Low interest rates have crimped lending revenue for all banks. But a number of the nation's largest lenders were still able to boost sales last year.
Maybe we should call them the way-too-big to fail.
After the financial crisis, there was a lot of focus on the overwhelming size of the nation’s largest banks. Nearly seven years later, some of them are even bigger.
Granted, for the industry in general lately, growth has been harder to come by. On average sales at the big banks in the Fortune 500 fell nearly 2% last year. Increased regulation since the financial markets tanked has reduced the big Wall Street banks’ trading businesses and revenue. Banks that are focused on lending are doing better, but not by much. Lending to corporations is up, but consumer lending is still down following the mortgage bust, and low interest rates have reduced loan revenue. Now that rates are starting to rise that should boost profits, but it will also lower consumers’ and businesses desire to refinance existing loans.
Nonetheless, a number of large banks have been able to find a way to grow. There are a number of ways to measure the big banks (many people look at assets). But since we recently published the Fortune 500, we decided to look at which of the biggest banks have increased their revenue the most in the past year. (To see which Fortune 500 companies were the biggest revenue growers in 2014, go to our new, searchable list and sort by “Rev Change.”)
1. Bank of New York Mellon
Fortune 500 rank: 189
2014 revenue: $16.4 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 4.4%
Revenue at Bank of New York Mellon BK rose the most of any of the largest banks in the country. But sales were still only up 4.4%, which says something about the current state of big banking.
Unlike many of its rivals, BNY is focused on asset management and investor services, rather than lending or investment banking. That’s helped out at a time when the market has been going up.
But the relatively good performance in recent years has stopped the bank from being targeted by two different shareholder activists. Shortly after putting a representative from hedge fund Trian Fund Management, which is led by Nelson Peltz, on its board, the company came under attack from Marcato Capital. The hedge fund says BNY’s costs are way too high, calling on the company to cut thousands of employees.
CEO Gerald Hassell agrees costs should come down, but has resisted layoffs. The bank recently sold its 1 Wall Street headquarters, with its ornate Art Deco lobby for nearly $600 million. At least for now, those cuts seem to have made a difference. BNY’s bottom line was up 21% last year.
2. State Street
Fortune 500 rank: 278
2014 revenue: $10.7 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 3.8%
Strength in trading services has given a boost to State Street. That’s benefitted the Boston-based bank at a time of a broad resurgence in the market. State Street STT also benefited last year from the general trend in investors’ appetites away from active investment management and toward passive exchange traded funds. State Street’s ETFs took in $22 billion last year. This year, though, State Street has struggled in the ETF due to increased competition.
And the company hit another big milestone in 2014. It passed rivals Bank of New York Mellon and Northern Trust as the nation’s largest custody bank, with just over $28 trillion in assets. In all, sales rose nearly 4% to $10.7 billion.
State Street, though, has come under scrutiny from regulators, and that’s hurt its bottom line. The bank has been told to improve its internal controls, and to beef up its programs to combat money laundering. The bank has been setting aside money for expected fines. In April, State Street added $150 million to its legal reserves to resolve outstanding claims against the bank related to foreign exchange activities. Overall, earnings fell nearly 5% last year, but that was mostly because of the legal fees. Operating earnings for the bank jumped nearly 20%.
3. American Express
Fortune 500 rank: 88
2014 revenue: $36 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 3.1%
The former king of charge cards has run into trouble recently. But that didn’t stop American Express AXP from ringing up a good 2014. Sales rose as business activity improved. AmEx’s largest business is still processing payments in its corporate charge card business. In all, revenue rose just over 3% in 2014 to nearly $36 billion.
Still, that jump was well below the company’s stated goal of about 8%. AmEx’s consumer business has struggled, at a time when rivals Visa and Mastercard have both done quite well. Costco announced it would end its exclusive relationship with AmEx in 2016, and the company has come under pressure for its higher fees. Also, AmEx’s rewards program, which used to be unique, is now pretty close to the norm in the credit-card business, so the company no longer stands out.
CEO Ken Chenault is trying to replace the soon-to-be-lost Costco users and expand the company beyond its traditionally affluent and corporate customer base. AmEx has been offering prepaid debt cards, which often appeal to people who don’t have access to a traditional bank account. AmEx is also striking up relationships with McDonald’s and Wal-mart in order to grab a bigger share of consumers’ everyday spending.
4. Morgan Stanley
Fortune 500 rank: 82
2014 revenue: $38 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 3.0%
Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has won plaudits for shifting the bank away from Wall Street’s riskiest businesses. That’s paid off at a time when regulators have cracked down on the trading businesses of big banks, and when the market has come roaring back.
Morgan Stanley’s wealth management business, bolstered by the acquisition a few years ago of Citigroup’s Smith Barney brokerage division, has done well. Overall, sales at Morgan Stanley MS were up 3% in 2014. Rivals Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase saw their sales fall.
5. Discover Financial
Fortune 500 rank: 303
2014 revenue: $9.6 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 2.6%
Rising consumer spending, helped by the improving economy, has boosted Discover Financial.
Lending grew by more than 6% last year, to $70 billion in loans outstanding at the end of 2014. On top of its traditional credit card business, Discover DFS has recently expanded into the business of offering student loans and mortgages. In all, that pushed up sales nearly 3% in 2014 to $9.6 billion.
But the company has also spent money to improve its rewards program. It has also had to spend money to beef up its money laundering controls, which have been called deficient by the Federal Reserve. That’s hurt profits, which fell 6% last year.
6. U.S. Bancorp
Fortune 500 rank: 138
2014 revenue: $21.4 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 1.6%
Staying away from Wall Street has benefitted U.S. Bancorp.
The nation’s fifth largest bank by assets hasn’t been hit by many of the new regulations that have crack down on trading and other risky financial activities . That hasn’t made the bank immune from the crunch of low interest rates, which have crimped lending profits. As a result, revenue at U.S. Bancorp USB while up in 2015, rose just 1.6%.
7. SunTrust Banks
Fortune 500 rank: 327
2014 revenue: $8.7 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 1.2%
Lower interest rates have also pinched revenue SunTrust Banks. But SunTrust STI still benefited from a rising demand for borrowing. It has also done better than some banks in replacing its lost interest revenue by generating additional fees. Nearly a decade and a half ago it bought investment bank Robinson-Humphrey. That’s given it a much large investment banking operation compared to its regional- bank rivals. In all, SunTrust revenues were up a slight 1.2% in 2014, to $8.7 billion.
Last year, the bank had to pay nearly $1 billion to resolve a federal probe of its mortgage practices before and after the financial crisis.
8. Wells Fargo
Fortune 500 rank: 30
2014 revenue: $88.4 billion
Year-over-year revenue growth: 0.3%
Of the big banks, Wells Fargo is the most focused on Main Street. And that has been a boon lately. Increased regulation since the financial crisis has made investment banking less profitable, and a drag on other banks. Wells Fargo’s lending-focused operations in recent years have been consistently more profitable, and more reliable, than nearly all of its rivals.
Following the financial crisis, when many of its rivals were in serious trouble, Wells Fargo WFC made a effort to snap up market share in the mortgage market while others were in retreat. The move paid off. Wells quickly rose to become the largest mortgage lender in the land, with nearly a third of the U.S. market at its height.
Recently, though, rates have started to edge up. That’s hurt Wells, which was the biggest beneficiary of the mortgage refi boom that followed the financial crisis. In all, Wells’ revenue was up just 0.3% in 2014—though profits, at $23 billion, were up 5.4% over the previous year.
To see the full list of the Fortune 500, visit Fortune.com/Fortune500.