Wall Street’s summer may now officially commence

July 16, 2010

By Rob Cox and Richard Beales

Wall Street can now officially start its summer. Goldman Sachs has settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission over fraud charges. The U.S. Senate has passed financial reform legislation. Even hapless BP appears to have finally capped its oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico. All that on Thursday afternoon — rounded out on Friday morning with the first profit increase in nine quarters for economic bellwether General Electric. The financial community can afford to take a breather, and maybe even to party.

True, there are lots of open questions. The U.S. economy, for instance, isn’t out of the woods. GE boss Jeff Immelt said the environment “continues to improve,” but the company’s revenue still declined in the second quarter against a year earlier. And while Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan all beat expectations for their second-quarter earnings, they found the going less easy than in the first three months of the year.

But there are also grounds for bankers to relax. Take Goldman. It’s paying out a record $550 million to settle fraud allegations, admitting nothing except for incomplete disclosure. While investor lawsuits may still arise, it is hard to see Goldman’s agreement with the U.S. securities watchdog as anything but a good outcome for the firm and its rivals. The fine is, after all, a fraction of the amount investors swiped from Goldman’s market value, and the settlement closes an uncomfortable chapter.

Then there’s the sweeping Dodd-Frank financial reform package, which the U.S. president must now sign into law. The new rules will change Wall Street around the edges, and there are still many unknowns. But despite the bleating, the industry can live relatively easily with the changes contained in the bill.

Last but not least, it seems so far that no oil is leaking into the ocean from BP’s Macondo well for the first time since April 20. That doesn’t just help cap the company’s financial liabilities. It also suggests mankind is, however belatedly, capable of overcoming the trickiest challenges that its own bumbling interactions with Mother Nature can produce.

Fold in other affirmations that not everything is as messed up as the Greek economy — decent growth in China, say — and a relatively benign picture emerges with the potential to induce confidence. Greece and even Spain, despite the uplift of its World Cup victory, remain among the contingent worries for world markets. But if the past 24 hours haven’t given financiers reason to breathe easier — and even celebrate — it’s hard to see what will.

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