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President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde on Dec. 2, 2019. Photo: Thierry Monasse/Getty Images

In contrast to the blowout returns of their U.S. counterparts last year, European banks delivered uninspired returns to investors.

What happened: U.S. banks like Citigroup and JPMorgan drove a 32% return for the S&P financial sector, slightly edging the S&P 500's 31% rise. Europe’s bank stocks index ended 2019 up 8%, but trailed the broader European Stoxx 600, which rose 23%.

  • Investors had lofty expectations to begin the year, WSJ notes (subscription), as the European Central Bank was expected to raise interest rates. But those quickly fizzled, and the ECB not only cut interest rates but restarted its TLTRO and quantitative easing stimulus programs.
  • Some lenders have started charging to hold big cash deposits to reduce the sting of negative interest rates.

Why it happened: The ECB's shift didn't help, but banks' troubles weren't all a result of monetary policy, experts say.

  • "It's also lack luster prospects for economic growth," Tom Essaye, president of Sevens Report Research, tells Axios. "The EU economy isn’t doing as well as the U.S. economy and as such, loan growth potential isn’t as good."
  • "In general loan demand is weak in Europe as are the economies in general," Joseph Trevisani, senior analyst at FXStreet, adds in an email. "Cheap funds are not enough if no one wants the money."

By the numbers: The eurozone grew at 0.2% in both the second and third quarters of 2019, and EU policymakers expect the bloc grew by just over 1% last year.

The bottom line: "Europe’s banks worked through the dreariness of 2019, in some cases admirably," WSJ's Rochelle Toplensky writes. "That is about the best investors can hope for in 2020 as well."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Scoop: Border officials project 13,000 child migrants in May

The "El Chaparral" border crossing at Tijuana. Photo: Stringer/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

A Customs and Border Protection staffer told top administration officials Thursday the agency is projecting a peak of 13,000 unaccompanied children crossing the border in May, sources directly familiar with the discussion told Axios.

Why it matters: That projection would exceed the height of the 2019 crisis, which led to the infamous "kids-in-cages" disaster. It also underscores a rapidly escalating crisis for the Biden administration.

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U.S. strikes Iran-backed militia facilities in Syria

President Biden at the Pentagon on Feb. 10. Photo: Alex Brandon - Pool/Getty Images

The United States on Thursday carried out an airstrike against facilities in Syria linked to an Iran-backed militia group, the Pentagon announced.

The state of play: The strike, approved by President Biden, comes "in response to recent attacks against American and Coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said in a statement.

Senate parliamentarian rules $15 minimum wage cannot be included in relief package

Photo: Al Drago/Getty Images

The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that the provision to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour cannot be included in the broader $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

Why it matters: It's now very likely that any increase in the minimum wage will need bipartisan support, as the provision cannot be passed with the simple Senate majority that Democrats are aiming to use for President Biden's rescue bill.