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"Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was... Same as it ever was..."
-- Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
After a financial meltdown that left the global financial system reeling, executives in the banking sector should have taken a page out of the Talking Heads' playbook, and asked themselves questions like "How did I get here?" If they had, perhaps I wouldn't have that darn "same as it ever was" refrain running constantly through my head today.
Before the crash, giants like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) unwisely tried to act like gunslinging financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) , and the ill-fated Lehman Brothers. Veering off the path of more traditional banking cost them -- and all of us taxpayers -- dearly. In contrast, banks such as JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) and Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) proved to have staying power in the crisis because of steadier hands at the wheel.
And while B of A and Citi tried to be Goldman, Morgan, and Lehman, the latter three institutions were busy attempting to transform themselves into highly profitable ticking time bombs of financial risk.
Am I right? Am I wrong?|
It was all in the name of financial innovation, right? Everyone seemed to be running models and coming up with numbers that said they had found ways to improve access to capital for businesses and consumers, while producing massive profits for themselves, at surprisingly low risk. That sounded like a pretty sweet deal.
The extent to which that seeming font of prosperity was a shell game revealed itself in the destruction visited upon the houses of Lehman, Merrill Lynch, AIG (NYSE: AIG ) , Bear Stearns, and quite a few others. That Goldman and Morgan are still standing -- quite proudly, I might add -- only suggests that they were better at following the pea than everyone else.
I'm not saying there's no such thing as financial innovation. Access to capital and credit is important for the economy, so figuring out ways to provide greater access can be a good thing. Heck, even the dreaded packaged products, like mortgage-backed securities, can be useful if handled properly.
Even a good thing can go horribly wrong, though. Last year, Burger King defaced the simple beauty of the hamburger by introducing a $200 monstrosity in London that had white truffles and "organic white wine and shallot-infused mayonnaise in an Iranian saffron and white truffle dusted bun." Utter lunacy, right? We could easily say the same thing about allowing loans to be originated and structured into securities by parties that would accept none of the risk associated with those loans.
Where does that highway go?
To a pretty ugly destination, as it turns out. You'd think that after financial disaster, herculean government efforts to right a sinking ship, and heaps of derision on the folks that caused the mess, something might change. You'd be wrong.
The financial world seems to have learned too few lessons about playing with fire. Sure, specific products like credit default swaps and mortgage-backed securities will drift away (though it wouldn't surprise me if they came back quickly under aliases), but the practice of risking firm capital to try and wallop analysts' earnings estimates remains very much alive and well.
Goldman Sachs' most recent first-quarter results were driven by $5.7 billion in trading and principal investments, which accounted for roughly 60% of the firm's total revenue. Compare that number to the $6.2 billion in trading and principal investment revenue that Goldman put up in mid-2007, before everything got nasty, and you might wonder whether anything at all has changed. In fact, a recent BusinessWeek article noted that Goldman's value-at-risk (the maximum amount it thinks its traders could lose in a day) jumped to a record high in the first quarter.
Alas, Goldman's not alone. It's unclear that Bank of America has really done much of anything to reign in the trading at Merrill Lynch, considering it showed $5.2 billion in trading account profits in the first quarter. That compares to $7.2 billion for both firms combined in mid-2007. And ill-fated Citigroup posted 36% higher income from principal transactions in the first quarter than it did in the June quarter two years ago.
Furthermore, the whole idea that these institutions shouldn't be "too big to fail" is pretty much a joke. At this point, we've seen the crisis and its fallout stack financial firms on top of financial firms. Even though JPMorgan wasn't a major contributor to this meltdown, it's even "too bigger to fail" at this point, having wolfed down the carcasses of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual.
And you may tell yourself, "My God, what have I done?"
I'd like to see the financial system recover just as much as anyone else. Even as things stand today, I don't think investors should completely avoid the sector. But I worry that bankers still haven't addressed the root cause of a world-shaking financial meltdown. It's as if we broke Mom's crystal vase, swept the bits of it under the sofa, and went right back to playing dodgeball in the house.
By the time you're reading this, Goldman Sachs should have already announced earnings, and the market may be cheering on the incomparable savvy with which its managers run the business. Good for them; they really did handle the financial earthquake quite well. But after what we've just been through, I just can't quite shake my concerns for massive companies taking big principal trading risks on primarily borrowed money.
Do you think Lloyd Blankfein or Ken Lewis will listen when they're raking in billions in trading profits? At this point, I guess I can only hope that another psycho-killer episode in the banking sector doesn't ultimately prove me right.
What's your take on the financial sector? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section below.
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