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Today, Wells Fargo reported record quarterly earnings of US$3.8bn, up nearly 50% on the same quarter last year. JPMorgan kicked off the reporting season last week with quarterly net profit growth of 67%. The country’s other banking giants—Bank of America, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs—shared less encouraging news, with first-quarter profits down on last year.
What all of these banks have in common, however, is falling revenues. From racy investment banks to retail-focused lenders, America’s largest banks are still shrinking. Releasing provisions and cutting costs can only go so far; a true recovery will begin when top lines start to grow again.
Level 3 assets at large American investment banks may have “bottomed out”, according to a new report by Moody’s. The stores of these illiquid, difficult-to-value assets often housed many of the most toxic securities that battered banks’ balance sheets during the credit crunch. Any decline in Level 3 assets is considered positive for banks’ credit profiles, Moody’s claims. (For previous coverage of Level 3 assets, click here.)
Somewhat ominously, the ratings agency adds that further falls in Level 3 inventories are unlikely. Although risky and illiquid, these securities feature “attractive yields and wide bid-offer spreads.” Under pressure to boost shareholder returns, it will be difficult for bankers to shun them completely.
Five billion dollars is a lot of money. Even for a bank of JPMorgan’s size, with some US$2trn in assets, its latest quarterly net income, US$4.8bn, represented a record haul for the group. It was also a 76% jump from earnings in the same quarter last year.
The announcement of the Wall Street giant’s second-quarter results, on July 15th, initially stunned the markets, which were expecting more modest earnings. But it didn’t take long for analysts and investors to pick through the financial statements and find reasons to be less impressed by the headline result. Subsequent earnings announcements from fellow financial heavyweights Bank of America and Citigroup, on July 16th, followed a similar pattern.
Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “Core concerns” (July 16th)
As in previous quarters, American investment banks continued their remarkable run of profitable trading days in the first quarter of this year. Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan recorded positive net trading revenues every day in the first three months of the year. Morgan Stanley, a laggard by comparison, lost money on only four days during the quarter. (Citigroup does not routinely report its daily trading results, but mentioned that it had no losing days in the first quarter.)
“Like peering through a grimy factory window, trading revenue histograms can provide a few clues as to what is happening down on opaque trading floors,” Moody’s writes in a recent commentary. Normally, a lack of negative trading days would be a positive sign of the “strength and diversification of customer franchises and risk management expertise,” Moody’s claims. But the stellar performance of banks’ trading operations is, perversely, becoming a risk as regulators and investors cast aspersions on the motives and methods that these market makers employ to generate bumper profits on their own accounts.
Citigroup’s shares are worth less than 10% of their peak value a few years ago. But far from a slide into obscurity, a steady stream of market-moving news has seen the bank’s stock account for an extraordinarily large share of trading volume at the New York Stock Exchange recently.
The trade in Citigroup briefly reached above 25% of all shares traded around midday yesterday, when interest was driven by the government’s announcement of its intention to sell its stake in the beleaguered lender. (At the parent site, a full analysis of the Treasury’s plan is available for subscribers.)
Today, Citigroup accounted for “only” 15% of trading in New York. It was still the most active stock by far, with the absolute volume of shares changing hands—nearly 620m—dwarfing second-place Bank of America, which saw a mere 143m shares traded.
In a “noteworthy sign of returning liquidity to capital markets,” a report from Moody’s highlights a drop in Level 3 assets (L3) at the biggest American investment banks in 2009.
These assets cannot be valued easily because they are generally illiquid. Many of the credit boom’s newfangled financial instruments—subprime-linked securities, collateralised debt obligations and the like—were classified as L3 and marked to internal models when reporting their values on balance sheets. Subsequent write-downs of these assets called into question the judgment and competence of bank executives.
In general, creditors now prefer banks to hold less L3, with outright disposals preferable to transfers into the Level 2 or 1 categories. As a percentage of tangible common equity, cash L3 at five lenders with large investment-banking operations fell sharply in 2009; “good news for creditors,” according to Moody’s. (L3 derivative positions were excluded from the analysis due to inconsistent disclosure practices.)
Despite the decline as a share of equity, the absolute value of L3 at Bank of America and JPMorgan remained relatively flat in 2009. Bank of America reported the largest increase in value of L3 (US$9.4bn) in the sample, while JPMorgan was the only bank to disclose a net transfer into the L3 category. Morgan Stanley reported the largest absolute decline in L3, trimming its balance by some 38% during the year, largely through disposals.
For America’s biggest banks, the latest customer satisfaction survey from the University of Michigan makes for unpleasant reading. Although the overall level of satisfaction with banks has remained steady over the past 12 months, this is largely down to smaller banks and credit unions improving their scores. Individually, the country’s three largest banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan and Citigroup—have all seen their satisfaction scores fall. Wells Fargo is the only top-tier lender to record a higher score in the latest survey, which the poll’s administrators put down to its takeover of Wachovia, traditionally a strong performer when it came to customer service.
As regulators devise new rules to discourage financial institutions from holding risky assets and trading in exotic securities, large universal banks are scrambling to shore up the core consumer deposit, savings and loan services that are the focus of the University of Michigan’s survey. On this front, there is much work left to do.
On Wednesday, JPMorgan Chase kicked off the third-quarter reporting season for big American banks. Its quarterly net profit of US$3.6bn was fuelled primarily by investment banking. Indeed, JPMorgan’s credit-card unit lost US$700m in the quarter, down from a profit of US$292m a year earlier. As non-performing loans rose to US$17bn, the bank built its loan loss reserve to more than US$30bn.
The pattern of bumper investment-bank business and weak consumer-facing services was repeated in the results for other banks—namely, Citigroup and Bank of America—later in the week.
Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “Shock absorbers” (October 14th)