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Big bank profits decline as deal-making, mortgages slow

NEW YORK — Four big banks reported noticeable declines in their first-quarter profits Thursday, as the volatile markets and war in Ukraine caused deal-making to dry up while a slowdown in the housing market meant fewer people sought to get a new mortgage or refinance.

The results from Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo were similar to the results out of JPMorgan Chase, which on Wednesday reported a double-digit decline in profits.

At Goldman Sachs, profits fell 43% to $3.63 billion. Citigroup posted a 47% decline in profits to $4 billion, Wells Fargo’s profits fell 21% and Morgan Stanley’s earnings dropped 11%.

In some ways, comparing this quarter to a year ago doesn’t tell an accurate story of how well Wall Street is doing. The first quarter of 2021 was helped by the start of widespread vaccination campaigns for COVID-19, as well as recovery in the economy from the pandemic. Banks also released large portions of their loan-loss reserves — money they sock away to cover potentially bad loans in a rough economy — last year. Those were a one-time boost to profits.

But banks are often seen as a proxy for the overall economy, and the first quarter of 2022 has been considerably rougher than a year earlier. Markets have struggled with high inflation, as well as a run up in oil prices largely caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Interest rates have also risen sharply in response to the Federal Reserve signaling that it plans to raise interest rates multiple times this year, which in turn has caused mortgage rates to rise.

Outside of the slowdown in deal-making, the war in Ukraine plus the broad international sanctions placed on Russia weighed on the results of at least two banks, Citigroup and to a lesser extent, Goldman Sachs. Citi said it had to set aside $1.9 billion in potential loan losses due to its exposure to Russia, where the bank operates a consumer banking franchise as well as a modest investment bank. Meanwhile Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon said the bank had $300 million in losses this quarter tied to Russia.

That’s on top of the $1.5 billion that JPMorgan set aside on Wednesday to cover higher inflation costs as well as its exposure to Russia.

But where the banks really took a hit this quarter was in investment banking. Goldman Sachs said investment banking revenues fell 40% from a year earlier, while Morgan Stanley reported a 38% decline in investment banking fees. Citigroup reported a 43% drop in investment banking revenues.

The drop in investment banking revenues largely has to do with companies sitting on the sidelines in the quarter due to the volatility.

Wells Fargo, which has a smaller investment bank, was more heavily impacted by the slowdown in the housing market. Revenues from mortgage originations at Wells were down 33% from a year earlier. Freddie Mac said the average 30-year fixed-rate mortgage hit 5% last week, nearly double where it was less than a year ago.

“Rising rates drove a significant slowdown in mortgage banking, especially refinance activity,” said Kyle Sanders, an analyst with Edward Jones, who covers Wells Fargo, in an email.

Ken Sweet is an AP Business Writer.