BUSINESS
03/08/2012 03:41 pm ET

Banks Just Had Their Best Year Since Before Financial Crisis: Study

By almost any measure, 2011 was a rocky year -- high unemployment, volatile markets, rising poverty, protests in the streets. Thankfully, the banks managed to do just fine.

Commercial banks generated more profit in 2011 than in any year since before the financial crisis, according to a recent analysis by American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop. Commercial banks earned $119.5 billion that year, AU journalists found, the most of any year since 2006.

The findings offer a striking counterpoint to the narrative lately offered by the banks themselves -- that rising regulatory pressures, coupled with a slow economy and a general atmosphere of investor caution, pose a grave threat to banks' bottom lines.

This was the reasoning offered by Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan in October, when he estimated that regulations imposed by the Dodd-Frank financial reform act would cost his company billions. On that occasion, Moynihan argued -- in response to public outcry over the five-dollar debit card fee that BofA would later abandon -- that Bank of America had "a right to make a profit."

And indeed, Bank of America did make a profit that year -- $1.4 billion, to be exact. That might be due to the fact that BofA, like many other commercial banks, has continued to deploy low-profile customer fees in an attempt to recoup other revenue streams that have been closed off by consumer-protection measures.

At least part of Wall Street's collective goal last year was to cut down on employees. And cut down they did: More than 200,000 financial sector workers lost their jobs in 2011, as firms made sense of a new and leaner economic landscape.

As the income for commercial banks has risen, so have their political expenditures, suggesting that the financial sector won't be deterred from its campaign against government regulation. Retail banks spent a combined $61.6 million in lobbying fees in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- setting an industry record for the sixth year in a row.

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