Wall Street's vampire squid tamed at last?

Washington's new rules for investment banking threatens the profits and bonuses of Goldman Sachs more than any other firm

By Sean Farrell
Saturday 22 October 2011 08:39

There are a number of reasons why Lloyd Blankfein could have chosen to cancel his planned talk today at Barnard College, a women's liberal arts school in New York City with close links to Columbia University.

Goldman Sachs's chief executive might not have been enthusiastic about giving his "power talk" with an anti-Goldman protest being staged by students at Columbia over the road.

The week-long "School the Squid" event takes its name and spirit from the Rolling Stone article describing Goldman Sachs as a "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity" and coincides with the wider anti-Wall Street campaign taking place near Goldman's lower Manhattan offices.

Then again, Mr Blankfein has plenty of other things on his mind. Goldman's third-quarter results next Tuesday are expected to be the second-worst since the Wall Street powerhouse floated in 1999. The worst was the bank's only post-flotation loss, suffered in the final quarter of 2008 when the financial world came close to meltdown – an event some fear will be repeated soon.

The official reason for Mr Blankfein's sudden withdrawal is that he has to go to a meeting in Washington DC this evening – and there are good reasons for him to be in the US capital.

The long-term headache for the Goldman boss is the threat of regulation to the bank's huge profits and bonuses and one of the biggest potential dangers – the Volcker rule – was unveiled officially yesterday.

Washington was where the rule was announced in January last year when Barack Obama appeared at the White House towering over an elderly man. The octogenarian at the President's side was Paul Volcker, the highly respected former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. Mr Obama announced that, on the recommendation of Mr Volcker, he would introduce a ban on banks trading on their own accounts and restrict their dealings with hedge funds and private-equity firms.

The idea of the rule was to stop banks from taking risks with customers' deposits and instead limit banks' trading to activity on behalf of clients.

The proposal battered the shares of investment banks as well as banks with big trading operations such as Barclays. Investors feared that the game was up for the trading on which investment banks had come to depend.

A Goldman spokesman declined to comment on the Volcker rule or the bank's third-quarter results.

Before the 1990s, investment banks had made most of their money from underwriting securities issued by companies and advising those companies on acquisitions and other deals. Then came the rise of traders such as Mr Blankfein, whose increased contributions to banks' earnings propelled them to dominate their firms.

Dr Peter Hahn, at Cass Business School, said that as the biggest trading banks, such as Goldman, got bigger they had more market information and put this legitimately gleaned information to their own use. "What a good trader does is he sees what's happening in the market and gets there before the rest of the market," he said. "Twenty or so years ago those were small amounts because the partners [who owned investment banks before flotations] were very conservative with their money. Pre-crisis, the big investment banks were looking more like hedge-fund investors."

By taking more risk on their own account, investment banks had vastly increased the potential rewards for their staff. And Goldman, Wall Street's most prestigious firm, was the supreme trader, able to hire the biggest brains, buy the top technology and get the best information.

The bank has already closed two of its trading desks to conform with Volcker and is overhauling its over-the-counter derivatives business, which must be moved to exchanges under the Dodd-Frank Act.

More than a third of Goldman's $4.1bn (£2.6bn) first-half operating profit was made by its investment and lending business, which houses the bank's private equity and hedge-fund investments. The division also contains other assets such as the bank's investment in ICBC, the Chinese bank, which, though hit hard by market falls, is not covered by Volcker.

Brad Hintz, the respected banking analyst at Sanford Bernstein, argued in a note earlier this week that Goldman would be hit by the Volcker rule's bar on "flow trading", which involves firms using information from client trades to take their own positions in expectation of making a profit.

Mr Hintz said Goldman would be the most affected, with Morgan Stanley next in line because they are most dependent on fixed-income trading.

Analysts argue the modern investment-banking model is at risk, including bumper bonuses and thousands of jobs. Goldman has already announced 1,000 job cuts.

The rule's critics argue that it is impossible to draw a clear line between market making as a go-between for buyers and sellers of securities and proprietary trading. If Volcker is applied too strictly it could reduce liquidity, drive business away from the US banks and hit American companies, they argue.

A vast lobbying campaign will now ensue with Goldman, whose Washington contacts are second to none, no doubt at the forefront. The bank has also mapped out a strategy for the new order based on boosting investment management to raise deposits, investing in technology to drive efficiency and expanding in markets such as China and India.

Dr Hahn said: "They have a lot of smart guys. I don't know how the share price will do in the short term but if I had to think about which people had a chance of succeeding I wouldn't bet against them."

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