Investment banks are expected to produce higher trading revenue during the first quarter, and there is reason to believe that the numbers could be even higher than the market anticipates. This situation could provide a big boost to the profits of some of the biggest banks, and some could benefit more than others.
All indications point to a strong quarter for trading
According to analysts at JPMorgan, investment-banking income at the top firms could rise by 7% year over year, and revenue from fixed income, currencies, and commodities (which produce about half of investment banks' income) could pop by as much as 9%. Barclays (NYSE:BCS) is even more optimistic, calling for a year-over-year gain of more than 15% in overall trading revenue.
Trading revenues have dropped since the financial crisis ended in 2009, declining by about half at the top 10 investment banks. However, higher volatility in 2015 is leading to higher trading volume, particularly in currencies.
Morgan Stanley is expecting net income to hit a seven-year high thanks to higher trading revenues, and Goldman Sachs is expecting its first year-over-year rise in fixed-income trading revenues since 2009.
But it might be even better than expected
Over the past few weeks, the major investment banks have all indicated that trading activity is on the rise, thanks to the European Central Bank's quantitative-easing program and the speculation that the Federal Reserve may finally begin to raise interest rates.
The Fed estimates that investment banks could have made more than $650 million in fees selling bonds to the Fed during the U.S. stimulus, so there is certainly potential here. The European QE program is expected to last until at least September 2016, so this could provide a boost for quite some time.
As the anticipation of rate increases continues to build, fixed-income trading activity could continue to heat up. I wouldn't be surprised to see some of the big investment banks raise their guidance when they report earnings in the coming weeks, and that could be what really moves the stocks.
Who could be the big winner?
All banks that have investment-banking operations could benefit from higher trading revenue, but I'm keeping a particularly close eye on those that depend on trading for a large portion of revenue, specifically Goldman Sachs.
In 2014, Goldman generated about $8.5 billion in fixed income, currency, and commodities trading revenue and $6.74 billion from equities, which combine for roughly 44% of the company's total. In contrast, fellow investment-banking giant Morgan Stanley derived less than 30% of its revenues from trading. JPMorgan Chase, with its large consumer-banking operation, is even less dependent on trading revenue, with equity and fixed income trading making up less than 15% of the company's total.
Now, these are definitely not small amounts, and all of these companies will experience a noticeable rise in revenue. However, Goldman simply has a lot more to gain from a surge in trading revenue, so that's the one to watch closely during earnings season.