Jane Street, DRW Traders Made Billions as Virus Hit Markets

Proprietary trading shops are notoriously secretive, so when markets went topsy-turvy in 2020, it was almost impossible to know how successful many firms were. It turns out: Very.

Financial results from some of the niche’s key players are quietly making the rounds on Wall Street as the companies seek loans to fund their operations. They show extraordinary gains amid last year’s pandemic turmoil.

Jane Street Group LLC is among them. The major player in bond exchange-traded funds saw revenue jump 54% to $10.6 billion during the year ended in March 2021, while Ebitda, an earnings measure important in loans, surged 59% to $7.8 billion, according to lenders who’ve been briefed on the New York-based company’s financials.

Those are smaller numbers than those at the largest Wall Street banks, but not that far behind. That makes Jane Street one of the most dominant forces in all of trading.

At futures, options and cryptocurrencies trader DRW Holdings LLC, revenue and Ebitda surged in 2020 by 50% and 67%, respectively, to about $1.5 billion and $750 million, people familiar with the matter said.

Jane Street and DRW didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Jane Street, DRW Traders Made Billions as Virus Hit Markets

This adds to evidence that pandemic-induced volatility was a boon to traders across a broad range of assets, building on public comments from big Wall Street banks. In reports, credit raters have lauded the pandemic performance of certain prop traders such as Jane Street, without specifying figures. Earlier this year, preliminary results from Citadel Securities also trickled out because it was seeking a loan, showing preliminary earnings of $4.1 billion in 2020 on revenue of $6.7 billion, more than doubling its 2019 results.

“Prop firms did great in 2020 and likely will in early 2021, just because of all the flow,” said Paul Rowady, director of research for Alphacution Research Conservatory LLC, a market-structure research and advisory company. “Even if in terms of trading strategies, they’re very different firms.”

Bond trading went wild in 2020 as Covid-19 caused convulsions in the economy and financial markets, prompting an unprecedented Federal Reserve response. The mayhem created a big opportunity for firms with experience in hard-to-price bonds, including Jane Street, which is broadly active in ETFs but especially so in ones holding bonds. Those funds, which track the results of corporate and government-issued debt but trade on stock exchanges, proved to be a lucrative niche.

Jane Street was in good company in seizing this opportunity: major banks saw fixed-income trading revenue leap early last year. In the second quarter of 2020, for instance, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. reported its highest level of fixed-income trading revenue in nine years.

Founded in 2000, Jane Street transacts on exchanges in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and trades directly with big institutions. It’s one of a select group of firms that can create new shares of ETFs, working with the companies that issue them.

“They’re one of the best at determining and helping to provide liquidity for fixed-income ETFs around the world,” said Larry Tabb, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “They have a good idea of how to value fairly illiquid products.”

Jane Street was started by a group of alums from another secretive trading firm, Susquehanna International Group. Today, around 1,000 people work at Jane Street, according to LinkedIn, meaning the firm’s 2020 earnings were almost $8 million per employee. While all trading firms use advanced algorithms and financial modeling to compete, Jane Street’s technology is viewed as some of the finest in its industry.

“They are innovative, they’re light, they’re one of the fiercest competitors,” said Rowady.

Chicago-based DRW, on the other hand, is among the largest players in derivatives markets like interest rates and equities. Its founder, Don Wilson, started his career in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange’s eurodollar trading pits before founding his eponymous firm in 1992. Wilson owns between 25% and 50% of the firm, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

DRW now counts more than 1,100 employees with offices in London, Amsterdam and Austin, Texas, and has expanded beyond trading into real estate and venture capital.

DRW was also an early entrant to the cryptocurrency space, setting up a division to focus on the asset class in 2014. Bitcoin prices more than quadrupled last year, driven by a surge in retail interest and increased institutional acceptance. Jane Street is also active in cryptocurrency markets.

In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year, Wilson said that rather than retreating as volatility increased, DRW had increased its market share in products like Treasury futures.

Moody’s analyst Fadi Massih said that while last year created more money-making opportunities for DRW and Jane Street, there was potential for things to go wrong for them in the volatile conditions.

“2020 was a key stress test, and these companies weathered the storm very well,” he said.

There’s doubt over whether trading firms can sustain the stunning results. On Monday, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon predicted a 38% decline in his firm’s trading revenue from a year ago, saying fixed-income and equities trading would be “more normal.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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