They've survived two Great Depressions and now a Great Recession. They've been household names for over 150 years. And no, the name Rothschild does not adorn the top of their letterhead.
The original great depression
Way back in 1873, European political leadership began forming new banks to serve the poor and working class. These banks, at the behest of the political leadership, began making increasingly risky loans to borrowers to fund home loans and eventually broader real estate projects. The influx of capital inflated the market, and as you may have guessed, the bubble soon popped. (This doesn't sound too familiar, does it?)
The poisonous loans in Europe sent a ripple through the global economy, causing what economists of the time called the Great Depression, though they changed the name to the Long Depression after the events of 1929-1933.
Economist opinions differ slightly, but most peg this Long Depression as lasting a full 14 years, book-ended by the Panics of 1879 and 1893.
It was just before this time in 1869 that Marcus Goldman first hung up the "Marcus Goldman & Co" sign on his door in New York City. Despite the obvious poor timing to enter the debt brokerage business, Goldman's business thrived. In 1882, Marcus brought his son-in-law, Samuel Sachs, into the business as a partner, forming Goldman Sachs.
J. Pierpont Morgan was a founding member of Drexel, Morgan, and Co in 1871. By 1879, the company had established itself on the national and international banking scene, evidenced by winning the deal to sell the largest block of shares ever sold at the time, offering shares of William Vanderbilt's New York Central Railroad.
Piggy-backing on the boom in American railroads, J. P. Morgan found incredible success throughout the Long Depression, providing funds to household names of the day (and today), like General Electric, U.S. Steel, and International Harvester (today known as Navistar International Corp.
In 1877, again with unfortunate timing, John Thompson established Chase National Bank, naming the institution after Samuel Chase, Secretary of the Treasury under Abraham Lincoln and former Chief Justice of the United States. Like Goldman's and J. P. Morgan's businesses, Chase Bank soared during this period. By 1930, it was the largest bank in the world.
The Great Depression
There is a very good reason historians renamed the Depression of 1879-1893: The Depression of 1929-1933 was significantly worse.
GDP declined 26.7% (compared to just 4.7% during the Great Recession in 2007). Unemployment skyrocketed from 3.14% in 1929 to a hair shy of 25% in 1933. It wasn't until 1941, a full 12 years later, that unemployment fell below 10%. The excesses of the Roaring 20s left the foundation of the national economy in rubble.
On Wall Street, over-leveraging was the primary driver of the sudden and disastrous crash of 1929. A common investment vehicle of the day, closed-end trusts, would pool capital, leverage it upwards of 10 times over, and collude to drive stocks (and profits) higher and higher. It was market manipulation, plain and simple, funded by borrowed money and only a hair of equity.
When the house of cards collapsed, the banking system was left in ruins. The FDIC estimates that 4,000 commercial banks failed in 1933 alone.
For Goldman, the depression proved to be a critical moment in its history. Caught up in the over-leveraged trust scheming of the day, Goldman's trust, the Goldman Sachs Trading Corp, failed in 1929. The fallout nearly sent the company to bankruptcy and tarnished its reputation for years to come.
In 1930, Sidney Weinburg became senior partner at Goldman and began the company's transformation toward its current form. He transitioned the business into investment banking and reduced the reliance on trading. Goldman eventually led the IPO of Ford Motor in 1956, a major victory that put the company on the A-List of Wall Street investment banks.
The predecessors to today's modern JPMorgan Chase took a decidedly different tact than Goldman. These banks were founded first in commercial lending, not securities trading or investment banking. With the passing of the Glass Steagall act in 1933, Chase National and J.P. Morgan Co. complied with the law by spinning off their respective securities businesses. By this time, J.P. Morgan was arguably the most powerful bank in the world.
Fast forward to today
Just five years in the rear view mirror, we are all too familiar with the Great Recession and its impact on the modern banking system. Once again, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase have not only survived, but emerged stronger.
Goldman accepted a capital injection from Warren Buffett, a financially and psychologically motivated move (to be fair, mostly financial). With Buffett's support, the company was able to remain well capitalized and find opportunity in the chaos. The proof is in the pudding.
For the year ended 2012, Goldman reported net income of $7.5 billion on net revenues of $32 billion. Compare that to $5.6 billion net income in 2005 and $9.5 billion net income for 2006. Net revenues were $25 billion and $37.7 billion, respectively, for the same periods. In terms of net income and revenues, Goldman hasn't skipped a beat from pre to post crisis.
The real difference, though, is in terms of assets. At year-end 2006, Goldman reported $838 billion in total assets. This was a solid increase from the $707 billion reported at year-end 2005.
Total assets at year-end 2012 were $939 billion, a 12% increase from 2006.
The contrast at JPMorgan is even more pronounced. In 2006 and 2005, JPMorgan produced net income of $14.4 billion and $8.4 billion on net revenues of $61 billion and $54 billion, respectively. Total assets were $1.4 trillion and $1.2 trillion.
In 2012, the company reported net income of $21.3 billion (48% increase from 2006) on revenues of $97 billion (59% increase over 2006). Total assets were $2.3 trillion, a 64% increase.
The next 200 years?
No one has a crystal ball and no one can claim with certainty what will transpire over the next week, much less the next 200 years. Even so, its impossible to deny the incredible track record of these two banks. They are market leaders, they have solid foundations, and they are producing a ton of profit. Some Fools even think the mega banks may be undervalued.
If you're looking for an investment for the very long term, JPMorgan and Goldman should be on your list of stocks to consider.
Fool contributor Jay Jenkins has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Goldman Sachs. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford, General Electric, and JPMorgan Chase. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.