Washington Insider-- Monday

Wall Street Becomes Self-Conscious

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

KC Fed Sees Slowing Pace of Ag Lending

Ag lending slowed alongside the initial effects of the pandemic and there is a more pessimistic outlook for agricultural economic conditions, the Kansas City Fed said in its latest Agricultural Finance Databook.

The volume of total non-real estate farm loans continued into a yearlong trend of declines during the second quarter of 2020.

The slowdown in lending was generally consistent across all types of loans, KC Fed analysts said. Delinquency rates on farm loans increased steadily through the first quarter and agricultural credit conditions remained weak.

The report notes that emergency government lending programs, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) program, “likely supplemented the financing needs of some producers while direct aid payments may help offset declines in farm revenues in 2020.”

Heritage Foundation Urges Against Expanding CCC

The conservative Heritage Foundation think tank is urging lawmakers to oppose a proposal to raise the spending limit for the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) to $68 billion, from the current $30 billion cap.

The group is also taking aim at other provisions in a House-passed relief bill that allow payments from CCC to be used for additional payments, including to “aid agricultural processing plants to ensure supply chain continuity during an emergency period.”

The CCC borrowing increase is not included in the pending House-passed COVID-19 relief package, which would only replenish CCC's borrowing authority to the $30 billion cap.

Expanding CCC's spending authority, "would allow Congress to avoid making important choices, such as which agricultural commodities would be eligible for payments, which geographic regions would be covered, whether there should be payment limits, and about almost every detail of any future handout program, Heritage argued.

Washington Insider: Wall Street Becomes Self-Conscious

Bloomberg is reporting this week that a Wall Street scenario “a decade ago” is surfacing again -- a film that highlights Wall Street executives dining at a moment when the U.S. economy was in tatters. Their industry, fresh off a bailout, was printing big profits again, and Americans were seething. Congress wanted investigations, Bloomberg said.

The review included a comment from one executive to another as Goldman Sachs executive who turned to his peer from Morgan Stanley, which had been slower to bounce back from the crisis, and said: “You have no idea how damn lucky you are to lose money with a hopeless business model.”

The table erupted in laughter, Bloomberg recalled, but added that “the kernel of truth in the quip is that nobody likes bankers profiting as the world burns. It draws a harsh spotlight.”

The report notes that Wall Street's five biggest investment banks disclosed $45 billion in revenue from trading and deal-making units, “marking those businesses' best quarter in modern history.” It then emphasizes the circumstances including a “deadly global pandemic and the Federal Reserve's unprecedented measures to prop up the economy.”

It's hard to imagine a more awkward time to land a windfall, Bloomberg says. For years, bank trading chiefs have been begging, even praying, for a surge in volatility to lift their fortunes by spurring client transactions. “Banks finally got their 'score' as markets plunged, with television screens showing refrigerated morgue trucks. Then, they made even more money as authorities rushed to help.”

Morgan Stanley is reporting its highest revenue and profit ever. JPMorgan Chase & Co. blew past the revenue record its traders notched in the first quarter—topping it by 34% in the second quarter. Goldman's profit rose, even as the company set aside an additional $1 billion to cover potential legal costs, including its efforts to end international probes into its role in the looting of a Malaysian investment fund.

The numbers were high enough that the ranks of sell-side stock analysts wondered about the potential for a public backlash. “Fair or not, banks are being depicted as being on the wrong side” of economic inequality and other issues, UBS Group's Saul Martinez said. “I'm just curious if you are concerned at all about populist, anti-bank policies gaining traction.”

At least the banks didn't cause the recent crisis, Bloomberg says, unlike in 2008.

In fact, three of the Wall Street giants -- JPMorgan, Bank of America Corp., and Citigroup Inc. -- set aside much of the money generated by the trading bonanza so they can better weather anticipated losses on lending to desperate companies and consumers. Altogether, the five banks stockpiled more than $25 billion in the quarter.

Banks also are quick to note that the Federal Reserve didn't step in to save them as it did in the last crisis. Instead, the banks helped head off another meltdown by helping companies raise money and avoid bankruptcy. “The most important thing we could do is be a healthy and vibrant bank through this crisis,” JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon said in response to the analyst.

The Fed may not have explicitly paid the banks billions of dollars, but it created an environment in which their success was all but guaranteed. The central bank helped cash-strapped companies raise money to shore up their finances and pay their bills. Banks made money by facilitating the fundraising, as well as on the related spike in stock and bond trading.

Beyond the worries over optics are deeper policy questions. How effective is the Fed's stimulus in providing credit to critical industries, and how much lining of Wall Street pockets is acceptable as a side effect?

Fed Chairman Jay Powell has indicated, in this moment, those concerns are secondary to saving the economy and millions of jobs. But Wall Street's gains will only revive perceptions that the deck is stacked in its favor.

Those sentiments can have big ramifications. The profits investment banks made in the wake of bailouts in 2008 spurred the anti-government Tea Party movement, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, and a wave of new regulation. Complaints that the game is rigged later played into the ascent of populism in the 2016 presidential election, and they reverberate today.

Banking leaders are well aware of the stakes. Some recently made it clear to their troops that they cannot be seen crowing.

If it weren't for the pandemic, Chief Executive Officer David Solomon might have enjoyed the sight of a packed auditorium at Goldman, reacting to the best quarter under his leadership. Dimon would've strolled the aisles of JPMorgan's Madison Avenue trading floors, personally saluting his workers.

Instead, Solomon met with a couple of dozen scattered executives in the hall in front of him. At JPMorgan, Dimon emailed employees a tightly worded “congratulations.”

So, we will see. Much depends, observers say, on the eventual developments as the fight against the virus continues. Certainly, Wall Street is not exactly popular and if the Congress pulls back some of its economic supports as unemployment skyrockets, Wall Street's performance will certainly come in for its share of scrutiny. This will likely be both controversial and prolonged and should be watched closely by producers as it proceeds, Washington Insider believes.

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