A year of lockdowns can’t take the shine off Goldmans Sachs profits

Business

What is $900m to a Wall Street giant like Goldman Sachs? Relatively little, when it counts the drop in profits for a year of record-setting market swings and economic turmoil, all sparked by a pandemic.

The firm should regard itself as lucky to be poised for profits of about $7bn (£5bn) for the whole of 2020. That average analyst forecast, compiled by Refinitiv, is a mere 11% drop from the $7.9bn it made in 2019, a year when the phrase “Covid lockdown” had never been uttered.

The projected decline is smaller than the $2.8bn it put aside to cover a potential jump in defaults within the first nine months of the year alone, a number estimates suggest could rise to $3.1bn for the 12 months to December. Those provisions pale in comparison with those of European peers such as HSBC, which already put by $7.6bn to cover Covid-linked loan losses by the third quarter.

The bank’s results will emerge unscathed from the $2.9bn settlement it reached in October with global regulators and the US Department of Justice, over its alleged role in the 1MDB corruption scandal. The announcement came just months after Goldman agreed to pay $3.9bn to the Malaysian government, amid claims it allegedly turned a blind eye while $4.5bn was looted from the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

Goldman bosses, including chairman and chief executive David Solomon, will feel the pinch of a $31m cut to their combined 2020 pay over the scandal, but hefty provisions previously put aside for the 1MDB case will largely cover the settlements.

All this means Goldman’s full-year earnings – released on Tuesday – will make headlines for less scandalous reasons. For one, its fledgling consumer bank, Marcus, has made further headway as customers lucky enough to keep their jobs or benefit from government Covid support programmes spent less and saved more during lockdowns.

Marcus savings accounts were in such high demand in the UK – thanks to a pocket of cash-rich and interest-hungry savers – that in July it was forced to close to new British accounts to avoid breaching regulatory limits.

But the 150-year-old lender’s bread-and-butter services will have proved its saving grace in 2020. The asset management business, fixed income division, and investment bank – which earns fees for advising clients on deals and corporate fundraising – produced a near doubling of third-quarter profit to $3.6bn.

Those divisions have benefited from a recovery in merger and acquisition activity, which stalled at the start of the pandemic, and from US stock markets hitting fresh record highs in the latter half of 2020. It has given Credit Suisse a reason to be bullish on Goldman’s earnings, with that bank’s own analysts recently upgrading profit forecasts to $7.4bn.

If JP Morgan’s results last Friday are any indication, the market rebound could also help Goldman beat forecasts. Its Wall Street rival reported a 42% jump in profits to $12.1bn for the fourth quarter, leaving full-year profits down 20% at $29bn.

A strong performance could raise pay for Goldman traders, who are reportedly set to see 2020 bonuses rise 20% compared with 2019.