Slumping Goldman Sachs faces questions about its strategy as technological change disrupts the finance industry

Slumping Goldman Sachs faces questions

Long associated with the super rich and powerful, Goldman Sachs has been involved in complex and sometimes controversial transactions and dealings

APF 10 SEP 2017

A slump in Goldman Sachs's long-dominant trading business has sharpened questions about the Wall Street kingpin's strategy as technological change disrupts the finance industry.

"Goldman Sachs has run out of steam," said Richard Bove, analyst at Vertical Research.

"It needs inspiration. It needs new management, new businesses, new activities."

Goldman's travails are something of a surprise given its unparalleled prestige in American finance.

Long associated with the super rich and powerful, Goldman Sachs has been involved in complex and sometimes controversial transactions and dealings.

Its global alumni includes European Central Bank head Mario Draghi and several current White House officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, who is attempting to shepherd a major tax reform bill through Washington.

Gregori Volokhine, president of Meeschaert Capital markets, said the 148-year-old firm "must be reinvented."

Goldman reported an unprecedented 40 percent plunge in revenues for trading in fixed income, commodities and currencies (FICC) in the second quarter, a performance that lagged that of rivals JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley.

FICC has long been a key profit center at Goldman and helped launch the rise of top brass such as chief executive LLoyd Blankfein, president and co-chief operating officer Harvey Schwartz and chief financial officer Martin Chavez.

But since the 2008 financial crisis, the role of trading desks has eroded as powerful automated trading algorithms have gobbled up more transactions and as more investors have embraced exchange traded funds which have lower costs.

And competitors like Morgan Stanley slashed jobs in that business two years ago.

This trend also has been encouraged by tougher regulations on speculative activities, especially the Volcker rule which restricts proprietary trading.

Around 70 percent of volumes on the New York Stock Exchange now are on automated trading systems, Volokhine noted.

Analysts are eager to hear how Goldman plans to right the ship, and Schwartz is scheduled to address investors at a conference next week hosted by rival bank Barclays.

Bove wants the firm to acknowledge that many high-risk transactions that once boosted results are no longer bankable and it sees new opportunities ahead.

"Hopefully," Schwartz will say that Goldman is going to be "doing more trading with Procter & Gamble and less trading with XYZ hedge fund and that this quarter was a lousy one," Bove said.

- Surprise slump -

So far, Goldman Sachs has argued that trading remains a viable business, which will pick up in times of market volatility. The company also said business should be boosted by deregulatory moves by President Donald Trump's administration.

CEO Blankfein has spoken of opportunities to serve as a "full-service" bank, but acknowledged in an interview last month: "We underperformed. We know what we have to do it and we're doing it."

Still, he said, "we have a good reputation for resiliency and adaptation."

Bove said Goldman should shift to more conventional lending, an area it has begun to embrace with the creation of GS Bank, which has savings accounts, and Marcus, an online lending program.

And Goldman should consider acquisitions of smaller lenders.

"The place where financial companies make money is loans," Bove said.


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