The latest quarterly reports from the big Wall Street banks revealed a startling fact: None of the big four banks had a single day in the quarter in which they lost money trading.
For the 63 straight trading days in Q1, in other words, Goldman Sachs (GS), JP Morgan (JPM), Bank of America (BAC), and Citigroup (C) made money trading for their own accounts.
Trading, of course, is supposed to be a risky business: You win some, you lose some. That's how traders justify their gargantuan bonuses--their jobs are so risky that they deserve to be paid millions for protecting their firms' precious capital. (Of course, the only thing that happens if traders fail to protect that capital is that taxpayers bail out the bank and the traders are paid huge "retention" bonuses to prevent them from leaving to trade somewhere else, but that's a different story).
But these days, trading isn't risky at all. In fact, it's safer than walking down the street.
Because the US government is lending money to the big banks at near-zero interest rates. And the banks are then turning around and lending that money back to the US government at 3%-4% interest rates, making 3%+ on the spread. What's more, the banks are leveraging this trade, borrowing at least $10 for every $1 of equity capital they have, to increase the size of their bets. Which means the banks can turn relatively small amounts of equity into huge profits--by borrowing from the taxpayer and then lending back to the taxpayer.
The government's zero-interest-rate policy, in other words, is the biggest Wall Street subsidy yet. So far, it has done little to increase the supply of credit in the real economy. But it has hosed responsible people who lived within their means and are now earning next-to-nothing on their savings. It has also allowed the big Wall Street banks to print money to offset all the dumb bets that brought the financial system to the brink of collapse two years ago. And it has fattened Wall Street bonus pools to record levels again.