Volatility in currency, commodities trading should boost profits at big US banks, analysts say

Wild swings in the stock, bond and currency markets in the first three months of the year are likely to translate into bigger profits for big U.S. banks, analysts say.

Investors will get quarterly results from the nation's major banks in the next two weeks, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo.

Profits at the nation's six largest banks are expected to be around $22 billion for the first quarter of 2015, a jump from $17.71 billion in the same period a year ago, according to FactSet. Part of the reason for the sharp increase is because Bank of America took a $6 billion charge last year for legal expenses.

Market volatility may make average investors nervous, but it can be good for investment banks. As trading volume rises, banks earn more in commissions. It also allows traders to take advantage of swings in markets to make a profit.

"The investment banks need volatility and volume to really profit. They got both," said Nancy Bush, an independent banking industry financial analyst with NAB Research.

Two of the places where volatility has been most noticeable last quarter have been in the currency and commodities markets.

The dollar has gained more than 10 percent against the euro just this year, a significant move. Other currencies have also been volatile. The European Central Bank started its own bond-buying program this year, which has pushed the euro lower against other major currencies. The Swiss franc had its biggest one-day move in history in January after the Swiss National Bank announced it would allow the franc to appreciate against the euro.

Niche indexes that track volatility in currency markets, like the Deutsche Bank Currency Volatility index, are up 40 percent year-over-year.

Commodities markets have been just as volatile. The price of oil has plunged by 50 percent over the past year and has had many days of huge swings.

Not all banks are expected to benefit equally. Banks with sizable trading desks, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and Citigroup, have more exposure to these markets. The "custodial" banks, which hold large amounts of assets in trust for other investors, like State Street and Bank of New York Mellon, are also likely beneficiaries, analysts say.

The consumer-focused banks like Bank of America and Wells Fargo are likely to report less impressive results, due to weakness in the economy and extremely low interest rates.

When economic times are good, banks are typically able to earn more money from the higher interest they charge borrowers. Since the Federal Reserve has kept interest rates near zero and U.S. Treasury yields have gone down from a year ago, there is little opportunity for banks to lend at higher rates.

"The fundamental backdrop for these commercial banks is pretty challenging at the moment," said Fred Cannon, director of research at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.


Ken Sweet writes about banking and consumer finance issues for the AP. Follow him on Twitter at @kensweet.