If you want to know what's going to happen to the big banks and investment banks, you've got to go back to early 2003, when the seeds of destruction were planted.
It had been a year or so since a couple of trillion dollars of investor wealth had been wiped out. The Dow was 8000 and dropping, and the stocks of big institutions from Citi to Merrill Lynch to Morgan Stanley were at multiyear lows. Bank lending was down, but no one was really worried. The old "borrow short, lend long and pocket the difference" game had been around for millennia, and banks had weathered worse than this mild economic slowdown.
What was not at all clear was how investment banks were going to make money going forward. Wall Street had piles of capital and no place to go. Stock trading and large parts of bond trading had gone electronic. Decimalization of the stock market wiped out markups. IPOs were down, mergers were down and, gasp, bonuses were way down.
Stocks were out and investors wanted yield -- safe, predictable returns -- but there wasn't much profit in that. Some, especially hedge funds and international investors, insisted on even higher yields than plain old government bonds.
So Wall Street, as it always does, gave investors what they wanted -- excess yield in the form of derivatives, asset-backed, mortgage-backed, collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), basically funky amalgamations of lots of other pieces of paper. Done right, no one but you knew how to value these exotic instruments, so you could mark them up way more than a penny and generate huge fees, profits and bonuses. Win-win.
Low interest rates from the Federal Reserve and a rising housing market meant the subprime flavors of these CDOs took off like wildfire. Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns and everyone else raced to package up these CDOs with pretty bows and sell them off as high rated goodness to those hungry for yield.
Banks loved it because they could sell off loans, generate fees and go make some more. It wasn't enough. Billion-dollar hedge funds popped up overnight to buy these things, with leverage on leverage to generate even higher returns. Savings & Loan banks were long gone, so by 2006, armies of mortgage brokers, many just online, answered the call to feed the beast with loans.
Until it went on for too long. By 2006, it was a one-way trade. Banks, especially Citigroup and State Street, couldn't resist the sweet siren's call, especially with "borrow short, lend long" in their DNA. Off balance sheet, they set up conduits, so-called SIVs, to use leverage and buy up lots of these subprime CDOs -- $100 billion worth for Citi -- breaking Wall Street's unwritten "sausage" rule that you sell this stuff to clients, but never own it yourself.
Wall Street's unwritten "sausage" rule is that you sell this stuff to clients, but never own it yourself.
SIVs were mostly invisible yet huge money makers, which makes me question how much money the plain old bank was making. Not much, it turns out. And in the end, neither did these SIVs. Others like Merrill Lynch and UBS got caught with inventory of these CDOs, having packaged them but not able to sell them off fast enough. Goldman Sachs smelled spoiled meat and shorted enough of the market to minimize the hit to their capital structure.
When the inevitable blowup came, most holding the toxic sausage required new capital from a government bailout to survive. No not from the Fed, but from the governments of China, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and New Jersey. Without their cash, Citi and Merrill stocks would halve again.
But that's old news. What about going forward? First, no one, and I mean no one, is going to buy a package of loans without knowing what each and every one of them is, what the risk of default is, etc. Rating agencies can no longer be trusted. The good news is that the same computer technology used to create CDOs can easily be extended to offer this needed transparency, loan by loan. But the bad news for investment banks: The packaging game just won't be as profitable.
So who has the strong hand? As always, it's a capital game, whoever accumulates the most will be best positioned for what's next.
Banks? Sure, they're slow and steady, but lending is dull, not that profitable, as we have seen, so growth is limited. While Citigroup fiddles, JP Morgan is the model, as one of the few big banks to not load up on CDOs to enhance earnings. Instead, it has been quietly accumulating billions in hedge fund assets.
Investment banks? Balance sheets are now mostly cleaned up, but outside of Goldman Sachs, management teams are under scrutiny to see who can come up with the right business model away from CDOs. It won't be until that model becomes clear that their stocks can go up enough to raise serious capital to compete. Not all will.
How about hedge funds or private equity? Lots of money will be made buying distressed debt at the bottom of this cycle, but most of it by firms that are small partnerships on a relative basis, and I don't see them gearing up huge sales forces to become big players. But that can be fixed.
My view is that firms that successfully combine banking and investment banking will walk away with the prize, by being able to offer a full range of services to clients -- short-term loans against assets or receivables as well as bonds and equity for long-term projects, the kind of underwriting and trading that requires large amounts of capital. The inevitable consolidation that should have occurred after Glass-Steagall (the 1933 law that separated banks and investment banks) was repealed in 1999 had been on hold while everyone chased easy profits. But now the shakeout is here.
Goldman Sachs will own a bank, maybe even Citigroup (Goldman's $85 billion market capitalization might be able to swallow Citi's $125 billion value) and strip it down to what it needs. JP Morgan should reunite the House of Morgan by merging with Morgan Stanley, and become a full-service powerhouse. But JP Morgan could buy Merrill or Lehman or Bear Stearns instead. Bank of America will merge with who's left. But don't count out others who have done well with capital. Fortress Investment Group, despite a rocky IPO a year ago, has a powerful real estate arm that could own loan origination and servicing and enough assets to buy its way into the banking or investment banking business. Same for the Blackstone Group.
Capital flows a lot more fluidly around the globe these days. Expect consolidation to start now. The real winners on Wall Street will be the ones with huge stockpiles of capital who listen to the market, and who are fleet of foot enough to smell out and deploy their capital creating instruments that global growth companies need, rather than false profits from eating their own sausage.
The Big Five?: Goldman CitiSachs, House of Morgan, Bear of America, Fortress Lehman Lynch and Blackstone Suisse.