U.S. commercial banks earned $5.2 billion trading derivatives in the second quarter, as the level of risk eased in the global market for the complex financial instruments, according to a government report released Friday.
Derivatives, traded in an unregulated $600 trillion market, were partly blamed for the financial crisis that ignited a year ago. The value of derivatives hinges on an underlying investment or commodity — such as currency rates, oil futures or interest rates. The derivative is designed to reduce the risk of loss from the underlying asset. Derivatives trading is dominated by about 20 big banks worldwide.
A total of 1,110 U.S. commercial banks reported trading or holding derivatives at the end of the second quarter, up 47 from the first quarter, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a Treasury Department agency. Still, five big banks — JPMorgan Chase , Goldman Sachs , Bank of America , Citigroup and Wells Fargo — account for 97 percent of the total derivatives reported to be held by U.S. commercial banks.
The $5.2 billion in banks' trading revenues in the April-June period was down from a record $9.8 billion in the first quarter, but a decline had been expected and was at least partly due to seasonal changes, the agency said. The second-quarter revenues were the sixth-largest since the agency began keeping records in 1996. Banks earned a total $1.6 billion in trading revenues in the second quarter of 2008.
At the same time, the primary measure of credit risk in derivatives trading — called net current credit exposure — fell $140 billion, or 20 percent, in the second quarter to $555 billion.
The risk measure has decreased significantly over the first half of this year, "although by any standard these (credit) exposures remain very high," Kathryn Dick, the deputy comptroller for credit and market risk, said in a statement.
The narrowing of the gap between the rates at which banks are willing to lend and what borrowers are willing to pay, indicates that "the (credit) market feels better about the quality" of the banks that trade in derivatives, Dick said in a conference call with reporters.
Credit default swaps, a form of insurance against loan defaults, account for an estimated $60 trillion of the over-the-counter derivatives market. The collapse of the swaps brought the downfall of Wall Street banking house Lehman Brothers about a year ago and nearly toppled American International Group , prompting the government to support the insurance conglomerate with more than $180 billion in aid.
Contracts on interest rates and foreign exchange rates also figure prominently in the derivatives market.
Congress is weighing legislation to impose broad new oversight on derivatives. The Obama administration's proposal, part of its plan for overhauling U.S. financial rules, would subject the banks that trade derivatives to requirements for holding capital reserves against risk and other rules. A new network of clearinghouses would be established to provide transparency for derivatives trades.
Last year as the credit crisis raged, U.S. commercial banks recorded their first industrywide loss on derivatives trading. The $836 million loss compared with trading revenue of $5.49 billion in 2007, according to the comptroller's office.
The agency's second-quarter report found that the total value of derivatives held at U.S. commercial banks rose to $203.5 trillion, up by $1.5 trillion, or about 1 percent, from the first quarter.