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Capital Markets Revenue Should Be A Bright Spot For Banks In A Tough 2020

Global capital markets activity gave a boost to some large banks in the first quarter--as the economic malaise brought on by COVID-19 weighed on overall earnings. We expect capital markets activity to remain a strength for banks this year, but other business lines will likely sag as sharply declining global growth and higher unemployment trigger elevated credit costs. Our economists currently project global GDP to fall 2.4% this year, with the U.S. and eurozone contracting 5.2% and 7.3%, respectively. We expect global growth to rebound 5.9% in 2021.

Positively, on the heels of substantive government and central bank assistance, global markets rebounded in April and May, and U.S. equity valuations are near their beginning of the year levels, which should support business lines that rely on market-priced revenue.

Trading revenue was particularly robust in the first quarter, while debt and equity underwriting also contributed to the positive capital markets results. Capital markets revenue rose 20% in the first quarter, reaching its highest level in the last five years (after several disappointing years, with capital markets revenue falling by low single digits annually), according to Coalition data. The strong trading results came against a challenging operational backdrop, as traders worked largely from home. Still, there were few operational issues despite extremely heavy volume.

Based on bank management comments, we expect strong second-quarter capital markets results and capital markets revenue to be up in the double digits in 2020. Despite the boost from this revenue line, we expect overall revenue for banks with large capital markets business to decline this year because of a contraction in other revenue streams, particularly net interest income.

The outlooks for the majority of the capital markets-intensive banks remain stable, particularly those in the U.S., since we believe these banks' diversified revenue streams will offset the sizable credit pressures. But if macro conditions worsen, leading to larger credit losses than we currently expect, downgrades could ensue.

Capital Markets Activity Should Benefit Revenue, But It Comes With Risks

The good showing of capital markets revenue in the first quarter demonstrates the importance of banks having a variety of market-leading businesses, which diversifies revenue. This way, when one segment of a bank's revenue stream comes under pressure, another segment may be able to offset the shortfall. Such will likely be the case with capital markets revenue this year.

Still, too much of a good thing, particularly one as complex as the capital markets business, could be a risk to creditors. So far, unlike the 2008 crisis, banks have not experienced large losses in their capital markets businesses. Indeed, the first quarter went rather smoothly, with counterparties posting margins despite large pricing swings and no large markdowns on trading inventory. We believe this is largely due to more punitive capital and leverage rules, and the associated reduction in banks' inventory positions, particularly holdings of complex, illiquid securities. The movement of a large portion of trading activity to central counterparties has also helped.

But there is no guarantee that the lack of trading issues so far will continue for the remainder of the year. In fact, banks did have sizable trading losses on certain days in the quarter, and within leveraged lending pipelines, they took sizable marks as deals got hung, largely offset by gains on related macro hedges. (Given the swift market turnaround in April and May, we believe these marks have largely reversed.)

Some banks, particularly French banks, incurred losses on auto-callable structured equity derivatives because of a sudden cut in corporate dividends. Also some banks that are not top-tier capital markets players could struggle to deliver adequate returns--even this year--if their area of strength within capital markets turns less favorable. But these are more exceptions to the rule.

Another aspect of the capital markets business that may weigh on bank management teams this year is the rising cost of holding trading inventory. For most banks, capital ratios declined in the first quarter, some more precipitously than others, largely because of significant growth in lending as corporate customers drew down revolvers.

But the elevated market volatility also contributed to capital ratio declines by increasing risk-weighted assets, despite some regulatory forbearance on back-testing exceptions. And if capital ratios--particularly for U.S. banks that are facing higher capital ratios due to the introduction of the stress capital buffer--continue to decline closer to minimum regulatory capital requirements, the banks that are closer to their buffers may have to ease up on trading inventory. (Among other measures, they may take to reduce their risk-weighted assets.) This could reduce market liquidity and individual banks' capital markets revenue.

The Dynamics Driving Capital Markets Revenue Higher This Year

A few factors are leading to robust capital markets results this year (see chart 1).

High client activity

With swift changes in market sentiment, bank clients have needed to reposition their portfolios on a regular basis in an effort to hedge their exposures. This has resulted in elevated client activity, as indicated by a rise in the trading inventory that some banks are holding. It also presents new trading opportunities for asset management and hedge fund clients.

Wide bid-ask spreads

Given the rapid movement in market prices, banks have widened their bid-ask offers. A wider bid-ask offer helps to protect the bank from a sudden price move in the inventory it holds. It also helps expand margins on the trades a bank executes, boosting profitability.

Massive central bank support

Central banks around the world have put their muscle behind keeping the markets stable, providing both confidence and liquidity. For example, the Federal Reserve's balance sheet has topped $7 trillion, versus the roughly $4 trillion at the beginning of the year. Such action by central banks has led to narrowing credit spreads. In addition, central banks have both backed and bought corporate debt, which has led to record volumes of debt issuance, particularly investment grade.

Chart 1

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Solid Capital Markets Revenue Will Likely Have An Encore Performance In The Second Quarter

Based on comments made at a recent investor conference, bank management teams expect continued robust capital market results in the second quarter. For example, JPMorgan, the largest player in capital markets, stated that trading revenues are tracking up 50% year over year, assuming June resembles the average of the past three years. It highlighted the continued strong performance of fixed income, currencies, and commodities (FICC), as well as solid gains in equities. It also commented that investment banking activity is strong, with fees expected to be up mid-to-high teens year over year and gains across advisory, and debt and equity underwriting.

Notably, drawdowns on corporate loans have slowed and have been replaced by a large amount of debt issuance. This should not only help underwriting fees, but also benefit bank liquidity, which was already solid in the first quarter due to a large inflow of deposits.

Some Banks Have More To Gain From Strong Capital Markets Revenue Than Others

The capital markets landscape has changed over the last few years as many European banks retracted, refocusing on capital markets activity connected to their commercial banking businesses. As a result, U.S. banks have picked up considerable market share (see chart 2, which we derive by taking each bank's share of the top nine capital markets-focused banks).

In 2019, Deutsche Bank further pulled back from the capital markets business amid another major overhaul. This move has resulted in others picking up market share. For example, although Barclays still trails the major U.S. banks in terms of market share, it seems to have gained market share over the last year and into first-quarter 2020. JPMorgan and Citigroup also seem to have picked up market share over the last year as well.

Chart 2

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With the strong capital markets results in the first quarter and revenue from other business lines likely waning for the remainder of the year, capital markets business is likely to account for a much larger portion of revenue for banks with a strong presence in this business (see chart 3).

From a rating standpoint, although we would typically view this development with some caution, the rise in capital markets revenue is probably temporary--more a result of the current environment rather than an intent to accentuate this business line. In fact, over the longer term, we expect capital markets revenue as a percentage of total revenue to decline for some banks as they look to further diversify their revenue to provide more stable results. For example, Goldman Sachs is gradually building its lending business, including a push into retail, and is focusing on transaction banking and growing wealth management.

Chart 3

image

For banks that don't have leading market shares in capital markets business, some still struggle to deliver stable risk-adjusted earnings. For some of these banks, the sensitivity of overall revenue to capital market swings has persisted more than we had anticipated.

For example, Societe Generale's other businesses performed relatively well, but this revenue stream did not make up for the poor performance in the bank's still sizable commercial and investment banking division. The right-sizing of the equities division, which historically was one of the bank's main strengths in the capital markets and a solid earnings contributor, remains a challenge for management given that it has a higher capital requirement than before and faces intense competition from U.S. banks. (For more, see "Societe Generale Outlook To Negative On Profitability Challenges; Ratings Affirmed; Hybrid And Sub Debt Downgraded.")

Conversely, BNP has expanded its capital markets franchise through the acquisition of Deutsche Bank's prime brokerage business. That said, we see the pullback by SocGen and Deutsche as more indicative of the trend among European banks.

In general, we view capital markets activity as riskier and more opaque than other bank business lines, such as retail and commercial banking and wealth management. As a result, the majority of our risk position assessments for banks with large capital markets operations--35% or higher of total revenue--are currently moderate (which weighs on our ratings).

In addition, we are unlikely to assess the risk position of a bank with a sizable capital markets operation above adequate. Bank of America is an exception because, based on our measure, its market risk-weighted assets are a lower proportion of total risk-weighted assets than for most universal bank peers. This demonstrates the company's lower appetite for trading risk, in our view.

Historically High Volatility Will Weigh On Capital Ratios This Year

Although elevated provisions were the big story in the first quarter, a noticeable decline in bank capital ratios was also a theme. This was largely the result of weak earnings, growth in balance sheets accentuated by large draws on corporate loans, and elevated shareholder payouts that have since been suspended. But the high market volatility in the first quarter, along with higher levels of trading inventory for some, also played a part in capital ratios declining.

It will be important for banks to be vigilant to ensure they don't breach required buffer levels, because such a breach could have major consequences for the amount of permissible shareholder payout and executive bonuses. It could also trigger coupon suspensions on hybrid instruments, which would likely hurt market confidence, though we still see this as an unlikely event. (For more, see "Bank Regulatory Buffers Face Their First Usability Test," June 11, 2020, "How U.S. Bank Dividend Cuts Could Affect Ratings," June 3, 2020, and "Europe’s AT1 Market Faces The COVID-19 Test: Bend, Not Break," April 22, 2020.)

The issue is further exacerbated in the U.S. because come October, minimum capital ratios with buffers will likely be higher for some of the banks that participate in the 2020 stress test exercise (see "The Fed's New Rules Change Capital Management Dynamics For U.S. Banks," March 19, 2020).

Chart 4

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How High Volatility Affects Capital Ratios

One of the components of risk-weighted assets--the denominator of a bank's capital ratio calculation--is market risk. Market risk is the risk of loss in the value of inventory, investments, loans, and other financial assets and liabilities accounted for at fair value due to changes in market conditions. Given the way market risk is calculated, we expect market risk will likely remain elevated for the remainder of this year, even if market volatility declines substantially.

As such, some banks that are closer to their capital buffers may opt to reduce trading inventory to manage larger capital cushions versus their required levels. This may affect not only a bank's trading results and client satisfaction, but could also have implications for overall market trading liquidity. This, in turn, could hurt pricing and result in markdowns for entities looking to sell certain assets. Although it's unclear which trading assets banks may shed if capital is a concern, we believe they may opt to reduce longer-dated, more exotic instruments that require higher capital to hold.

Market risk comprises several components, each of which is calculated using a bank's internal models:

  • Value at risk (VaR): The potential loss in value of trading assets and liabilities, as well as certain investments, loans, and other financial assets and liabilities accounted for at fair value, due to adverse market movements over a defined time horizon with a specified confidence level.
  • Stressed VaR (SVaR): The potential loss in value of trading assets and liabilities, as well as certain investments, loans, and other financial assets and liabilities accounted for at fair value, during a period of significant market stress.
  • Incremental risk charge: The potential loss in value of non-securitized positions due to the default or credit migration of issuers of financial instruments over a one-year time horizon.
  • Comprehensive risk measure: The potential loss in value, due to price risk and defaults, within credit correlation positions.

In addition, the specific risk measure is used to calculate risk-weighted assets for market risk, for certain securitized and non-securitized covered positions, by applying risk weighting factors to positions after applicable netting is performed.

Market risk rose significantly in the first quarter for most banks, largely the result of an increase in VaR and SVaR (see chart 5). Notably, VaR increased by varying degrees across banks, which likely reflects the time sensitivity incorporated in each bank's model that measures volatility, as well as the mix of its trading assets (see chart 6). (Banks that put a higher emphasis on recent volatility saw an outsize increase in VaR.) Even if volatility eases to pre-March levels (it has already declined somewhat in the second quarter), banks' VaR will likely remain elevated, at least for the remainder of the year. That's because the March volatility will remain in the dataset used in the VaR calculation.

The first quarter also saw an increase in SVaR, since its calculation uses VaR as an input. In addition, a higher amount of trading inventory also resulted in the higher SVaR. Currently, 2008 is the period of stress that SVAR gets calculated from. That said, it's possible that March 2020 could replace 2008 for future SVaR calculations, given the level of volatility just experienced.

Chart 5

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Chart 6

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The GSIB Buffer May Also Play A Part In Trading Inventory Levels

Besides a capital conservation buffer and a cyclical buffer that regulations require certain banks to hold, there is also a buffer for global systemically important banks (GSIBs). The size of a bank's balance sheet is one of the components that determines the GSIB buffer.

The GSIB buffer is determined at the end of every year and applies for the following year. In past years, banks have attempted to manage their size at the end of the year so as to keep their GSIB buffer as is; some attempt to lower it. This, in turn, has resulted in lower market liquidity at the end of the year as banks attempt to reduce in size.

Notably, as balance sheets expanded, some banks at the end of the first quarter were close to moving to another GSIB bucket, which will likely add another 50 bps to their required capital ratio levels if they don't take any action by the end of the year. It's possible regulators will ease additional capital calculations, including the calculation of the GSIB buffer. Otherwise, banks may start to reduce their balance sheets right when the market may be looking for them to increase lending and provide support.

Other Trading Risks Metrics We Are Keeping An Eye On

There are several metrics we look at to evaluate whether individual banks' trading risks are becoming outsize versus both historical levels and peers. We detail these metrics, some of which we update annually, in "Delving Deeper Into Global Trading Banks' Risks And Rewards: A Study Of Public Disclosures," May 22, 2014.

Given current market conditions, three metrics we are keeping an eye on are:

  • The creditworthiness of derivative counterparties--this measures the ability of counterparties to pay back derivative receivables;
  • Market risk-weighted assets as a percent of trading assets--(an increase in this metric could point to the holding of riskier securities); and
  • The amount of trading and derivative Level 3 assets as a percent of capital, which reflects possible growth of riskier trading assets.
The creditworthiness of derivative counterparties

Although a high proportion of bank derivatives is either cleared on exchanges or has daily margin calls, a portion of banks' trading partners (largely corporate end users) don't post margin, leading to counterparty exposure for the banks. Banks act as market-makers in their trading activity. However, if a bank is not paid for a derivative receivable because of the default of a counterparty, the bank may experience large losses, since it may not be paid on funds due and needs to cover the other side of its trade.

To assess this risk of nonpayment, we looked at the amount of derivative receivables outstanding by each bank, along with the relative creditworthiness of the counterparties (investment grade versus speculative grade) (see chart 7). We note that public disclosure for this data are only available for U.S. banks. Two things are noticeable:

  • Derivative receivables increased for most banks in the first quarter, likely because of the volume of trades and the pricing of the instruments being traded.
  • Banks have varying degrees of speculative-grade exposure. Those banks with higher speculative-grade exposure have higher counterparty risk.

To reflect the risk of counterparties in terms of derivative receivable, a credit value adjustment (CVA)--risk of losses related to changes in counterparty credit risk--is incorporated into a bank's credit risk-weighted assets. These figures also increased in the first quarter, reflecting market stress, which is another factor that pressured banks' risk-weighted assets. (Banks also deduct CVA from the mark-to-market value of derivative positions to account for the expected loss due to counterparty defaults. This aspect of CVA is typically not disclosed and is usually embedded in banks' trading revenue results.)

Chart 7

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Market risk-weighted assets as a percent of trading assets

Trading assets increased sizably in the first quarter to help meet client demand (see chart 8). One way to assess whether banks are holding riskier trading assets is to divide the amount of market risk posted in the quarter by the amount of trading assets at the end of the quarter. An increase in this ratio could indicate a riskier trading book. This appears to be the case in the first quarter. However, we believe the growth in this ratio is largely due to the higher volatility in the quarter, causing the higher market risk for similar trading assets to rise. Said another way, banks could have been holding the same trading inventory but market risk would have risen due to volatility rather than the composition of the trading book.

Chart 8

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Level 3 trading assets to total adjusted capital

The fair values for Level 3 assets are model based, measured by the banks (because the valuation inputs used to derive fair values can't be observed in the market). Therefore, their valuation is sensitive to changes in management assumptions and to the way the models are calibrated. Private equity investments, loans and illiquid debt instruments, and certain types of derivatives often make up Level 3 assets. (Our definition of Level 3 assets, for the purposes of this study, is the sum of Level 3 trading assets and Level 3 derivatives, as we are focusing in this commentary on risks within capital markets.)

All else being equal, a large proportion of Level 3 assets exposes banks to mispricing and to a future revision of the assumptions underpinning the valuation of these assets. Level 3 assets are also less liquid than other assets and could be susceptible to significant price declines, should credit issues arise, such as rising default levels. As such, a high ratio of Level 3 assets may suggest potential large tail risks, depending on the degree of conservatism in each bank's valuation model.

Positively, the amount of Level 3 trading assets and derivatives remains well below precrisis levels, when most banks' Level 3 trading assets to total assets adjusted capital exceeded 100%. They also remain well below 2015 and 2016 levels for most banks (see chart 9). The higher amount of Level 3 trading assets to capital for some of the banks (Goldman, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank) is largely attributable to their heavier reliance on capital markets.

Given the market illiquidity in the first quarter, Level 3 assets likely rose for most banks because of the inability to price certain assets from market-driven events. Still, we don't believe the increase in Level 3 assets in the first quarter was outsize.

Chart 9

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Capital Markets Business Is Unlikely To Lead To Downgrades This Year, But Credit Issues May

The outlooks for the majority of the capital markets-intensive banks remain stable, particularly those in the U.S., since we believe these banks' diversified revenue streams will offset the sizable credit pressures.

That said, we have revised the outlooks on two large banks with a capital markets focus. Specifically, the outlooks on Deutsche Bank and Barclays are now negative, alongside the outlooks for many other European banks, reflecting economic and market stress triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic (see "Barclays Outlook Revised To Negative On Economic Impact Of COVID-19; Ratings Affirmed" and "Deutsche Bank Ratings Affirmed On Restructuring Process, Outlook To Negative On Deepening COVID-19 Risks," April 23, 2020). Whether downgrades for these banks and negative outlooks and/or downgrades for the other large capital markets banks ensue will depend largely on the duration of the pandemic and the level of economic recovery in its aftermath. Both are big unknowns for now.

Rating Component Scores
Company Anchor Business position Capital and earnings Risk position Funding Liquidity Unsupported group credit profile ALAC notches Sovereign support/group support Additional factors Operating company ICR Outlook

JPMorgan Chase & Co.

bbb+ Very strong Adequate Adequate Average Adequate a 1 0 0 A+ Stable

Bank of America Corp.

bbb+ Strong Adequate Strong Average Adequate a 1 0 0 A+ Stable

Citigroup Inc.

bbb+ Strong Adequate Adequate Average Adequate a- 2 0 0 A+ Stable

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (The)

bbb+ Strong Adequate Moderate Average Adequate bbb+ 2 0 1 A+ Stable

Morgan Stanley

bbb+ Strong Strong Moderate Average Adequate a- 2 0 0 A+ Stable

Credit Suisse Group AG

a- Adequate Strong Moderate Average Adequate a- 2 0 0 A+ Stable

Nomura Holdings Inc.

bbb+ Moderate Strong Moderate Average Adequate bbb 0 2 0 A- Stable

Barclays PLC

bbb+ Adequate Strong Moderate Average Adequate bbb+ 2 0 0 A Negative

Deutsche Bank AG

bbb+ Adequate Adequate Moderate Average Adequate bbb 2 0 -1 BBB+ Negative
Note: Ratings data as of June 8, 2020. Banks are sorted by ICR. ALAC--Additional loss-absorbing capacity. ICR--Issuer credit rating.

Related Criteria

Related Research

This report does not constitute a rating action.

Primary Credit Analyst:Stuart Plesser, New York (1) 212-438-6870;
stuart.plesser@spglobal.com
Secondary Contacts:Richard Barnes, London (44) 20-7176-7227;
richard.barnes@spglobal.com
Brendan Browne, CFA, New York (1) 212-438-7399;
brendan.browne@spglobal.com

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