Full-year 2016 return on shareholder equity was almost 10%, in line with where it performed in 2015 but up from 9.4% in 2014 and 8.5% in 2013.
The financial services giant is heading in the right direction, yet its performance is way below where it was before the Great Recession, when its return on equity was in excess of 15%. That is the general standard for a company that wants to be seen as one that holds a sustainable competitive advantage.
The question is, therefore, can Chief Executive James Dimon and his crew get the ROE back up to 15% and maintain that?
Frankly, the main factors contributing to fourth-quarter results don't provide a lot of hope as far as sustainable levels of performance. The major contributors on which analysts and the company's have focused are an improvement in loan quality and trading results.
Improved loan quality is certainly a good thing to achieve, but contributions to an improving ROE only occur as a concerned bank sees the quality of its loan portfolio moving back to high and sustainable levels. It seems as if JPMorgan Chase is approaching that level, and, therefore, we shouldn't expect too much more contribution to future earnings performance from this source.
The concern about this performance is that it was tied to the volatile financial markets that resulted from the surprise victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election.
For example, the yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury rose to about 2.60% last month from about 1.80% in early November just before the election.
Whereas overall fourth-quarter trading revenue rose 24% from a year earlier, fixed-income trading jumped 31%.
In addition, with the equity markets rising from election day to new records toward the end of last year, profits from trading in equities were up by 8%.
The problem with trading profits is that a company can't produce a sustainable competitive advantage for the organization from this source.
There were unusual circumstances over the last two months of 2016. Will these kinds of market conditions continue?
Over time, trading profits tend to turn out to be a zero-sum game.
So, if neither improving loan quality nor spectacular trading profits can produce sustainable results, where is JPMorgan Chase going to achieve these over time? Right now, it is only earning a ROE that is close to the bank's cost of capital.
This won't likely produce stellar stock market performance.
What about the future? As far as the economic climate is concerned, banks are in a good situation because the Trump administration policies are expected to be favorable to the sector.
Higher interest rates are seen as particularly helpful to the industry, as they will contribute to rising net interest margins for the banks, something that is desperately needed.
In addition, a presumed favorable outcome for the banking industry is the view that the Trump administration will roll back the regulatory framework created during the Obama administration, especially rules and regulations coming from the Dodd-Frank Act.
How much this will benefit banks at least in the short term is debatable, however. Even Dimon hasn't been completely optimistic about the outcome, given that most banks, especially larger ones, have paid a lot of money to conform to these regulations and rules.
If these regulations and rules go away, banks will have to change once again. In the longer run, the rollback may be helpful, but costs would be incurred in the short run.
Meanwhile, large financial services companies including JPMorgan Chase face challenges in terms of competition, the economy, the government and technology. Whether JPMorgan Chase can attain a sustainable competitive advantage amid these challenges is an open question.