Are the Big Banks Too Opaque to Invest In?

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misstated the assets of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. The Fool regrets the error.

Opaque or not opaque, that is the question. At least that's how JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM  ) CEO Jamie Dimon and hotshot hedge-fund investor Paul Singer of Elliot Capital Management see it at the World Economic Forum, currently taking place in Davos, Switzerland.

Singer called the big banks' financial disclosures "too big, too leveraged, [and] too opaque," to which an energetic Dimon retorted: "Our 10K (S.E.C. filing) is 400 pages long. What would you like to know?"

You really expect me to read that?
As far as debates go, that was a great comeback. Very snappy. I like Dimon, and I got a good chuckle out of it. But while it was a real zinger, and great for CNBC sound-bites, it also helped prove Singer's point.

What investor in the world, whether a professional like Singer or someone like you or me -- trying to save money for their kids' education or their own retirement -- has the time to sort through a 400-page S.E.C. filing and learn everything you need to know about a bank like JPMorgan, the biggest bank in the country?

And who has the financial know-how to figure out exactly what's going on in, say, JPMorgan's derivatives book, when the bank itself missed a $100 billion trade that ended up costing more than $6 billion last year, aka, the London Whale? If Jamie Dimon -- still arguably the best risk manager in banking -- and his team didn't see something like that coming, what chance do you or I have?

Big banks that feel like small banks
Dimon also offered another snappy retort to Singer: "With all due respect, hedge funds are pretty opaque too." Yes, that's very true. Good luck trying to get a handle on what the average hedge fund is up to, or exactly what's going on with its balance sheet.

But Eliot Capital Management, like most hedge funds, isn't a public company. When you invest your money with a hedge fund, first of all, there had better be a lot of it. Second, the onus is on you as a wealthy, private investor to vett the company you're placing your money with. And since hedge funds are more often than not closely associated with a hot-shot like Singer, chances are what you're really vetting is the personal reputation of one of the principals.

But the rest of us -- with limited time and sans MBAs -- have to rely on the top pages of earnings reports and news coverage to make sure nothing too weird is going on behind the scenes at a bank or any other company. So sure, in the end, big banks are opaque -- at least more so than, say, a Starbucks or a McDonald's, where the business models are extraordinarily straightforward. But some banks are, I believe, if not exactly models of clarity, more straightforward than others for the average investor looking to invest his or her money.

Take Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) . With assets of just under $1 trillion, while it's not exactly a small bank, it's no JPMorgan, either, which has more than $2 trillion in assets. Overall, Goldman is a much more focused and streamlined operation than JPMorgan, Citigroup, or Bank of America. Even though Goldman became a bank holding company to help it survive the financial crash, it never strayed very far from its core competencies and has stayed focused on serving wealthy clients one way or another -- something a killer fourth-quarter demonstrates it's still very good at.

A little time and patience can go a long way
That said, I'm currently invested in both Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, in large part because I think they have the best CEOs in banking.

Leadership matters, and makes me feel a little less concerned about potential skeletons in the closet, because I know that -- ultimately -- someone at the top will be on top of things. Both Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are the best at what they do; as some proof, both of their banks have done tremendously well since the financial crash, while others are still struggling to find their paths forward in a post-Dodd-Frank world.

Investing in banks requires a little more digging than the average consumer goods company, and -- for me -- perhaps a little more faith in the leadership. You may have other methods you personally rely on. And maybe there are some people out there who can and will dig through 400-page SEC filings to ferret out any possible issues all on their own. More power to them. Dimon may be onto something there with his snappy retort.

But in the end, whether they're smaller big banks or bigger big banks, I feel the big banks are great places to invest in: both safe and potentially very profitable. And if you don't believe me, just ask any investor who bought B of A at the beginning of 2012 and hung on until the end -- who no doubt now spends their afternoons counting their money that so magically and beautifully doubled in that time. 

Speaking of big banks, JPMorgan's fourth-quarter earnings are hard to argue with. So while you're in the mood, take a minute and check out a new Motley Fool report on JPMorgan Chase. You'll learn where the key opportunities for the superbank lie, where its core growth will come from, and the potential business risks. You'll also get an analysis of its leadership team. For instant access, click here now.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 5:00 PM, XXF wrote:

    Just a heads up, you're a factor of 1000 off on the assets of GS and JPM.

    Also, my opinion is that if you're a retail investor who doesn't use ETFs and wants to pick his own stocks you really should read AT LEAST a company's 10-K and DEF 14A filings (at least skim them and read the important parts). If you cannot invest the time to do that you shouldn't be purchasing a portion of these companies, an ETF that will give broad market returns with low fees makes more sense.

  • Report this Comment On January 24, 2013, at 11:29 PM, Mega wrote:

    "But the rest of us -- with limited time and sans MBAs -- have to rely on the top pages of earnings reports and news coverage to make sure nothing too weird is going on behind the scenes at a bank or any other company."

    So, opacity is a red herring.

    If you're too lazy to read the financial statements you shouldn't be investing in individual companies.

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