Goldman Sachs Led the Dow Higher Today, but is it Engineering a New Crisis?

Christmas comes but once a year, but investors can look forward to four earnings seasons in every 12-month cycle. The third such torrent of quarterly financial reports of 2014 has begun to rev into high gear with good news in tow, pulling the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) and other major American market indices higher. The Dow finished the day at 17,113.54 points for a 0.4% gain, pushing close to a new record (the current all-time high is 17,138 points, set last Wednesday) on a day in which several components moved 2% or more in either direction.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The single largest contributor to the Dow's gain today was Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , which closed with a 2% gain. This uptick wasn't earnings-related; instead, Goldman made news for two separate megadeals today, one involving a partnership with several major institutional investment firms to buy a 20% stake in China Huarong Asset Management for $2 billion, and the other involving the sale of roughly $13.5 billion in "total return swap" derivatives.

China Huarong is the largest manager of nonperforming loans in China, and its profits have swelled recently as a number of Chinese loans turn sour. Total return swaps are, according to the Financial Times report on the deal, a type of derivative that offers exposure to various forms of securities at a lower cost than would be required to own such securities directly.

Taken together, these two deals present a somewhat concerning picture of swelling levels of bad debt in a once-hot sector of the global economy, combined with jacked-up leverage ratios across the board. Keen market watchers will remember that similar factors emerged in the run-up to the last financial crisis, so this type of movement from a company that was at the heart of that fiasco should merit heightened vigilance.

Goldman's high share price helped it counteract the roughly 3% drops of Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) and Travelers (NYSE: TRV  ) , which were the Dow's worst performers today. The two companies sank on weak earnings and other negative news, but IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) kept the Dow firmly in the green with a narrow beat of underwhelming analyst expectations for its second quarter. Big Blue's ongoing cost-cutting efforts have been the only way that it has managed to surpass earnings-per-share estimates, as quarterly revenue fell year over year. Management continues to be more optimistic about full-year earnings than Wall Street, but IBM has had great success at trimming the fat to bolster the bottom line since CEO Ginni Rometty took over in 2011. You can find more information on these moves by clicking on the links in this paragraph.

Elsewhere on the markets, superinvestor Bill Ackman's long-running crusade against Herbalife (NYSE: HLF  ) appears to have been turned aside today. Ackman, whose Pershing Square Capital Management has invested a truly stunning $50 million on investigational efforts to back up its mammoth short bet against Herbalife, conducted a presentation that he promised would deliver a "death blow" to the multilevel marketing company. Instead, it looked more like a love tap, as Herbalife shares soared 25% by the end of the day after investors laughed off the threat. Ackman has a purported 25.7 million shares in put options expiring next January, but his efforts at market manipulation (it's difficult to call a $50 million smear campaign anything else, regardless of what you might believe about Herbalife's unorthodox business model) have failed miserably -- since the start of December 2012, which is when the crusade began, Herbalife's shares have gained nearly 50%. As it stands, this looks like a ruinous investment, and Ackman has become something of a laughingstock on Wall Street.

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