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Goldman Shows Bright Future for Banks, If Not for Bankers

Nir Kaissar

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The continuing debate about the future of banking since the 2008 financial crisis has intensified recently on reports that banks are cutting jobs and slashing pay. While the outlook for bankers is precarious, the same can’t be said for the banks.  

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. has featured prominently in the chatter about cutbacks, and not just because of its preeminence among U.S. banks. As Bloomberg News reported on Monday, Goldman’s compensation per employee plummeted 61% from 2007 to 2018 after adjusting for wage growth during the period, the largest decline among 12 big U.S. and European banks Bloomberg analyzed. Apparently, few at Goldman were spared a pay cut. Chief Executive Officer David Solomon was paid $23 million last year, a third of what former CEO Lloyd Blankfein was paid in 2007.

Pay isn’t the only thing declining at Goldman. Reports also surfaced on Monday that Chief Risk Officer Robin Vince is leaving, the latest in a long line of senior departures. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that up to 15% of Goldman's partners may depart in 2019, far higher turnover than normal, even as Goldman named its smallest class of partners in two decades last year.

The problem, according to Odeon Capital analyst Dick Bove, is that the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” — the widespread fear that robots will replace human workers — is already encroaching on trading and investment management, two key divisions at many big banks, including Goldman. Upstart financial firms are leveraging technology to offer those and other services at a lower cost, luring clients from incumbents such as Goldman and pressuring them to lower fees.

Suffice it to say, big banks can’t continue to carry an army of well-paid bankers while tech-savvy competitors undercut their fees. Goldman spent roughly $12.3 billion on compensation and benefits in 2018, more than half of its total operating expenses, and just $1 billion on communications and technology, which is typical of Wall Street banks.

Meanwhile, trading revenue at the five biggest U.S. banks on Wall Street shrank 8% last quarter after declining 14% in the first. In response to its own trading slump, Citigroup Inc. is preparing to cut hundreds of trading jobs this year, and it’s almost certainly not alone. “The rest of Wall Street is thinking the same way,” Jeff Harte, an analyst at Sandler O’Neill, told Bloomberg News in July.

The big banks have little choice but to deploy robots of their own. Goldman bought financial adviser United Capital earlier this year, in part to acquire its digital platform FinLife CX. That followed its acquisition of personal finance app Clarity Money last year, now part of Goldman’s online bank Marcus. Merrill Lynch, once the archetypal high-touch brokerage firm, introduced an online discount broker in 2016 and a robo-adviser soon after. JPMorgan Chase introduced similar services recently.  

The move to automation is obviously bad for rank-and-file bankers, but it’s no better for their bosses because a smaller headcount requires fewer managers. So it makes sense that Goldman is culling its upper ranks. Solomon says that shrinking the number of partners is meant to restore “the aspirational nature of the partnership,” which is probably a gentle reminder that the firm no longer needs many of its nearly 500 partners.     

What’s bad for bankers, however, is likely to be a boon for shareholders. Big banks are transforming into vast technology platforms overseen by a smaller core of executives and business generators. Solomon appears to acknowledge as much by aiming to keep the partner ranks weighted toward rainmakers, according to the Journal, a role that the bots can’t play. The horde of midlevel bankers will undoubtedly be thinned, too, and some of them replaced with lower-paid programmers and engineers. Automation is likely to make banks more profitable, even as fees for their services continue to decline.  

The big banks also have little to fear from upstarts. Technology becomes cheaper and more widely available over time, but brand and distribution is enduring and difficult to attain. That gives Goldman and its peers a considerable edge. Remember NetBank and Bank of Internet USA? They were online banks that threatened to dethrone brick-and-mortar ones during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. But once they demonstrated that online banking was the future, big banks rushed to offer similar services and cornered the market before the newcomers could gain traction. A similar story is unfolding with online trading, lending and money management.

There are signs that the changes underway at financial firms are already paying off. Net income margin, or earnings as a percentage of revenue, for the S&P 500 Financials Index jumped to 17.5% in 2018 from an average of 12.4% from 2009 to 2017. It’s expected to climb to 18% this year, nearly matching the previous high of 18.8% in 2006. Return on capital was the highest on record in 2018 and is expected to grow again this year.

The future of banking may not be bright for bankers, but it’s likely to be more lucrative for banks and their shareholders.   

To contact the author of this story: Nir Kaissar at nkaissar1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Nir Kaissar is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the markets. He is the founder of Unison Advisors, an asset management firm. He has worked as a lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell and a consultant at Ernst & Young.

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