Mar

17

 I am so removed from Wall Street that this may be an obvious point:

I think it will turn out that Greg Smith did Goldman Sachs a great favor. No amount of purposeful PR could have helped GS so much and turned the tide running against GS so effectively as Smith's pompous, self-serving and unsupported resignation op ed.

Except among the irrational haters of wealth and speculation, Smith's op ed will wind up generating sympathy for GS, and I predict this week will mark the bottom of GS both in reputation and stock price. It will be pretty much all up from here.

The true criticism of GS, of course, would be its corrupt, crony-capitalist relationships with current and prior Presidential Administrations. But that's too subtle and knowledgeable a criticism. Rather the criticism in the popular mind is "greed". Smith's attempt to cloak his resignation in anti-greed will be seen through and will lead to greater acceptance of a beleaguered GS just trying to go about its business of making Wall Street work.

Rocky Humbert writes: 

As a GS alum, I would like to offer a few observations, without directly commenting on Dan's point.

When I left GS as a vice president in 1989, GS was run by Whitehead and Weinberg, successors to the legendary Gus Levy. The firm was a private partnership, and importantly, the investment banking/capital markets side of the company dwarfed the trading side of the company. This is a critical distinction from today. Sure, Bob Rubin's risk arb desk was hugely profitable. Sure, we did some big block trades in equities; but the much higher commissions of that period, and the firm's limited capital, ensured that the focus was on flow and not on principal transactions. By then, Traders were second class citizens versus the hermes-wearing, first-class-flying I-bankers who, at that time, would never ever represent a company in a hostile takeover. Of course there were some guys who pushed the envelope on occasion (I won't name names), but there was a distinct belief that everything flowed from the profitability of the clients. For an analogy of the inherent tensions between Ibanking and trading, revisit the Gluckman/Peterson feud at the ancient Lehman Brothers (pre-Amex deal).

That really was the GS culture back then. Heck, Weinberg drove a crappy Ford sedan because we did the Ford IPO. And few things could get you in trouble faster than talking badly about an important client. It was unthinkable that we would push a client into a security that we thought would turn out badly. We looked down our noses at Bear Stearns and the other bulge bracket firms who were known for that sort of thing. (Aside: I posit that the GS cultural evolution can be gleaned from the type of car the CEO drove.)

The world evolves, and I believe that the evolution of GS into its current form is a reflection of:

1) The end of its being a private partnership — which ensured risk taking with OTHER people's money. I still remember having a particularly bad losing day when Eric Sheinberg walked up to me, whacked me on the head and said with a reassuring smile, "Don't sweat it. It's ONLY money…..and it's MY money."

2) The domination of trading profits versus investment banking revenues. Management realized you can only grow investment banking to a certain size due to its service nature; whereas you can compound capital by investment and trading in a theoretically unlimited way.

3) The growth of trading technology and impersonalization of counterparty relationships. (It's much easier to "screw" someone who you don't know.)

4) The 10 percent rule, where they fire the worst performing 10% of employees every year. Back in the Whitehead/Weinberg day, such a concept would have been unfathomable. It really was a family lifetime employment sort of feel, not dissimilar to GE before Jack Welch and IBM before Lou Gestner.

5) And many other examples that correlate with a 30 year bull market in debt as a pct of GDP.

I am not lamenting here. I am simply saying that Smith is right when he observes that the GS culture has changed.

Too, the world has changed.

And, to be honest, I don't really understand why Smith wrote that piece except as an attempt to be Michael Lewis-esque, but without the chuckle factor.

Jack Tierney writes: 

Notes of interest in the GS "time to buy?" discussion: Goldman's full-year net income hit a record $13.4 billion in 2009, then slipped to $8.4 billion in 2010 before tumbling to $4.4 billion last year. Goldman's share price has plummeted from its 2009 high of $192 to the current quote of $111. During 2009 and 2010, Goldman spent 71% of its net income buying back its stock. But last year, the company spent 264% of net income buying its stock (excluding the repurchase of preferred stock from Warren Buffet, Goldman still spent 140% of its net income buying its own shares last year - double the rate of 2009-10.) Last week, Goldman executives cashed in $20 million worth of stock that had been "locked up" for the last three years. Over the last five years, Goldman's management spent $21 billion of the shareholders' capital buying GS stock in the open market at an average price of $171 a share. Today, the stock sells for $111. On a mark-to-market basis, therefore, Goldman's stock buy-back "investment" has produced a loss of about $7.3 billion for shareholders…. Last week, nine Goldman insiders sold their stock as fast as the law would let them. They cashed out $20 million worth of stock at an average price of $107.44.

Fred Crossman replies: 

Great points, Jack, on buy backs. I noted that American retailers have continually expanded at a much greater rate than the population growth. In addition to declining per store sales and income these retailers have been furiously buying back stock since 2007 to goose earnings. LOW has reduced shares outstanding by 12%, BBY 18%, HD 20%, KSS 11%, WMT, 15% and SHLD 29%. All buybacks above book value (destroying share holder value). Especially HD, now trading at 4.1 times book. 

Bruno Ombreux writes: 

There is a very simple way not to be screwed by GS, or anybody else. I am talking about trading, not corporate finance.

If you are making trades directly with GS, you are presumably a company, not some small private speculator. So you have a tool which is called "Risk management policy" and you make it a sackable offense not to comply with it. In the risk management policy, you list the markets and the instruments people are allowed to trade.

For instance:

- only markets with at least 3 active market makers and x trades/per day
- only vanilla instruments like swaps In addition, you have procedures like "trader must obtain 3 quotes from 3 different counterparties prior to making a trade", and a track record of the consulted counterparties and their quotes must be kept in the trading system, for each trade. In these types of market, you are not trading every 5 minutes, so you have the time to do all this.

There is no way you are getting screwed if you restrict yourself to simple instruments and they have the best bid/ask available among several other market makers.

Rocky Humbert comments: 

Sorry, but I don't understand your distinction between trading and investing. I also don't understand your definition of vanilla. I am however a fan of "rocky road" flavor.

I agree with you that entering trades that you are not sure to be able to exit is risky. But if the market provides you with a sufficient liquidity premium, it's rational and it can be profitable. But only if you do it right of course.

Bruno Ombreux replies: 

Trading vs investing: this could be the beginning of an endless semantic debate.

But let's use a couple of examples:
- trading: I buy a basket of stocks this morning with the intention of reselling before the close
- investing: I build a portfolio of stocks with the intention to keep it a relatively long time, because I think that these stocks value will increase due to whatever reason, growth, value, the economy…

I also like the following classification, which I believe comes from Minsky:
- Profits on the position neither depend on price variation of the asset, nor on cost of carry: I am investing.
- Profits do not depend on price variation, but only on positive carry: I am trading.
- Profit depend on price variation of the asset: I am speculating.

The example and the definition are not equivalent, but they give a rough idea of what trading is and what investing is. The border between both activities can be blurry. But if you invest, you do not need a market. You can buy a bond with the intention of holding it to maturity. If you trade, you need a market to close the trades.

Now, to answer your second question, what is vanilla? Vanilla is anything that is simple, easy to understand and commonly traded. In the energy markets, everybody trades swaps and Asian options. These are vanilla. What is not vanilla would be a double-barrier option on Singapore 180 cst Fuel Oil, settled at the average CAD/EUR exchange rate lagged 3 months vs the Fuel oil averaging period. That is not vanilla, and definitely more simple than many equity derivative deals.

Dylan Distasio comments: 

But if you invest, you do not need a market. You can buy a bond with the intention of holding it to maturity. If you trade, you need a market to close the trades.

I will let those wiser than myself comment on the rest of your analysis, but the above jumps out at me as a poor definition of investing. Holding a bond to maturity may be a valid example of your argument, but there are plenty of people arguably INVESTING in other instruments who need a market to close their positions. A few off the top of my head include real estate, stocks, bonds not held to maturity but still held as investments, commodities including physical ones held in safes or other venues. Of course you need a market to close out most investments! I may be missing something but this seems obvious. If you cannot find someone else to buy or sell your investment at the time of closing the position, you have zero liquidity and for all intents and purposes zero value if you need that liquidity immediately. Without a secondary market, most investments cannot realize their value.


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