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Roadblocks to U.S. economic growth are falling, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan says: ‘It is just slow work. That’s been the tough thing.‘ (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail)
Roadblocks to U.S. economic growth are falling, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan says: ‘It is just slow work. That’s been the tough thing.‘ (Philip Cheung for The Globe and Mail)

Financial services

Bank of America chief sees economy slowly working way back from crisis Add to ...

Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan has one word that he keeps coming back to in describing the U.S. economic recovery: Steady. Not vibrant, just steady.

Mr. Moynihan runs the second-largest lender in the country and the largest wealth-management network, so few people have a better view of the rebound.

Roadblocks are steadily falling. House prices are climbing, consumers are repairing their balance sheets, the unemployment situation is improving.

It is all “constructive,” Bank of America’s chief executive officer said in an exclusive interview during a visit to Toronto. “It is just slow work. That’s been the tough thing.”

Five years removed from the worst of the financial crisis, Mr. Moynihan said he still sees trepidation in his clients, many of whom are entrepreneurs and business owners.

“They are pretty conservative right now because of the uncertainty,” he said, referring to questions last year about the U.S. fiscal situation and lingering concern about the strength of economic growth globally and factors such as commodity prices.

The attitude now is different than banking a decade ago: It is “kind of ‘I will do everything to make money and serve my customers well but I will do it really thinking through whether I am overextending myself.’ ”

The downturn has had a lasting effect; there is no single solution that will improve confidence, he said. The U.S. must continue to work through outstanding issues left over from the crisis. That includes the government getting the country’s fiscal problems in order. But the economy can spring back to life, he believes.

“The capitalistic animal spirits start to come alive faster than people think when we see some certainty. But is there any one thing? No. It’s just the business community generally, when I talk to our clients, would really like to see more of a permanent solution in Washington.”

In the meantime, the result is the sparse 2-per-cent growth that the United States is grinding out, which is “not what we want,” he said, “but it’s better than the alternative, which is going backwards.”

His bank has been working to fix lingering issues while looking for growth in new areas.

Bank of America, caught up in the subprime mortgage crisis that hit the sector hard in 2008-09, has been signing a series of settlement cheques – some of them for huge amounts – to end disputes stemming from the financial crisis. The most recent was a $1.7-billion (U.S.) settlement reached with mortgage insurer MBIA Inc. That should soon cease, enabling investors to get a clearer picture of what else is happening at the bank, he said.

Where the last few years have been about “addition by subtraction” – settling lawsuits, getting out of losing businesses and removing blemishes from the balance sheet – he hopes now to shine a light on “addition by addition.”

“You could see those things fade away,” he said of the bank’s problem areas stemming from the crisis. “But the other businesses are doing fine.”

One of the businesses flourishing right now is wealth management, which Bank of America and many other financial institutions are putting more emphasis on as a way to get low-risk growth in a time of uncertainty. Since the business is mostly fee related, managing the finances of wealthy clients, it ties up little of the bank’s capital.

Meanwhile, demographics are changing, making estate and retirement planning for wealthy baby boomers a lucrative business, particularly for Bank of America, one of the largest wealth-management banks in the world.

“This is a big business for us,” Mr. Moynihan said. Wealth-management clients “drive a lot of activity through the bank.”

But the attraction to wealth management, especially in the U.S. market, has drawn more financial players. In its home market, Bank of America has seen competition emerge from foreign banks moving in, including a host of Canadian lenders.

Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Bank of Montreal and Toronto-Dominion Bank have all stepped up their efforts to gain wealth-management clients in the U.S., buying up asset-management firms and expanding existing operations in the past two years. Each is making a bet that it can capture the U.S. economy on the upswing.

“If I looked at it from the outside, I’d see [the opportunity],” Mr. Moynihan said of his rivals. “It’s a very competitive business. The opportunity is huge. It’s just tough.”

But the return of the U.S. economy – albeit a slow and steady resurgence – will rely on the mending of the housing market, the deleveraging of consumers and the stabilization of employment. All of that is a work in progress, he noted.

“House prices quit going up in 2006,” Mr. Moynihan said. “You’re closing in on seven years since they quit going back up. That’s the thing you sometimes forget – is how long we’ve been through this.”

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