deal-making and risk-taking.

An initiative Moynihan seems particularly proud of is the bank's investment in building a mobile banking platform. Customers can deposit checks through their mobile phones by simply clicking a picture of a check.

Moynihan says the half a billion dollar investment the bank made is paying off with 7,000 customers signing up for its mobile banking services a day.

"We need to have management who get a charge out of serving clients, building mobile platforms, focusing on responsible growth. Otherwise you have to get out," he said.

-- Written by Shanthi Bharatwaj New York.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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