Halloween might be more than five weeks away, but with the news this morning that Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) was stepping on the gas in an effort to lay off 16,000 employees by the end of the year, Wall Street's season of horror and carnage is here.
The news came from Charlotte, N.C., where barely two weeks ago the country's Democratic political leadership wrapped up a nominating convention focusing on the need to create more jobs. Just over a year ago, on Sept. 9, 2011, Bank of America announced it would be targeting 40,000 jobs as part of a cost-cutting initiative known as "Project New BAC."
The real story, as broken by the Wall Street Journal, was the fact the bank was fast-tracking its layoffs, which it so far specified will happen "over several years," in a move that would have it relinquish its spot as the largest employer in the financial services industry.
Industry analysts, some of whom have said Bank of America's cuts have only nipped at the edges -- letting people go by consolidating technology and support offices, for example -- interpreted the news as more of the same in a drive to higher earnings.
"If they want to make any headway toward improving profitability, they need to accelerate the timeline," Todd Hagerman, a banking analyst at Sterne Agee and Leach, told the Journal.
For the rest of the markets, however it was a dreaded reminder of the roller-coaster that finance has seen over the past four years, where the end of the summer has coincided with a spike in bad news. There's something about September in particular, the month that brought the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the worst period of the financial crisis in 2008, and took the brunt of the fallout from the S&P downgrade of U.S. sovereign credit last year, that makes financiers shudder.
Earlier this year, economists Luc Laeven and Fabian Valéncia even took it to task to spoil the summer vacations of many a hedge fund manager with a widely cited IMF paper that noted "banking crises tend to start in the second half of the year" and included this menacing chart.
The "September surprise" theory has been debunked by others, who note the IMF paper, for example, oversampled by taking into account the global financial crisis of 2008 as multiple banking crises. Others have argued that, while before the 20th century the fall season was indeed a time when urban capital fled to agricultural banks and prompted banking crises, that type of seasonality has been lost to history.
But market superstition dies hard. And with the situation in Europe turning yet another unknown corner -- Greece, Spain and potentially Italy may be direly in need of financial rescue soon -- nervous naysayers are out in droves.
Of course, the situation this September, with financial markets in a central bank-sanctioned rally, is different than it was in previous years for most market pariticipants, and Bank of America shareholders in particular. Last year, for example, BAC stock lost 25.2 percent over the month. This year, it's up 14.75 percent so far.
Not that it will be much of a consolation for Brian Moynihan, the notoriously thin-skinned CEO of Bank of America, who when Wall Street was making jokes about his bank's profitability and highly unpopular roll-out of an ATM card charge, was pleading with critics to "think a little about [the good the bank did] before you start yelling at us.”
Shares of Bank of America Corporation recently traded at $9.18, down 11 cents, or 1.17 percent, from the previous day's close.