See more of the story

The U.S. economy is growing solidly amid all the talk of cautionary signs, the leader of the nation’s second-largest bank said during a visit to Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Brian Moynihan, chairman and chief executive of Bank of America Corp., said consumers and small businesses continue to power the nation’s economy forward while larger businesses grapple with uncertainty over global trade and the economic performance of other countries.

He also said resolving the trade war with China and smaller disputes with other countries would be the most effective short-term steps to maintain the U.S. economic expansion, which became the longest on record last month.

“Interest rates are down. Companies can borrow. They’re more worried about the ebbs and flows of global trade,” Moynihan said in an interview. “That’s why [trade] resolution would help kick the economy up more than, I think, fiscal policy and other things.”

Moynihan was visiting to meet local employees who, in just four years since it opened branches here, have built Bank of America into a sizable presence in Twin Cities banking. The firm now serves more than 350,000 customers through 11 branches and has announced plans to open seven more in the next two years.

“We’ll keep building until they aren’t successful, and right now they’re successful,” Moynihan said.

Charlotte-based Bank of America for years had a private bank in Minnesota and its investment-bank unit, Merrill Lynch, had a long history in the state. But Minnesota was not a place that was served by the predecessor regional banks that merged two decades ago to make it a national power: Bank of America, which was chiefly in the West, and NationsBank, which was mainly in the South and Southwest.

In addition to the consumer operation, Bank of America in Minnesota has added a business for making loans to small businesses and added more bankers to its midsize and larger commercial operations.

“Just having the whole enterprise here really drives us to do more with each customer base,” said Katie Simpson, the Twin Cities market president for Bank of America.

The bank now has the fifth-highest total of deposits in the Twin Cities, trailing only U.S. Bank, Wells Fargo, TCF and Bremer Bank.

“We expect to keep moving that up,” Moynihan said. “It’s a natural expansion consistent with our strategy to be in all the top markets in the country and bring the capabilities we have plus the connectivity to all the other markets.”

He has led the company since 2010, two years after its acquisition of Merrill Lynch and through a period of bolstering its balance sheet and cutting costs.

In the past four years, Bank of America has consistently grown revenue faster than expenses and driven its efficiency ratio nearly to the level of U.S. Bancorp, the Minneapolis-based giant that’s long been one of the industry’s most efficient.

During the interview, Moynihan acknowledged the growing public discussion about the prospects of a downturn in the economy, which is shaped in part by the length of the current expansion and by actual data showing that the nation’s growth is slower than it was last year. People should have expected that, he said, because tax cuts provided a jolt in 2018.

Bank of America’s economists forecast U.S. growth of 2.3% this year and 1.7% in 2020. Moynihan said the bank’s data show that consumers and small businesses are doing fine, indicators that don’t get the attention that the broader numbers do.

“The economy is growing. Unemployment is at an all-time low and claims are at an all-time low. Even though the factors that people look at are higher that recession could occur, the actual underlying statistics are as strong as they’ve been in this expansion,” he said. “Number of people employed, wage growth, inflation, all higher. All that shows that the U.S. is in pretty good shape.”

By putting aside more capital, the nation’s banks have made huge strides to withstand the next economic downturn and help individuals and businesses through it, he said. Now, the Federal Reserve is considering whether to invoke a tool called the countercyclical capital buffer, which would require the nation’s six or seven largest banks to put even more capital in reserve so that it could be released in a downturn.

“The debate about capital is past us,” Moynihan said when asked about that prospect. He noted the Fed’s latest stress tests showed big banks could go through another deep recession and still have more capital than they did in 2008 and 2009.

“Most of the context of this debate is technical rules around calculations, less about overall capital levels,” he said. “Congress and policymakers and the industry should be proud that our banking system is the strongest in the world and is successful, which is a reflection of the economy that we have.”

Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241