Some more bad news (and some good) for banks' FICC traders

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After the latest batch of quarterly results, traders in the major banks' FICC divisions don't need any more reasons to fear for their employment prospects, but here it is.

If the US loses its AAA rating, as is currently being threatened, revenues could slump and redundancies will follow. There is, however, a bright side.

FICC revenues are already on the decline thanks to the eurozone sovereign debt crisis; Goldman Sachs' fell by 53% year-on-year, HSBC has just revealed its credit desk has seen a near 50% decline in revenues and Morgan Stanley was seen as a standout performer after only posting a 10% decline.

After the prolific levels of FICC hiring early last year, these divisions have been singled out as redundancy targets following banks' huge job cut announcements in recent weeks. They could do with a boost.

However, analysts at Bernstein Research suggests a new cloud, at least in the short-term, is the growing speculation that the US is about to lose its AAA rating. Based on previous "significant credit events" in recent times - think WorldCom, Drexel, the Russian Default - fixed income trading revenues could fall by another 21%, it surmises.

If this happens, one of its case study banks - Goldman Sachs - would "reduce staffing on trading floors and shrink overhead to enhance business margins". It's safe to say that Goldman would not be the only bank to take this route.

A US downgrade would be a "never before experienced" challenging environment for investment banks with "rapidly changing rates, a volatile currency market and widening credit spread", says the research.

So, where's the good news? Firstly, it would be relatively short-lived, suggests Berstein, at around 4-5 months. And, when the banks come out of this cycle: "these period of market adjustment are followed by recovery periods when investors re-embrace risk and trading desks book solid revenue growth."

Whether the banks are likely to rapidly expand again, particularly after the post-crisis hiring binge experience, remains to be seen, however.

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