Goldman Sachs Returns to Classic, Boring Banking (Sort of)

Remember way back when, at the height of the financial crash, when Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) was forced to become a bank-holding company by regulators? In that moment, the swashbuckling titan of investment banks was transformed into a traditional bank, one that could take deposits and, more importantly, access emergency funds from the Federal Reserve.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Goldman has finally embraced that part of its business, and will operate a private bank-within-a-bank to serve its wealthy clients around the world.

Sorry, no toaster giveaways
Just so you don't waste your time trying to open a Goldman Sachs passbook savings account, understand that this new bank is solely for Goldman's wealthiest customers. "It's a private bank. We can afford to do that," CEO Lloyd Blankfein told The Journal, "because we have the contacts and the balance sheet."

Goldman will provide its clients with many of the services associated with traditional banking, like home loans, and loans for boats and cars, but also loans for things like art, something it's safe to venture the average person rarely approaches his or her bank about. Beyond personal loans, Goldman will also make loans to companies, particularly those that have been cut off from lending-shy European banks.

But while Goldman has already begun taking deposits from its wealthy clients, it won't open retail locations or "give away toasters," Blankfein told The Journal.

And then there was one
JPMorgan Chase
(NYSE: JPM  ) lost its pure investment-bank status in 2000, when JPMorgan merged with Chase Manhattan Bank. Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) were never pure investment banks, but have investment-banking units within them. Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) was also forced to become a bank-holding company in the throes of the crash, but could be considered America's final, standalone investment bank, because it's made no big moves yet into traditional banking.

The regulators' reasoning behind that move was sound, if the result somewhat embarrassing for the banks involved. In September 2008, the overnight-lending markets that many banks had come to depend on for solvency had frozen solid: the proximate cause for Lehman Brothers downfall. So, Goldman and Morgan Stanley became bank-holding companies.

This gave them access to the Fed's discount window, which would, theoretically, stop any runs before they could start. It also theoretically meant that the banks were in the same category as traditional deposit-and-lending banks, even though they remained primarily trading and capital markets. But Goldman, to its credit, is cleverly trying to make the most of the change in status.

When you have lemons, make lemonade
"We're a bank," Blankfein told The Journal. "It's not a hypothetical. [We] backed into a big opportunity. We have the regulations. We have the costs. We have the burdens. It is a no-brainer that we'll build our banking business." Which is exactly what Goldman is doing. The new in-house bank already has $49 billion in deposits, an increase of 48% from 2009.

Maybe this is Goldman Sachs' time to shine, to pound the dents out of its battered reputation, and regain its status as Wall Street's go-to bank. Since the crash, that bank has arguably been JPMorgan Chase, which emerged from the crash with its reputation more intact than most, allowing tough-talking CEO Jamie Dimon to be Wall Street's golden boy, bravely looking Congress square in the eye, and reading members the riot act about too much regulation.

But with the London Whale situation still playing out for JPMorgan, and Morgan Stanley recovering from a botched Facebook IPO, this might be Goldman Sachs' opportunity to get back on top. And let's not forget about Dodd-Frank, the country's post-crash attempt at reorganizing the banking system, and Basel III, the rest of the world's attempt to do the same. Put together, American investment banking's once-comfortable, reliably profit-generating world has been turned upside down, and banks are looking for every avenue that  they can to turn a profit.

With an 11% fall in net earnings this quarte , Goldman can use all the car, boat, and art loans it can get. So, keep an eye peeled, and two eyes open, for the return of Goldman. But if the Wall Street banks aren't your cup of investing tea, learn about some delightfully straightforward bank stocks, including one that Warren Buffett could have loved in his earlier years, in our special free report: "The Stocks Only the Smartest Investors Are Buying." Take a minute and download your copy while it's still available


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