Banks Are the New Banks

| Wed Jul. 20, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal today:

Long envied as one of the savviest gamblers around, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. surprised Wall Street with a steep decline in trading revenue because it stopped rolling the dice...."I don't want to sugar coat it…Maybe we made a bad decision in taking too little risk," David Viniar, Goldman's chief financial officer, told analysts Tuesday. "I don't know."

But before you start feeling too sorry for them, there's also this:

In the second quarter, Goldman's revenue from trading bonds, commodities and currencies plunged 53% to $1.6 billion from $3.37 billion a year earlier. That badly bruised the New York company's bottom line, even though overall profit jumped 78% to $1.09 billion from an anemic year-ago quarter.

And this from the LA Times:

Just a year ago, banking executives argued vehemently against the most sweeping overhaul of financial regulations since the Great Depression, saying the law enacted then would stifle innovation and erode profits. But in the last two weeks, they have been reporting billions of dollars in profits — including a record quarter for Wells Fargo & Co. — with nary a word about how the so-called Dodd-Frank financial reform law was hindering them.

....On Tuesday, Wells Fargo, the nation's third-largest bank, posted record earnings of $3.9 billion for the second quarter. JPMorgan Chase & Co. reported last week that its revenue and profit were higher in the first half of this year than in the first six months last year, before Dodd-Frank was passed. Nor did the law seem to deter Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc.

Dodd-Frank hasn't taken full effect yet — nor have new capital requirements — but this is an ominous sign anyway. In the long run, if banks end up as profitable as they were before the law was passed, it almost certainly means that dangerous behavior really hasn't been reined in significantly. In other words, despite the astonishing display of self-pitying doomsaying from Wall Street, nothing much has changed at all. As Felix Salmon said to me at lunch a few weeks ago, when we were talking about which segment of the financial industry was likely to cause trouble in the future (hedge funds? private equity? some brand new hidey hole in the shadow banking system?), "Banks are the new banks." Banks caused the last crisis, and they're all set to cause the next one too.

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