Disappointing profit results released overnight highlight the struggle US banks are facing as they try to grow their profits against a background of heightened market risk, and customers that remain reluctant to borrow.

Goldman Sachs produced the biggest profit upset when it unveiled a second-quarter profit of $1.09 billion, significantly lower than expectations. Tricky conditions in financial markets caused the investment bank, and its clients, to rein in their risky trades.

The Wall Street bank suffered as trading revenues, which have long made up the bulk of its earnings, fell sharply. As a result, Goldman’s net revenue fell 39% from the first quarter to $7.2 billion. Goldman’s net revenue from institutional client services, which includes trading, fell 47% from the first quarter to $3.5 billion. The actual revenue this area made from trading fixed income, currency and commodities fell a massive 63% from the first quarter to $1.6 billion.

But clients weren’t the only ones becoming more cautious. Goldman also scaled back its bets in response to potentially treacherous markets. A key metric called value-at-risk, which measures how much money the bank has at risk on its trading desks on any given day, fell to $101 million — its lowest level in almost five years.

Goldman’s boss, Lloyd Blankfein, acknowledged that the investment bank’s results had suffered “as we reduced our market risk in response to attempting to manage fluctuations in prices and market liquidity”.

But nervy markets aren’t the only problem confronting the US banks. They also face the problem of anemic loan demand, combined with a growing squeeze on their lending margins.

Bank of America Corp, the largest US bank, overnight reported a record $8.8 billion loss in the second quarter, largely as a result of write-offs in its mortgage business. Three weeks ago, the bank announced a proposed $8.5 billion settlement with large institutional investors that suffered when they purchased mortgage-backed securities before the US housing market collapsed.

But analysts were concerned that the bank’s loan book is shrinking, with total loans falling 1.6% at the end of the quarter. In business lending, total loans fell 7% from the same period a year earlier, although all this was due to reduced lending for commercial real estate, where the bank is actively trying to cut back its exposure.

Analysts are also becoming increasingly concerned that the persistently low US interest rates are putting a squeeze on banks’ interest rate margins. Faced with weak demand for loans and shrinking lending margins, bank revenues are tumbling.

Even Wells Fargo, which overnight reported a 29% rise in its second quarter earnings to a record $3.9 billion, is struggling to boost its overall revenues. The bank’s total revenue in the quarter fell 4.7%, to $20.4 billion.

The San Francisco bank, which is the largest mortgage lender in the US, said that its large consumer banking business continued to shrink in the month, as loans were paid back or written off, although it had some success in increasing its commercial loans. Earnings from home loan lending fell 20% from a year earlier to $1.6 billion.

In an environment where it is becoming increasingly difficult to boost revenues, banks are being forced to put their energies to work at slashing expenses. At the beginning of this year, Wells Fargo was the first major bank to signal a cost-cutting program. Overnight, it announced a target of cutting expenses by 12% by the end of next year.

Even Goldman is now focused on pruning costs. Overnight, the bank said that it would be cutting about 1000 jobs, on top of its normal annual culling of 5% of its staff, aimed at getting rid of underperforming staff. The firm is aiming to reduce its expenses by $1.2 billion this year.

Cost cutting is usually anathema to the big US investment banks. But in this climate of heightened risk and ongoing deleveraging, it may be the only solution they have for improving their bottom lines.

*This first appeared on Business Spectator.

Peter Fray

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