iStock

Despite a steep rally in stock markets, the first quarter was dismal for Wall Street firms -- so bad that Citigroup  (C - Get Report)  dominated rivals even as its trading revenue declined.

In fact, during a period marred by lackluster client activity, the prolonged U.S. government shutdown and nagging uncertainties about the trajectory of the global economy, one analyst even described the New York-based bank's trading results as "too strong."  

Citigroup said this week that its total trading revenue in the quarter slipped 5.6% from a year earlier to $4.73 billion, bringing it closer to market leader JPMorgan Chase (JPM - Get Report) , whose revenue from the business fell 12% during the period to $6.12 billion. 

And Goldman Sachs Group (GS - Get Report) , which produced the top trading performance in 2018, said trading revenue tumbled 18% to $3.61 billion, rekindling memories of an abysmal 2017 that precipitated calls for a CEO change.

Trading of stocks, bonds, currencies and commodities is a volatile and tricky business, and Wall Street pros have to navigate markets by catering to client needs while also predicting the direction of prices. But for the giant U.S. banks, which also include Bank of America (BAC - Get Report) and Morgan Stanley (MS - Get Report) , the trading business is a major source of revenue that often represents the biggest and most unpredictable swing factor in each quarter's earnings.

And since the first quarter usually ranks among the busiest of the year for trading, it sometimes sets the tone for the entire year.

Citigroup was the only one of the big U.S. banks to report gains from trading bonds, foreign exchange and commodities -- with a revenue increase of 0.8%. 

The bank's chief financial officer, Mark Mason, attributed the relative outperformance to a "normalization" of government- and corporate-bond markets following a tumultuous fourth quarter, with "strong client activity." There were also "hedging deals on the back of" a wave of corporate debt offerings, he said, along with increased revenue from structured-note sales in the bank's European operations.

"We also had a strong quarter in commodities," particularly in Europe, Mason said. 

The strength in those areas was offset by weakness in foreign exchange, he said.

Citigroup's stock-trading revenue tumbled 24%, worse than rivals, but that business is smaller for the bank compared with its bond-trading operations, so the overall impact was muted.   

Indeed, the bond-trading results were so impressive, at least compared with the rest of Wall Street, that HSBC analyst Al Alevizakos told Citigroup executives on a conference call this week he was "surprised" because the performance was "too strong." 

Bank of America (BAC - Get Report)  reported a 17% tumble in trading revenue to $3.46 billion, the least among the big U.S. banks. Morgan Stanley said Wednesday that its revenue from the business tumbled 15% to $3.74 billion.

The comparisons with the first quarter of 2018 were tough for all of the Wall Street firms, since that period was so strong: Following President Donald Trump's late-2017 tax cuts, clients scrambled to reorient trading positions and investment portfolios, leading to a flurry of trades. 

The factor may have impacted Goldman the most, since the New York-based bank had posted such outsize gains in the year-earlier period.     

Goldman Sachs said fixed-income trading revenue in the first quarter fell by 11% from a year earlier, roughly on par with the group average. But its stock-trading revenue tumbled by 24%, worse than the average decline of 21%.

Revenue from handling stock trades on behalf of clients "fell significantly relative to a robust first quarter of 2018," Goldman Sachs CFO Stephen Scherr told analysts on an April 15 conference call. 

The bank's trading division also suffered from "lower market volatility" that crimped revenue from equity derivatives, as well as from "lower client activity" on the fixed-income desk, with decreasing revenue from government bonds, forcing exchange and corporate bonds.

"Commodities and mortgages improved," he said.

At least there's that. 

Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells the stocks? Learn more now.