Thursday, May 13, 2010

Big U.S. Banks Making Hay While the Sun Shines

According to Bloomberg, the big U.S. banks have thrown off the hair shirts and are making hay while the sun shines:
Four of the largest U.S. banks, including Citigroup Inc., racked up perfect quarters in their trading businesses between January and March, underscoring how government support and less competition is fueling Wall Street’s revival...

“The trading profits of the Street is just another way of measuring the subsidy the Fed is giving to the banks,” said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Torrance, California- based Institutional Risk Analytics. “It’s a transfer from savers to banks.”

The trading results, which helped the banks report higher quarterly profit than analysts estimated even as unemployment stagnated at a 27-year high, came with a big assist from the Federal Reserve. The U.S. central bank helped lenders by holding short-term borrowing costs near zero, giving them a chance to profit by carrying even 10-year government notes that yielded an average of 3.70 percent last quarter.

The gap between short-term interest rates, such as what banks may pay to borrow in interbank markets or on savings accounts, and longer-term rates, known as the yield curve, has been at record levels. The difference between yields on 2- and 10-year Treasuries yesterday touched 2.71 percentage points, near the all-time high of 2.94 percentage points set Feb. 18...

It’s an awkward moment for the largest banks to be reporting more profitable trading. President Barack Obama is seeking to prohibit banks from trading solely for their own profit, a proposal favored by Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman who is now a White House adviser.

“The banks are getting while the getting is good because you have regulatory reform and the Volcker rule and possible bank taxes down the road,” said Matthew McCormick, a banking analyst at Bahl & Gaynor Inc. in Cincinnati, which manages about $2.8 billion including bank stocks. “It’s statistically improbable to have three firms batting 1,000 and also pitching a perfect game. You wonder why the rest of America has some suspicion about proprietary trading.”

...“It was like a perfect storm for the fixed income market where you had very low volatility, tightening spreads and a buyer of last resort in the Federal Reserve,” said Paul Miller an analyst at FBR Capital Markets in Arlington, Virginia. “Even if a trade was going against you, you could just dump it on the Fed very quickly.”

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