For the dozen or so major global investment banks, the first-quarter earnings season is nearly over. At the time of writing, only the French have yet to report. What have we learned?
Trading was flat, transactions were down – but within that summary is a wealth of detail. Yes, the five Europeans to have declared are still around 25% of the revenue pools for the 10 banks, both in investment banking and markets. And it will come as no surprise if the Europeans contain the worst performers.
But perhaps more unexpectedly they also contained, on some measures, the best. In the first quarter, only three banks posted year-over-year gains in their aggregate revenue for capital markets, advisory, sales and trading. All three were European.
The tempting conclusion is that times like these favor companies that have picked their spots – think UBS and Deutsche Bank – as long as the spots match the times. But it’s more complicated than that. Barclays, completing the trio of risers, still tries to do everything its American cousins do. And its investment banking and trading revenue rose 12%, much better than the 10% to 15% decline on Wall Street.
Deal-making suffered everywhere, especially in equity capital markets (ECM), where US and European companies saw their revenues fall by 83%. Debt capital markets (DCM) were more resilient, but still down 20%-30%, with leveraged finance penalizing more than quality investments. Consulting was an encouraging area, with revenue up almost everywhere and seemingly strong pipelines.
Sales and trade are where the individual stories differ the most. Taken as a whole, earnings were flat in the U.S. and Europe, but there were notable shifts in that broader picture – Goldman Sachs’ 21% fixed-income gain, for example, partly reflected the bank’s funding efforts, while Bank of the United States’ 16% drop was due to a particularly strong result the previous year.
And so, to Europeans. Credit Suisse was horrible everywhere. Consulting revenue which only fell 13% was a high point of sorts. In total, its capital markets and advisory businesses fell nearly 60%, while it also failed to get any of the pockets of relief seen in other businesses in the areas of sales. and trading equities or fixed income securities, each falling by around 50%.
The liquidation of much of its senior management and the increase in provisions for legacy litigation are proof that Credit Suisse has a lot on its mind. Reshaping its investment bank in this context will not be easy. Deutsche Bank was able to use its corporate bank as a base for rebuilding its investment bank. UBS has made wealth management its anchor. Credit Suisse is still too distracted by constant missteps, hence its desire to move faster to put legacy issues behind it.
A quarter doesn’t make a trend… but so far this year Europeans are doing better than anyone would have expected
HSBC did not look spectacular, although aggregate capital markets and advisory revenue which was flat year-on-year made it the best on this measure, with a 25% drop at Barclays the best next. But in absolute terms, HSBC’s business today is tiny compared to its peers. Even UBS’s revenue nearly doubled from the $290 million seen at HSBC for the quarter. JPMorgan’s business, the biggest in the quarter, was nearly 10 times bigger.
And UBS looked bright overall, especially with an 85% revenue gain in its equity business. But as always, it’s worth diving into the exceptional ones. The year-over-year comparison was flattered by a Q1 2021 figure that included a $774 million loss related to Archegos. Take that out and equities business rose a slightly less eye-catching 1%, and its overall investment banking revenue fell 4% – not bad considering its US peers, but a different picture of the 28% gain announcement.
Barclays was particularly resilient in DCM, where revenue fell just 8%, making it the best of the bunch, including US houses. And it outperformed all comers – European and American – in fixed income sales and trading. The bank acknowledged that its business mix favored it, but a particularly strong ability to seize opportunities from emerging market volatility was one of the keys to success.
But while unable to boast anything extraordinarily flashy, the star was arguably Deutsche, showing a performance that should be recognized for what it is, a welcome dose of stability as it goes. The bank expects 2022 to be the year it should see the fruits of the restructuring of its investment bank that it began in 2019, and that bodes well so far.
Fixed income sales and trading – the activity in the markets it retained when it exited equities – rose 15% and had its best quarter since 2015, despite no material raw. Macro has done impressively to ride out the obvious headwinds in credit, a business that is an important part of Deutsche’s franchise. The council has bounced back well.
A quarter is not a trend, and European banks will not threaten the continued scale dominance of their US competitors. But so far this year, the Europeans are doing better than expected. Trading in volatile markets has been an important factor in this. If they normalize – and if transactions normalize with them – it will be harder to stand out from the clout of US banks.