Covid Winner: Goldman Sachs’ Trading Revenue Hits 10-Year High

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The ‘black box’ of trading that drives profits at Goldman Sachs hit a 10-year high, boosting earnings in the final months of 2020 and pushing full-year revenue to its highest since 2009.

The Wall Street firm said Tuesday that its profits more than doubled from a year earlier thanks to a surge in both trading and advising revenue.

The New York-based investment bank said it earned a profit of $4.36 billion, up from a profit of $1.72 billion in the same period a year earlier. That works out to earnings of $12.08 per share, a 157 percent increase. Revenue of $11.74 billion was 18 percent above 2019’s fourth-quarter level.

The earnings and re revenue easily topped forecasts and shares rose in early trading Tuesday. Analysts had forecast $7.45-per-share profit on revenue of $9.99 billion.

Full-year revenue rose to $44.56 billion, the best since 2009 and up nearly 22 percent from 2019’s level. Annual trading revenue reached a 10-year high.

Goldman’s results reflect that Wall Street had a strong year even while the pandemic churned chaotically across the U.S. economy and businesses big and small laid off millions of Americans. After plunging sharply in March and April, the stock market went basically straight up for seven months as investors tried to look beyond the near-term death and pain and focus on where the U.S. economy will be in a year or two years’ time.

Goldman notoriously did well in the quarters leading up to the financial crisis in 2008 thanks to positions it took betting against the housing market and assisting clients who took out credit default swaps on mortgage-backed securities. This helped give rise to its nickname of “Vampire Squid,” a description that originated in a Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi.

Goldman’s profits in the first quarter were driven higher by its investment bank and trading desks, the cornerstone to the bank’s business models.

Investment banking revenue was up 29 percent from a year earlier to $2.73 billion. Goldman’s investment bankers garnered $1.64 billion in underwriting fees, produced from work arranging corporate stock and bond offerings, a 68 percent jump from a year ago. The firm received $1.1 billion in merger fees.

Trading revenue rose 23 percent from a year earlier to $4.27 billion. Investors typically hesitate to assign much value to the company based on trading revenue because it is hard to predict and there is very little transparency around how the revenue is generated. Despite not working to benefit shareholders, trading revenues generate enormous bonuses for Goldman Sachs executives

The stellar quarter will result in stellar bonuses for Goldman’s well-compensated employees. The bank set aside $13.31 billion to pay out bonuses and payroll this year, up 8 percent from a year earlier. Most of Goldman’s top employees make most of their money in year-end bonuses.

It’s wealth management arm as well is nascent consumer banking business—which focuses on consumer loans, savings accounts, and handling the underwriting for Apple’s credit card—also so gains.

Goldman shares are up 22 percent from a year ago. That performance beats the S&P 500’s 13.93 percent gain but is lower than the Nasdaq Composite’s 39.85 percent gain and the small-cap Russell 2000’s 26.51 percent rise.

Morgan Stanley, which is similar in size to Goldman Sachs and reports its quarterly results on Wednesday, saw its stock rise 31.66 percent over the past 12-months. Shares of Morgan Stanley, whose earnings are less dependent on trading and whose capital structure includes a smaller amount of debt compared to equity, have a higher price to forward earnings multiple than Goldman’s.

On Friday, JPMorgan Chase said fourth-quarter profit rose 42 percent to a record $12.14 billion, boosted by the release of $2.9 billion from reserves to cover unpaid loans. Compared with a year ago, J.P. Morgan shares are nearly flat. Bank of America Corp. said Tuesday that profit fell 22 percent after it released $828 million from its loan-loss reserves.

Like its competitors, Goldman also moved some of the money it had set aside to cover credit losses out of its reserves. However Goldman’s exposure through consumer and business loans is significantly smaller than commercial banks like Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo so it wasn’t a significant part of its overall results.