MONEY Banking

2 Reasons to Chill Out About Huge Bank Profits—And 1 Reason to Get Angry

JP Morgan Chase, New York, NY
Mike Segar—Reuters

Little more than five years after the darkest point of the Great Recession, banks are again making record profits. Has the world no justice?

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that banks earned more than $40.24 billion in the second quarter, the industry’s second highest quarterly profit in roughly a generation, just behind the $40.36 billion banks earned in early 2013. That may be infuriating to millions of Americans who lost their jobs and maybe even their homes in a recession due in no small part to Wall Street missteps, if not outright malfeasance.

But there are some reasons to take big bank profits in stride…even if they remain a long-term concern.

Other industries are also raking it in.

Record bank profits are making headlines. But that’s because Americans have developed such a disdain for bankers, not because bank profits are particularly extraordinary. In fact, corporate profits, which hit a record $1.7 trillion last year, are higher across the board.

Banks have certainly enjoyed their share of the pie. According to S&P Dow Jones Indices, financial services companies grabbed about 20.3% of all the profits posted by companies in the S&P 500 last quarter. At first blush a fifth of earnings may seem high. Indeed, financial services firms are the most profitable industry that S&P tracks, slightly ahead of technology, which contributes about 17.5% of S&P 500 profits. And unlike tech whizzes whose gadgets improve our lives, bankers don’t “make” anything.

But in the years leading up to the financial crisis, financial services accounted for a much bigger share of profits–at times more than 30%. In fact, today’s level is essentially in line with banks’ 20-year average of 20.2% of profits.

They’re making money on lending, not trading.

The other reason to feel relatively good about rising bank profits has to do with how banks are making that money. Monday’s Journal story emphasized that the jump in bank profits was tied to increased lending levels; commercial lending rose at an annualized 13% rate, while consumer lending climbed 6%.

That’s good news because lending is what we – even those among us who resent bankers – want banks to do. Lending helps businesses grow and helps consumers buy stuff, both of which ultimately help the overall economy. In fact the anti-banking crowd has been complaining that banks haven’t been doing enough lending. So they should take heart that that’s starting to change, even if it means banks are earning enviable profits in the process.

At the same time, the growth in lending contrasts with a still-tepid climate for another traditional profit line: trading. Placing bets–often with borrowed money–on different corners of the stock and bond markets was a huge profit engine for banks in the days before the financial crisis. But it made them riskier, and arguably had much less value for society than lending money directly to businesses. While the second quarter may have been good to banks overall, trading revenue at Wall Street’s biggest firms—Goldman Sachs Group Inc. THE GOLDMAN SACHS GROUP INC. GS 0.6436% , JPMorgan Chase & Co. JPMORGAN CHASE & CO. JPM 1.492% , and Citigroup Inc. CITIGROUP INC. C 2.5502% —fell 14%, according to Bloomberg, which called the result “the worst start to a year since the 2008 financial crisis.”

The trend has a lot to do with calm stock and bond markets. But don’t count out the effect of new regulations like the Volcker rule.

But lessons have not been learned.

Of course, even with some big caveats it can still seem pretty galling that an industry that received billions in government bailouts less than a decade ago is so wildly profitable, if not quite as wildly profitable as it once was. You may be even more irritated when you consider that banks achieved these profits despite paying more than $60 billion in settlements and penalties since the 2008, which suggests they ought to have been asked to pay even more for their contribution to the crisis. And that Wall Street pay has bounced back almost as quickly as profits.

Then there’s the disturbing fact that the “living wills” submitted by the country’s largest banks—blueprints for safely winding down their activities in the event of another financial crisis—were just last week deemed inadequate by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In other words, the banks are still “too big to fail,” so taxpayers could again be left holding the bag if the animal spirits get out of control again—and record profits have a tendency to make that happen.

Ultimately, the return to business as usual may, as Fortune recently suggested, give more ammunition to those in Washington who are still calling for stricter banking rules. But given the strength of the business lobby in Washington, don’t expect any miracles.

 

 

 

TIME Earnings

U.S. Banks Have Reached Near-Record Profit Levels, Study Says

U.S. Stocks Fluctuate Amid Deal Activity After S&P 500 Record
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., on Monday, June 9, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the second quarter of 2014, banks had the second-highest profit levels in 23 years

Six years after the financial crisis, profits at U.S. banks have reached near-record levels, according to a new study.

Income at U.S. banks reached $40.24 billion in the quarter of 2014 that ended June 30, according to research firm SNL Financial. That’s the second-highest quarterly level for the banking industry since SNL began collecting banking profitability data in 1991.

“The second quarter was an inflection point in the profitability story for banks,” SunTrust analyst Eric Wasserstrom told the Wall Street Journal. “The bad is starting to bottom out, the good is starting to gain momentum.”

The only more profitable period for American banks was during the first three months of 2013, when net income reached $40.36 billion. The third most profitable period was at the end of the real estate and mortgage boom during the last quarter of 2006, when banks made $40.21 billion.

 

MONEY financial literacy

Why Workers and Retirees Missed the Roaring Bull Market

Glass half Empty
Jupiterimages—Getty Images

Investor optimism dips, especially among retirees, a new survey finds. Maybe it's because 1 in 10 investors haven't noticed the huge gains in the market.

Quick, how much did the stock market gain last year? Tough question, right? Okay, let’s try a multiple choice: Based on the S&P 500 index, did the market rise 10%, 20%, or 30%? Evidently, that’s a tough question too because the vast majority of investors haven’t a clue.

Only 11% of adults with at least $10,000 in savings and investments got it right in a Wells Fargo/Gallup poll. This stands in stark contrast to the 67% that rate themselves somewhat or highly knowledgeable about investing and underscores the extent to which so many people simply don’t know what they don’t know.

For the record, the S&P 500 rose 30% in 2013—you received a total return of 32% if you reinvested dividends. This is the 13th biggest gain in a calendar year since 1926. Forget about getting the percentage right. Anyone paying attention should at least know that last year was a huge winner. Yet only 64% of investors even knew the market was up. Of those who did, 57% thought the gain was just 10% while 27% thought the gain was 20%. About 1% was looking through rose-colored glasses and thought the market rose 40% or more.

The poll also found that retirees were feeling much less optimistic in the second quarter. The Wells Fargo/Gallup Investor and Retirement Optimism index declined modestly overall but the portion looking only at retirees plunged 41%. This too seems incongruous. Second-quarter GDP surged 4%, one of the sharpest quarterly gains since the Great Recession.

One reason for this gloom is that about half of both retirees and workers are worried they will outlive their money, the poll found. Sadly, this may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Playing it safe and earning 1% in a money market account won’t amount to much over time. Meanwhile, those who stayed true to a diversified portfolio of stocks through the downturn are doing better than ever. They were present for that 32% market gain—even if they have no idea how great last year was for them.

As a whole, the findings suggest that many people remain fixated on the past. The recession was a harrowing and humbling experience. But it is over. Real estate prices have turned up and the job picture is better. The stock market has more than doubled from the bottom. Yet when asked what they would do with a $10,000 gift, 56% in the poll said they would hold it as cash or stash it in an ultra-safe bank CD—not invest for growth. At this rate, expect more declines in optimism, especially as retirees stuck in cash see further declines in income.

Related stories:

 

TIME Banks

U.S. Regulators: Wall Street’s Largest Banks Still Too Big To Fail

Bank Of America Reports Loss Due 6 Billion Dollar Legal Charge
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The biggest banks still don't have adequate bankruptcy plans to avoid precipitating another economic crisis, said U.S. regulators

Eleven of the nation’s largest banks still do not have viable bankruptcy plans that would avoid causing widespread economic damage, U.S. regulators said Tuesday in a sweeping admonition of Wall Street’s giants.

The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp said that the bankruptcy plans submitted by the 11 biggest banks in the United States fail to prepare for an orderly failure, have “unrealistic or inadequately supported” assumptions and do not properly outline changes in firm structure that would prevent broader economic repercussions.

“…[T]he plans provide no credible or clear path through bankruptcy that doesn’t require unrealistic assumptions and direct or indirect public support,” said Thomas Hoenig, the second-in-command official at the FDIC, in a statement.

Banks are required to submit an annual “living will” under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, a legacy of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, in which the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was a precipitating factor in the economic crash that led to the Great Recession.

Regulators called for banks to create “living wills” to plan for a bankruptcy process that would not require the billions of dollars in taxpayer money doled out during the financial crisis, when many of Wall Street’s biggest financial institutions had to borrow billions from the Treasury to avoid disastrous collapse.

With Tuesday’s announcement, the large banks face the threat of tougher capital rules and restrictions on growth if they do not address the issues by July 2015.

“Too big to fail is alive and well. The FDIC’s statement that these living wills are not credible means that megabanks will live on taxpayer life support in the event of a crash,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), a proponent of legislation to increase capital requirements for the biggest banks, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Tuesday’s findings apply to banks with assets greater than $250 billion in assets, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Barclays and others.

MONEY financial advisers

Got a Beef With Your Broker? Wall Street, Attorneys Fight Over How to Fix Complaint Process

boxers in boxing match
Blend Images—Alamy

Wall Street and attorneys representing investors can't agree how to improve the arbitration system used to settle disputes between brokerages and their customers.

A proposal to strengthen the arbitration process that aggrieved investors use against securities brokers is running into obstacles just as the Securities and Exchange Commission prepares to consider it.

The plan, submitted in June by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, would ban securities industry veterans from serving as public arbitrators on the panels that decide cases filed by investors against their brokerages.

But now some investors’ attorneys who had pushed for the new rule are taking issue with the fact that it could apply to them as well. Other critics say the rule could be so stringent as to leave FINRA, an industry watchdog funded by Wall Street, without enough qualified arbitrators for the dispute resolution system it runs.

The SEC would have to approve the FINRA proposal for it to become a final rule.

FINRA arbitrators typically are considered “public” — those presently unaffiliated with the securities industry — and “nonpublic” — those with Wall Street ties. Many investors and their lawyers want a panel of three public arbitrators to hear their cases because non-public arbitrators may be biased in Wall Street’s favor, they say.

FINRA’s arbitration system has faced criticism for everything from not thoroughly vetting arbitrators to making it too easy for brokers for clean up their records. The plan addresses investor advocates’ criticisms that some arbitrators can be deemed “public” even if they previously worked in the securities industry for years.

The SEC solicited public opinions on the rule with a comment period that ended July 24. Separately, a new FINRA task force is conducting a broader review of the arbitration system.

Investors’ Lawyers Bite Back

One of Wall Street’s largest trade groups backs the proposal, but with a big condition.

In a July 24 letter to the SEC, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association said lawyers who represent investors should also be prohibited from acting as public arbitrators.

Firms and brokers would view arbitrators who have counseled investors as being biased against the industry, SIFMA wrote.

That view, already embodied in FINRA’s proposal, could hurt members of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, a group of 450 lawyers who represent investors and a key force behind the push to weed out public arbitrators with Wall Street ties.

Under FINRA’s proposal, investors’ lawyers would not qualify as public arbitrators if they devoted more than 20 percent of their time within the past five years representing investors in disputes.

Similar restrictions would also apply to accountants and expert witnesses. They could become public arbitrators again, subject to certain restrictions, such as a hiatus from practice.

Lawyers and other professionals who have worked on behalf of the financial industry would be bound by similar rules.

But PIABA is already pushing back. The group has asked the SEC to reject language that would exclude lawyers and others who work on behalf of investors from being public arbitrators, according to its July 24 letter.

FINRA cites no evidence that professionals who serve investors would be biased, wrote Jason Doss, PIABA’s president. What’s more, the “non-public arbitrator” label has traditionally applied to arbitrators who have industry ties, he wrote.

FINRA declined to comment.

It is unclear how many of FINRA’s 3,560 public arbitrators would be deemed non-public. But too few arbitrators would strain the system. That is especially true when markets tank and claims spike, said George Friedman, an arbitration consultant and former director of FINRA’s arbitration unit.

“At the end of the day, we’re looking at fewer public arbitrators when we’re likely to need more going forward,” Friedman said.

MONEY The Economy

WATCH: These 3 Companies Can Raise Prices Without Losing Your Business

Netflix, Amazon, and Chipotle have raised prices without losing the support of their customers or investors on Wall Street.

MONEY dodd-frank

The Lions of Wall Street Are Finally Obeying Ordinary Investors

Lion tamer
Alamy

Today is the four-year anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Has it made our financial system fundamentally safer? Unclear. But one thing about the law is certain: It's forced the financial industry to get much more interested in individual investors.

Even today, a full four years after the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was signed into law, it remains unclear whether this massive set of financial regulations has made our banking system fundamentally more stable. But one thing about the law is certain: It’s gotten the financial industry much more interested in individual investors.

How important have mom and pop become to the titans of capital? On Thursday Morgan Stanley reported second-quarter operating profits jumped by nearly half to $1.3 billion. The biggest contributor wasn’t the bank’s investment bankers or traders, but its army of 16,000 financial advisers working with Main Street clients. That didn’t happen by chance, either: Chief executive James Gorman, a former management consultant who took over the storied bank in the wake of the financial crisis, has made a point of made a point emphasizing relatively steady activities like wealth management.

That flies in the face of Wall Street tradition. Historically, so-called Masters of the Universe have earned their status advising on giant mergers or trading bonds, which were far sexier (and more profitable) than telling well-to-do lawyers and dentists which stocks to buy. Then the financial crisis hit. Hot-shot bond traders, who once seemed able to conjure millions from thin air, no longer looked so bright. Meanwhile, blockbuster corporate deals that investment bankers specialize in dried up. The economy has finally bounced back. But relatively calm financial markets combined with new regulations like higher capital requirements and the so-called Volcker rule have made it harder for Wall Street trading machines to regain their glory.

That’s given Main Street financial advisers new prestige. It’s not just Morgan Stanley. Big banking firms like UBS and Bank of America, which acquired Merrill Lynch in 2009, have been racing to poach – and keep – top advisers, offering signing bonuses and other perks, even as they’ve sometimes thinned ranks among bankers.

Of course, for you and me, the $10,000 question is not who’s top of the pecking order but whether advisers’ new stature will mean better treatment for small investors who, to put it mildly, haven’t always been the Street’s top priority.

In some ways, being a chief profit engine could be a curse more than a blessing. The more banks rely on small investors for profits, the harder they’re going to push to wring every last cent out of their customers. There’s some evidence of this already: While big banks used to be satisfied with handling clients’ investments, they’re now leaning on advisers to pitch fee-laden products like loans and credit cards.

The attention that banks give to individual clients hasn’t been evenly distributed, either. Wealthy clients tend to be more profitable. And banks have pushed advisers to focus on these, sometimes at the expense of middle-class investors.

But there’s hope too. On Wall Street profitability eventually becomes clout. Wealth management divisions traditionally haven’t had much. One of the most painful examples: During the financial crisis many small investors got burned after buying instruments known as auction-rate securities, which were supposed to offer the safety of cash but turned out to be illiquid during the crisis. One of the industry’s biggest stars – Smith Barney’s Sallie Krawcheck, then among the highest ranking women on Wall Street – pushed Citigroup to provide restitution to her division’s clients. Instead, she was shown the door. Maybe in the future that sort of thing won’t happen.

TIME Food & Drink

The Beer List at This Bar Looks Like a Stock Ticker

Invest responsibly

The Beer Exchange

A bar in Kalamazoo, Michigan, takes the fun of happy hour to a whole new level.

The Beer Exchange has been going viral on Reddit and Imgur in the last day because its beer list resembles a stock ticker — or a Bloomberg Terminal that dispenses alcohol. It displays the current prices for various kinds of beer, and as demand for the different types ebbs and flows, the prices rise and fall. Once in a while, there’s even a market crash that brings the beverages to their all-time low.

It’s a happy hour all the time—as long as you’re interested in the right beer. But unlike stock trading, there’s no reward for buying low and selling high. Besides getting buzzed, that is.

TIME Economy

Wall Street’s Values Are Strangling American Business

When finance calls the shots, we all lose

It’s widely known that more than half of all corporate mergers and acquisitions end in failure. Like many marriages, they are often fraught with irreconcilable cultural and financial differences. Yet M&A activity was up sharply in 2013 and reached pre-recession levels this year. So why do companies keep at it? Because it’s an easy way to make a quick buck and please Wall Street. Increasingly, business is serving markets rather than markets serving business, as they were originally meant to do in our capitalist system.

For a particularly stark example, consider American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s recent bid to buy British drugmaker AstraZeneca. The deal made little strategic sense and would probably have destroyed thousands of jobs as well as slowed research at both companies. (Public outcry to that effect eventually helped scuttle the plan.) But it would have allowed Pfizer to shift its domicile to Britain, where companies pay less tax. That, in turn, would have boosted share prices in the short term, enriching the executives paid in stock and the bankers, lawyers and other financial intermediaries who stood to gain about half a billion dollars or so in fees from the deal.

Pfizer isn’t alone. Plenty of firms engage in such tax wizardry. This kind of short-term thinking is starting to dominate executive suites. Besides tax avoidance, Wall Street’s marching orders to corporate America include dividend payments and share buybacks, which sap long-term growth plans. It also demands ever more globalized supply chains, which make balance sheets look better by cutting costs but add complexity and risk. All of this hurts longer-term, more sustainable job and value creation. As a recent article on the topic by academic Gautam Mukunda in the Harvard Business Review noted, “The financial sector’s influence on management has become so powerful that a recent survey of chief financial officers showed that 78% would give up economic value and 55% would cancel a project with a positive net present value–that is, willingly harm their companies–to meet Wall Street’s targets and fulfill its desire for ‘smooth’ earnings.”

Some of this can be blamed on the sheer size of the financial sector. Many thought that the economic crisis and Great Recession would weaken the power of markets. In fact, it only strengthened finance’s grip on the economy. The largest banks are bigger than they were before the recession, while finance as a percentage of the economy is about the same size. Overall, the industry earns 30% of all corporate profit while creating just 6% of the country’s jobs. And financial institutions are still doing plenty of tricky things with our money. Legendary investor Warren Buffett recently told me he’s steering well clear of exposure to commercial securities like the complex derivatives being sliced and diced by major banks. He expects these “weapons of mass destruction” to cause problems for our economy again at some point.

There’s a less obvious but equally important way in which Wall Street distorts the economy: by defining “shareholder value” as short-term returns. If a CEO misses quarterly earnings by even a few cents per share, activist investors will push for that CEO to be fired. Yet the kinds of challenges companies face today–how to shift to entirely new digital business models, where to put operations when political risk is on the rise, how to anticipate the future costs of health, pensions and energy–are not quarterly problems. They are issues that will take years, if not decades, to resolve. Unfortunately, in a world in which the average holding period for a stock is about seven months, down from seven years four decades ago, CEOs grasp for the lowest-hanging fruit. They label tax-avoidance schemes as “strategic” and cut research and development in favor of sending those funds to investors in the form of share buybacks.

All of this will put American firms at a distinct disadvantage against global competitors with long-term mind-sets. McKinsey Global Institute data shows that between now and 2025, 7 out of 10 of the largest global firms are likely to come from emerging markets, and most will be family-owned businesses not beholden to the markets. Of course, there’s plenty we could do policy-wise to force companies and markets to think longer term–from corporate tax reform to bans on high-speed trading to shifts in corporate compensation. But just as Wall Street has captured corporate America, so has it captured Washington. Few mainstream politicians on either side of the aisle have much interest in fixing things, since they get so much of their financial backing from the Street. Unfortunately for them, the fringes of their parties–and voters–do care.

TIME wall street

Wall Street Killed the Cupcake

Store Operations At Crumbs, Largest U.S. Retailer Of Cupcakes
JB Reed—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Crumbs cupcake shop in my neighborhood just shut down. It’s a sad day for the entire sugar industry: Crumbs, a once-growing collection of shops with visions of becoming a national bakery chain, abruptly folded its 65-store operation in 12 states, putting hundreds of people out of work. The company had been delisted from NASDAQ last week, its stock trading for pennies from a high near $14. Sales were falling, Crumbs was losing money and unlikely to become profitable anytime soon. As of its last quarterly filing, the company had just $300,000 in cash on hand, and its liabilities included $244,000 in gift cards outstanding. Hope you didn’t own any of them. Crumbs lost $5 million in its last quarter.

Was Crumbs a victim of Americans turning toward eating healthier, especially among children, as the First Lady has encouraged? Fat chance. We are as plump and pleased as ever, and our appetite for donuts, cronuts, deep-fried Oreos and Baconators will not be reposing anytime soon. Long live junk food, if maybe not us.

But you could see this one crumbing long before it happened. Crumbs made good cupcakes—one of those sweet bombs could keep an 8-year old wired for about three days—but its failure isn’t so much about the product so much as the way Wall Street works to bake new companies. The recipe almost guarantees trouble in the future for many firms. Crumbs joins the long list of once hot food franchises that couldn’t resist the smell of growth and ultimately had difficulty managing it: David’s Cookies, Krispy Kreme, Einstein Bagels, World Coffee, just to name a few. They can survive, but generally after massive restructuring. Crumbs ran out of time and money.

The pattern is similar: a good product or idea becomes increasingly popular, and investors get moon-eyed about the prospects. At the same time, other operators and investors will swear to you that there’s plenty of room for more than one brand—or that if there isn’t much room, their concept is superior.

In the mid-90s, it was the humble bagel’s turn for the national spotlight. The players included Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Manhattan Bagel, Noah’s New York Bagels, Big Apple Bagels and the Great American Bagel among others. Several of them went public, which funded overexpansion. They dreamed big. “What happened to the pizza in the ’40s and ’50s is happening to the bagel today,” said the ceo of Manhattan Bagel at the time. “Soon there will be bagel shops on every street corner.” Except in Manhattan, where there are no Manhattan Bagel shops. Einstein, Noah, Chesapeake and Manhattan would eventually become part of one company, as the craze subsided and the industry consolidated. Then it was doughnuts. Krispy Kreme also got creamed by massive overexpansion funded by its very popular IPO. Even in the U.S., we can only eat so many doughnuts.

Cupcakes are now repeating the pattern, with predictable results. In the cupcake game, Crumbs competitors include Magnolia Bakery, Sprinkles, and any number of hipster-preneurs in major cities not to mention the likes of Duncan Donuts and Starbucks, which flanked the cupcake shops with offerings of their own. If cupcakes were that hard to make, your mom wouldn’t have churned them out on demand.

Why isn’t there more caution? Because that’s not Wall Street’s real concern. The investment industry’s mission is to throw money at enough startups—from cupcakes to social media—and hope to land on a winner. Failure is built in, the only question being who is going to take the losses. A lot of time it’s overeager shareholders who pile in these stocks because all they see is unlimited growth. In food, the best case scenario is Starbucks, whose original store still operates on Pike Street in Seattle along with thousands of others around the world. An IPO allowed Starbucks to enjoy rapid growth and made a lot of investors rich. But part of Starbucks strategy was to be capitalized enough to blow other rivals out of the water by grabbing the best locations. That left everyone else to scramble to remain competitive—and why there’s really no No. 2 in premium coffee.

Fortunately, the U.S. is not going to run out of cupcakes anytime soon. This is basically a mom and pop business that is still best run by mom and pop. Cupcakes may have had their run for now, but investors are always going to be hungry to find the next new food style to fund. And grilled cheese is waiting in the (chicken) wings.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,262 other followers