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Investment Banking Exodus

23 September 2008 10,398 views 2 Comments

Even the mighty are falling. The last two major independent investment banks on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS), have received permission from the Federal Reserve to convert from traditional investment banks into commercial banks or bank holding companies. Plenty of ink, digital or otherwise, has been spilled about the disappearance of investment banks so I won’t dwell much on that. We’ve seen the collapse of Lehman Brothers (LEH) and Bear Stearns. Still somehow, I’m sure there were some who sentimentally held out hope that the two shiniest of white shoe firms in investment banking would survive relatively unchanged. Disappointingly, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley will now join the ranks of Bank of America (BAC) and Wachovia (WB) as large commercial money center banks serving the retail masses.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the investment banking businesses of Goldman and Morgan. Other commercial money center banks like Bank of America and Citigroup (C) have been able to operate smaller investment banking divisions within the corporate umbrella. While the market is caught up in short-term financial myopia (worthwhile because some fear a total meltdown), I’m more interested in the long term strategic implications.

Survival – It is clear that the decision to convert to a commercial bank was spurred in part by a need to raise capital and survive. Becoming commercial banks allows Goldman and Morgan to tap the emergency funds that the Fed has made available. Goldman has also reached an agreement to secure private funding as well from Warren Buffett, the head honcho at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A). Morgan has agreed to sell a piece of itself to Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MTU), in a move reminiscent of the Japanese shopping spree of the 1980s. In the panicked rush to shore up our faltering financial system and institutions, have we given enough thought to these combinations and their future implications?

Initial Public Offerings – Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley consistently topped the league tables as the best bulge bracket firms with the power and reach to handle large IPOs. No one is thinking of going public in this market environment but there will come a time when all is right again and innovative businesses will want to go public. Who will be there to sell the hype and coordinate the logistics?

Pure Investment Banks – Will there be a changing of the guard? The investment banking divisions within commercial bank holding companies have never been able to win more business than the Goldmans and Morgans and Lehmans that focused deeply on investment banking and merchant banking. Is it reasonable to assume that Goldman and Morgan will maintain their dominance of investment banking while converting into commercial banks? I think there is merit in the focus of pure investment banking. It will be interesting to watch if other players like Jefferies Group (JEF), Greenhill & Company (GHL), and Stifel Financial (SF) can aggressively move to fill the void. I think these stocks will perform well over the long term as they jockey to become the next white shoe firm (so long as they haven’t gotten involved with all the toxic financial instruments floating out there).

Talent Exodus – Look to the Yahoo! (YHOO) saga to see that Talent (with a capital T) goes where the opportunity is best and where it can operate with the least restraint. Goldman and Morgan will see their cream of the crop flee to hedge funds or the remaining smaller, albeit pure play, investment banks to ply their trade. Goldman’s proprietary traders generated a majority of the firm’s profits so I expect those guys will find happy homes at hedge funds. Why would any truly good trader want to be a part of Goldman Sachs now? On the other hand, I’ve rarely seen a guy from the sell side of investment banking be able to withstand the ruthless performance pressures of the buy side though so I expect there will be a ton of unemployed investment bankers. My how MBA programs will be flooded with applications. Brush up on those GMATs cause you’re going to be competing against a horde of former ibankers. Why would any truly good trader want to be a part of Goldman Sachs now?

There is a lot of knee-jerk anger and many hyperventilating voices calling for change and placing blame on government, government officials, greedy business executives, mindless consumers, etc. I’m over that already, in fact, I’ve never been there in the first place. I’m only interested in profiting from what the future will bring and what we can learn from history. In that light, let me end by quoting one of the great Founding Fathers.

“All human situations have their inconveniences. We feel those of the present but neither see nor feel those of the future; and hence we often make troublesome changes without amendment, and frequently for the worse.” – Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

Benjamin Franklin

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  • Nathan Lee said:

    Investing is my way of earning money both online and offiline, right now i am into venture capital.”.

  • Andre said:

    Its hard to imagine how investment banks have gone from economic powerhouse to being transformed into commercial banks. Maybe if they didn’t abuse the system so much they would be able to remain “traditional” IB banks.

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