2 Words That Every Investor Needs to Hear


The StressTest column appears every Thursday on Fool.com. Check back weekly and follow @TMFStressTest.

Few businesses can survive without happy customers. And when it comes to focusing on customers needs, banks can sure talk the talk, but can they... well, wait a second, do they even talk the talk?

After listening to Jamie Dimon lecture analysts on JPMorgan Chase's second-quarter conference call about focusing on client and larger business issues rather than accounting details, I got curious: How do the major banks stack up in terms of how they talk about their respective businesses? A great PR team and an effort to talk "as if" could make a management team sound like its focus is on something that it's not. But my assumption is investors should be able to draw something from the way management discusses the business.

To test this, I went back through the second-quarter conference call transcripts from the largest banks to see the mix of discussion between customer-related issues -- by looking for the words "client" and "customer" -- and bottom-line-related issues -- by looking for the words "profit" and "loss." Here's how it shook out.

I sorted based on the ratio between the "customer related" terms and the "bottom line" terms. It shouldn't be all that surprising that among the top three banks are two -- Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo -- that are generally vocal about their customer focus. Front and center in Wells Fargo's annual report, the company states: "Our vision is to satisfy all our customers' financial needs, help them succeed financially, be recognized as the premier financial services company in our markets and be one of America's great companies." And Goldman's No. 1 business principal is, "Our clients' interests always come first."

Sure, there's evidence that Goldman in particular lost a little of that client focus in favor of a Goldman focus during the financial crisis. But if my little word jumble is any evidence (along with Goldman's Business Standards Committee, which is aiming at "a higher standard of client care"), at the very least, Goldman is very seriously talking the talk today.

Notably, both JPMorgan and Bank of America spent substantially more time talking about customers than they did about profits and losses. Comparatively, Citigroup offered less verbiage around customers and focused more on the bottom line. Perhaps we could chalk this up to the notion that B of A has beaten Citi to the punch in terms of moving on from crisis cleanup to growth initiatives.

It's also worth pointing out that the particular mix of "customer" versus "client" is telling in terms of the type of business that each bank focuses on. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and U.S. Bancorp have a lot of retail business, and those banks were heavily tilted toward the use of "customer." Meanwhile, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, and JPMorgan, all of which tilt toward corporate customers, consistently used "client" to refer to customers. And while it might seem strange that PNC Financial also leaned toward "client," consider that bank had (at March 31) $112 billion in assets in its Corporate & Institutional Banking business against $74 billion in its retail bank arm (U.S. Bancorp's is split in the opposite direction).

What they were saying
When the management teams were waxing poetic about customers, here's a look at what they were saying:

Brian Moynihan (CEO, Bank of America): "We have leading capabilities in the areas where our customers want us to be. We do more business with them; we're gaining momentum across every customer group we serve."

Harvey Schwartz (CFO, Goldman Sachs): "And this is all about, again, staying extremely focused on our clients. Particularly in our Investment Banking franchise, where we're working with CFOs and CEOs, and how they think about their balance sheets, or how they think strategically about merger activity. But again, the core message here is we're less focused on the quarter activity and much more just focused on the client long term."

Jamie Dimon (CEO, JPMorgan): "[You] have to be very cognizant of client effects. We have a client business, and we have to make sure that we continue to have a client franchise. And so over time, we'll adjust the businesses, and we'll meet [liquidity coverage ratio], we'll meet Basel III, we're going to meet whatever the leverage ratio is. And think of it in some ways of alternative minimum taxes. So if every client will be running what's your return on Basel III capital and then what's your return on leverage capital?"

John Stumpf (CEO, Wells Fargo): "We are absolutely focused around here on growth, and it comes from our basic operating philosophy around helping customers succeed financially."

More than talk
As we all know, the cliche doesn't end with "talk the talk" -- you also have to "walk the walk." So the fact that bank executives are talking a lot about customers (and clients) isn't the end of the story. But if we, as investors, want to see banks succeeding by meeting their customers' needs (we do), then hearing the banks at least talking about customers is a step in the right direction.

The bank to buy
Many investors are terrified about investing in big banking stocks after the crash, but you don't have to be. In a sea of mismanaged and dangerous peers, one bank rises above as "The Only Big Bank Built to Last." You can uncover the top pick that Warren Buffett loves in The Motley Fool's new report. It's free, so click here to access it now.

The article 2 Words That Every Investor Needs to Hear originally appeared on Fool.com.

Matt Koppenheffer owns shares of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, and PNC Financial Services. The Motley Fool recommends Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, PNC Financial Services, and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2013 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.