Goldman Sinks a Birdie

OK, I'll admit that scoring Goldman Sachs' (NYSE: GS  ) quarterly report is difficult. Was it actually a birdie? After all, the firm easily topped analysts' earnings expectations. Or was it a bogey? Earnings per share did fall 7% from last year.

Either way, one thing is clear: Goldman is once again showing that it's the Tiger Woods of the investment banking and brokerage industry. Though it may have found itself in a sand trap here and there, the firm's solid, fundamental play has kept it on the fairway more often than not during a tough year. Meanwhile, competitors like Lehman Brothers (NYSE: LEH  ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) , and Merrill Lynch (NYSE: MER  ) have spent an awful lot of time in the rough and have been scoring double-digit bogies. And of course we can’t forget Bear Stearns, which was unceremoniously asked to leave the course altogether.

I could try and stretch this metaphor further, but golf may not actually be the Goldman game. CEO Lloyd Blankfein has a 29.8 handicap, which puts him closer to my league than that of former Merrill chief and quality golfer Stan O'Neal (let alone the aforementioned Mr. Woods). And I couldn’t even find CFO David Viniar listed on the Golf Handicap Information Network. For Goldman, it’s possible that golf is taking a backseat to managing an industry-leading, multibillion-dollar investment bank.

But even without the golf analogies, Goldman's quarter underscored why the firm has the reputation that it does.

Unsurprisingly, though, there were some areas of weakness during the quarter. Though total investment banking revenue was down just 2%, underwriting dropped 13%, driven by lower debt issuances. Equity underwriting was actually up year over year, despite a decidedly sparse IPO market (hat tip there to Intrepid Potash (NYSE: IPI  ) and American Water (NYSE: AWK  ) ). Revenue from the fixed income, currency, and commodities segment (a.k.a. FICC) dropped about $1 billion, or almost 30%, thanks in large part to a $775 million loss on credit origination activities. Of course, that $775 million is pocket change compared to the multibillion-dollar losses that others are reporting.

On the flip side, Goldman's $2.1 billion asset management and securities services business was up 18% from the prior year. A big boost there came from its securities services and prime brokerage business, which -- as The Wall Street Journal pointed out -- may be a sign that the struggles of the rest of the industry are putting more money in Goldman's pocket.

Ready to go out and buy some Goldman shares? Before you do, keep in mind that the dangers haven't changed. We're still counting on the company to accurately mark its assets, especially when it comes to those that don't have an active trading market. Goldman also stepped up its VaR -- value at risk, or the amount that it could lose in one trading day -- nearly 40% from this time last year. And though it brought down its total assets during the quarter, it's still a hugely leveraged company.

The stock also isn't overly cheap. It's currently trading at roughly 2.1 times its tangible book value per share, or 1.9 times total book value. This is well ahead of many of its close competitors and not far out of line with its own historical multiples.

Judging from the ratings on The Motley Fool's CAPS community, though, if you want a broker in your portfolio, Goldman is the place to be. The stock's three-star rating (out of five) is leagues ahead of the one-star ratings slapped on Lehman, Merrill, and UBS (NYSE: UBS  ) . Near the end of last year, CAPS All-Star PI09 rated Goldman's stock an outperformer on the expectation that the firm's quality will lead to good returns over time:

Goldman is the cream of the crop when it comes to I-Banks and their [earnings] show that. With a great company, buying this stock on weakness is really a no brainer. In the short term there may be some pain, but as soon as the credit market events back out, this stock will once again thrive. Buy on weakness, hold for the long term.

Have some thoughts of your own on Goldman? Head on over to CAPS and let the community of more than 110,000 investors know what you think.

Further financial Foolishness:

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. The Fool’s disclosure policy has never once been caught with its pants down. Of course, it doesn't actually wear pants ...


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