Big banks look at Brexit and see ways to make money

EXIT

When it came to the Brexit vote, Wall Street banks (and traders) assumed the worst. But they may have gotten it wrong.

When it came to the surprise Brexit vote, Wall Street banks (and traders) assumed the worst.

And it looks like most of them were wrong.

After the vote in June rocked markets, it is almost equally surprising to hear top Wall Street executives talk about the impact of the U.K.'s decision to quit the European Union in such rosy terms.

Looking on the bright side, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman said Wednesday that the Brexit vote gave his bank a chance to test out its regulatory preparedness exercises in real time.

"Britain's decision to leave the European Union created uncertainty that is likely to persist for some time as the market grapples with the political and economic paths forward," Gorman said on the bank's earnings call. "We consider this outcome suboptimal but it did provide a live stress scenario."

It also sounds like it gave one Morgan Stanley business a short-term shot in the arm.

Currency trading "was aided by the volatility we saw from Brexit," the bank's CFO, Jonathan Pruzan, said on its earnings call.

At Wells Fargo , some executives are seeing silver linings in other businesses despite the turbulence created by the Brexit.

"Since Brexit and the related decrease in mortgage rates, we've seen refinance activity increase with our retail application volumes up approximately 15 percent to 20 percent in recent weeks and we currently expect origination volume to be somewhat higher in the third quarter compared with the second quarter," John Shrewsberry, Wells' finance chief, said on the bank's earnings call last Friday. He later added, "It's a great time to be a borrower."

For Wells, it's also a great time to be a buyer in the U.K. The bank, which has fewer staffers than most of its Wall Street competitors, bought new space for staffers in London, at what The Wall Street Journal said was a cost of roughly $400 million.

JPMorgan Chase CFO Marianne Lake was a little more realistic about the difficulties that will emerge from the bank's Brexit chapter when she spoke last Thursday with analysts.

"We see this as a political and an economic challenge," rather than a crisis, Lake said, adding it "will unfold slowly" as the bank "continue[s] to work on plans for a full range of outcomes."

Still, even Lake seemed to be taking an optimistic look at how the Brexit will play out: "We would like to believe that we can have our European Union headquarters in London," she said, adding "it's too early to say" for sure.

Citigroup executives had an optimistic outlook for mergers and acquisitions, too, when they spoke with analysts last week. That could be a derivative effect of cash remaining cheap, thanks to the Brexit forcing central bankers to rethink near-term plans to bump up interest rates after markets were shocked by the U.K.'s vote.

"[A]ctually on the heels of Brexit, we saw actually quite good deal flow," CFO John Gerspach said last week on Citi's earnings call. "You saw debt capital markets, you saw equity capital markets, you saw M&A getting executed getting announced. ... We've got an environment in which we can continue to get these things done."

While the Brexit managed to hurt Goldman Sachs ' stock price temporarily, bank executives said on the company's second-quarter earnings call Tuesday morning that client trading volume rose in the immediate wake of the decision. Further, it's not clear when banks will have to take action to comply with anticipated new regulations, despite expectations that companies impacted by European Union rules would have a two-year time horizon to ramp up compliance initiatives.

"[It] looks like this process is going to take a while," Goldman CFO Harvey Schwartz said on the bank's earnings call, addressing analyst questions on Brexit planning. "As it relates to our business ... we're completely committed to our clients in the region."

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