Banks are Going to Need Some R and R After This Week

For a week that few thought would be very busy for the banking sector, there sure was a lot of action in and around the nation's major financials. Lawsuits, deals brewing and deals stewing, big-name resignations, big job hirings... it's almost as if investors needed score cards to keep track of it all.

On top of that, a few big macro numbers were released in the five-day span. Chief among these was the nation's unemployment, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics saying this morning that the January figure came in at 6.6%. That wasn't a huge improvement over December's 6.7%, but at least the rate's continuing to move in the right direction.

As ever with the banking sector in recent times, legal issues produced more than a few headlines over the past few days. The biggie was the postponement of Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC  ) proposed $8.5 billion settlement over securities sold by Countrywide Financial, the train wreck of a home lender it bought in 2008. A judge had approved the bulk of the settlement, but said black robe was replaced and the new gavel-banger has postponed a final decision on the settlement. At this point, look for the matter to be resolved in the vicinity of the year 2150, around the time the bank opens its first branch on Mars.

In happier news, the company announced that it had extended nearly $11 billion in new loans to small businesses last year, representing a nice increase of 26% over 2012's tally. Not coincidentally, it also said it'll boost its small business team by more than 200 bankers, or by around 20%. The process of start-up enterprises growing larger is a boon for any economy, so it's good to witness that space expanding, and to see Bank of America playing an active role in it.

Perhaps one of those 200-plus officers could come from the ranks of a rival bank. Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) saw the departure of one of its key execs this past week, when its global head of foreign exchange and local markets Anil Prasad served notice that he'll leave the company. The departure is definitely a blow for the firm, as the steady Prasad has been in its employ for nearly thirty years, and in his current post since 2007.

Meanwhile, the door seems to be revolving at Citi; earlier in the week, the bank named company veteran James Bardrick its new country officer for the U.K. The firm has been making more than a few personnel moves in London of late; perhaps it's more bullish on the European economy than most of its peers.

On the subject of departures, JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) is apparently getting ready to wave goodbye to its physical commodities business. It first announced it was "pursuing strategic alternatives" (read: "hopefully finding a buyer willing to pay us decent money") last July, so it's been working this divestment for a while. Citing the usual "person familiar with the matter," The Wall Street Journal wrote that Switzerland's Mercuria Energy Group is entering exclusive talks with the bank to buy the unit.

Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC  ) should be so lucky. Its planned $2.7 billion sale of a set of mortgage-servicing rights to Ocwen Financial (NYSE: OCN  ) was blocked by the New York Department of Financial Services, according to Ocwen. Apparently, the Empire State's mini-SEC is worried that the purchase, which covers rights for around 184,000 loans totaling roughly $39 billion in principal, might be too big for the buyer to swallow. Although this isn't a huge setback for Wells (the loans amount to only about 2% of its residential servicing portfolio), $2.7 billion is a handy chunk of change that could certainly be put to good use by the clever bank.

The big financials are lucky the weekend is looming in front of us. They could use a breather after all the lurch-forwards and fall-backs of the past few days. They'll need to rest and gather their energy in case next week is anywhere near as eventful as this one proved to be.

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Eric Volkman

Eric has been writing about stocks and finance since the mid-1990s, when he lived in Prague, Czech Republic. Over the course of a varied career, he has also been a radio newscaster, an investment banker, and a bass player in a selection of rock and roll bands. A native New Yorker, he currently lives in Los Angeles.

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