America's chastened banks can't wait to spread the good news. Wells Fargo sparked a market rally on Thursday by preannouncing some choice first-quarter tidbits.
Like Wells, Goldman Sachs produced a headline earnings number Monday evening, ahead of its scheduled Tuesday-morning slot, that was a multiple of the Street's consensus estimate. In contrast, though, there was no need to guess at how Goldman came out ahead: a record $6.56 billion of revenue from its fixed-income, currency and commodities business, or FICC.
Volatile markets and quiescent competitors make for wide spreads in bid and offer prices and drive traffic to those still in the game, like Goldman.
As with Wells's preannouncement, however, the read across for the rest of the sector is imperfect. The black box that is FICC generated 70% of net revenue. Moreover, Goldman's value-at-risk measure has risen 22% since November. Goldman has retained its appetite for risk in trading and has made big profits. For competitors that have drawn in their horns, while also suffering weakness in advisory and capital-markets businesses, the comparison is unlikely to be flattering.
One aspect of Goldman's pre-emptive strike with definite, and unwelcome, implications for the rest of the sector is the reason it went early in the first place: so it could launch a $5 billion stock offering to help repay $10 billion of TARP funds. This is despite Goldman boasting "excess liquidity" of about $164 billion.
The lesson is that, despite blow-out results, the economy and financial sector remain under stress: If you can raise equity, you do so. The implication for the sector's future returns on equity is not encouraging.