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How the banks are posting big profits

Pedestrians walk by a Citibank branch office in San Francisco, Calif.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: We have led this broadcast with bank earnings almost every day this week. Because the first quarter was very, very good to them. "Them" of course being the biggest of the big banks. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, and this morning Citigroup posted profits in the billions of dollars. There's talk of repaying bailout money. And speculation that better times are just around the corner. And Wall Street is certainly thinking that way. But there is still a lot about the health of the financial sector that's not completely clear. So we asked Ashley Milne-Tyte to dig a little deeper.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Most of the big banks' profits don't come from their everyday business of taking deposits and making loans. Eileen Fahey covers the banks for Fitch Ratings. She says it's their trading arms that have really been raking it in.

Eileen Fahey: You enter the new year, you often have institutional investors who want to trade or modify their positions, so that generates an awful lot of trading.

She says volatility in the markets helped banks earn even more than they usually would. Stuart Plesser is a banking analyst with Standard and Poors. He says in other divisions things aren't going so well. He says lending departments are losing money, as the number of troubled loans grows.

Stuart Plesser: Basically if you look at those numbers, they're still as high or if not higher than fourth quarter levels. So that means that there's a continuation of deterioration of people not being able to pay their mortgages or consumer credit cards.

Plesser says even prime mortgages are going bad at a faster rate, as more and more people lose their jobs. Citigroup is in a particularly bad position. But Plesser says new accounting rules have helped them post a profit. He says they recently put a large chunk of their troubled securities on a shelf labeled 'held for maturity.'

Plesser: And when you move it to 'held for maturity' you don't need to take the write-downs on a quarterly basis that you would if it wasn't held in this bucket.

That move helped Citi shrink its $18 billion in write-downs from last quarter to a paltry $2 billion this time around. Plesser doesn't expect to see better earnings next quarter from Citi or any other bank. He says the bulk of the banks' money is made from lending and for now that business isn't showing any sign of recovery.

In New York, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

KAI RYSSDAL: One other quick note on banks. Bank of America has its annual meeting at the end of this month -- the 29th of April down in Charlotte, N.C. And there is a growing call for change at the top. Two big shareholder advisory firms say they are going to recommend to their clients that they vote to get rid of CEO Ken Lewis. Lewis has said repeatedly that he's not going anywhere until B of A repays its TARP money.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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