Monday, September 22, 2008

New era on Wall Street

September 23, 2008
Starting a New Era at Goldman and Morgan

The transformation of Wall Street picked up pace on Monday as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, the last big independent investment banks, moved to restructure into larger, less risk-taking organizations that will be subject to far greater regulation by the Federal Reserve.

The changes came after Goldman and Morgan Stanley on Sunday night received permission from the Federal Reserve to become bank holding companies. The change means they will be able finance their activities with insured deposits but in return must reduce the amount they can borrow to make the kind of big trading bets that drove huge profits, and massive bonuses for executives, over the last several years of Wall Street’s latest Gilded Age.

Morgan Stanley moved quickly into the new era on Monday, announcing that it planned to sell up to a 20 percent stake in itself to Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Japan’s largest commercial bank, for about $8 billion. Mitsubishi has $1.1 trillion in bank deposits, which will help bolster Morgan’s stability of financing. Goldman Sachs is also expected to move to increase its deposit base and add more capital to its balance sheet.

The changes by Morgan Stanley and Goldman essentially bring to an end the era of the big, independent Wall Street investment bank and a return to the model that dominated before the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 forbade commercial banks from also owning securities firms.
Both banks said they requested the change in their status. But the changes also closely follow comments from executives at both investment houses saying their business model was not broken and that transforming into deposit-funded commercial banks would not necessarily help them perform better. This raised the question of whether the change was really voluntary, which both banks insist it was, or was mandated by a Federal Reserve eager not to have to come to the rescue of another flailing financial institution.

The changes, which came as Congress and the Bush administration rushed to pass a $700 billion rescue of financial firms, amount to a blunt acknowledgment that their model of finance and investing had become too risky and that they needed the cushion of bank deposits that had kept big commercial banks like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase relatively safe amid the recent turmoil.

It also is a turning point for the high-rolling culture of Wall Street, with its seven-figure bonuses and lavish perks for even midlevel executives.

Commercial banks tend to produce both more modest profits and payouts to top executives.
“The kind of bonuses you saw on Wall Street over the last five years are not something you are likely to ever see again, not in our lifetime,” said Charles Geisst, a Wall Street historian and professor at Manhattan College.

By becoming bank holding companies, Morgan Stanley and Goldman are agreeing to significantly tighter regulations and much closer supervision by bank examiners from several government agencies rather than only the Securities and Exchange Commission. Now, the firms will look more like commercial banks, with more disclosure, higher capital reserves and less risk-taking.
For decades, firms like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs thrived by taking bold bets with their own money, often using enormous amounts of debt to increase their profits, with little outside oversight.

They were the envy of Wall Street, dominating the industry’s most lucrative businesses, landing headline-grabbing deals and advising companies and governments on mergers, stock offerings and restructurings.

But that brash model was torn apart over the last several weeks as investors lost confidence in the way they made those bets during the recent credit boom, when investment banks expanded with aplomb into esoteric securities, the risks of which were not easily understood.

Over several harrowing days, clients started pulling their money, share prices plunged and these banks’ entire enterprises were brought to the brink.

In exchange for subjecting themselves to more regulation, the companies will have access to the full array of the Federal Reserve’s lending facilities.

It should help them avoid the fate of Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy last week, and Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch — both of which agreed to be acquired by big bank holding companies.

The decision by the banks to become a holding company also raises questions about whether the Federal Reserve will seek to regulate hedge funds, many of the largest of which closely resemble investment banks like Goldman.

Just a year ago investment banks, the titans of global finance, considered bank regulation a millstone to be avoided at all costs. Commercial banks have to subject themselves to restrictions on how much money they can borrow and what kinds of businesses they can be in. Lobbyists for firms like Goldman spent years fending off closer supervision of their business.
As bank holding companies, the two banks, whose shares have lost about half their value this year, will have to reduce the amount of money they can borrow relative to their capital.
That will make them more financially sound but will also significantly limit their profits. Today, both Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley have $1 of capital for every $22 of assets. By contrast, Bank of America’s has less than $11 for every $1 of capital.

JPMorgan Chase acquired Bear Stearns this spring in a fire sale brokered by the federal government, while Bank of America has agreed to buy Merrill Lynch for $50 billion.
As bank holding companies, Morgan and Goldman will have greater access to the discount window of the Federal Reserve, which banks can use to borrow money from the central bank. While they were allowed to draw on temporary Fed lending facilities in recent months, they could not borrow against the same wide array of collateral that commercial banks could. The discount window access for investment banks is expected to be phased out in January.

It will take time for Goldman and Morgan to transform into fully regulated banks because they cannot quickly reduce how much money they borrow relative to their assets. Both banks are likely to seek waivers from the Federal Reserve to give them time to comply with the capital requirements imposed on deposit-funded commercial banks.

The Fed and the Securities and Exchange Commission have had examiners at investment banks since March, giving regulators huge insight into their operations.

Both banks already have limited retail deposit-taking businesses, which they plan to expand over time. Morgan Stanley had $36 billion in retail deposits as of Aug. 31 and Goldman Sachs had $20 billion in deposits.

“We believe that Goldman Sachs, under Federal Reserve supervision, will be regarded as an even more secure institution with an exceptionally clean balance sheet and a greater diversity of funding sources,” Lloyd C.Blankfein, the chairman and chief executive of Goldman, said in a statement on Sunday night.

John J. Mack, the chairman and chief executive of Morgan Stanley, said: “This new bank holding structure will ensure that Morgan Stanley is in the strongest possible position — with the stability and flexibility to seize opportunities in the rapidly changing financial marketplace.”

In recent days, Morgan Stanley had sought other ways to bolster its capital and had been in advanced talks with China’s sovereign wealth fund and others about raising billions of dollars, people briefed on the matter said Sunday night. It had also been talking about a merger with Wachovia, a large commercial bank based in Charlotte, N.C.

With their transition to operating as bank holding companies, those talks are likely to take a different form, because now Morgan Stanley can buy a commercial bank.

How the mighty have fallen. This ends the era of Investment Banks and 30:1 leverage and brings us into a European model with a merging of deposit and investment banking where fractal banking ratios allow leverage of about 9:1. I still feel thats very high but its "manageable." About time.