Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Financial Firms Taking More Risks With Their Own Capital / Economist

just read the news from the last days. almost every bigger deal has one investment firm putting own capital to work/at risk (alltel, etc...).

da braucht man sich nur die übernahmemeldungen der letzten tage ansehen. fast jeder größere deal hat zugleich eine kapitalbeteiligung der banken zur folge.

Relentless competition is forcing financial firms to take more risks with their own capital

INVESTMENT bankers would hate to admit it, but traditionally they have borne some resemblance to estate agents, matching buyers and sellers of financial assets instead of houses and land and taking a fee on the transaction. Yet investment banks have recently changed out of all recognition. These days, if they were estate agents they would not only suggest a suitable property to buy and offer to handle the transaction but also propose a loan, come up with sophisticated products to offset the risk of rising rates, provide help with the down-payment, sell you funky insurance products and, if they decided the property was a bargain, even buy it from under your nose.

In short, investment banking has migrated from an agency model towards a principal one. The industry is not just offering its clients a growing array of products to buy and sell; it is making bigger bets with its own capital, too. According to Merrill Lynch, in 2005 one-third of the industry's revenues came from principal trading of debt and equity and only 15% from the commissions business, once the industry's bread and butter....

At the same time private-equity firms and hedge funds have mercilessly fished in Wall Street's talent pool. Some, such as Citadel, a hedge fund, have ventured into market-making in securities, an old Wall Street role. Others have gone for niche markets. Star-studded boutiques such as Greenhill and Perella Weinberg compete with banks in M&A. In trading, margins on cash equities, which used to be Wall Street's signature business, have been hit by electronic platforms and by rules to increase price transparency, such as Regulation National Market System (known as Reg NMS) in America.

The result, according to industry leaders, is growing pressure to explore new sources of profit. “I don't know an industry that is more competitive,” says Lloyd Blankfein, boss of Goldman Sachs. “That is what is driving the innovation cycle.”....

Owners beware
Increasingly the firms are buying their own investment assets too. For years they have been using proprietary trading desks to take positions. Now they have ventured into private equity as well, putting a growing proportion of their capital into long-term, illiquid investments, such as property or companies. ....At Merrill Lynch and Goldman they accounted for about half of the firms' equity capital last year, up from just over a quarter in 2005. That could be alarming if markets dry up and asset values plummet.

thanks to

According to Dominion Bond Rating Service, all five Wall Street firms, Goldman, Merrill, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns, almost doubled their equity capital between 2001 and 2006....

thanks to Kevin Duffy

Shareholders are not entirely sanguine either. Investment banks are mostly measured on their price-to-book value. Unlike the assets of a bank or an industrial company, most of the securities on their balance sheet have a book value that can be calculated daily and can be easily liquidated. That puts a floor under their price. Currently the big Wall Street firms are trading at more than twice their book value, reflecting last year's average returns on equity of about 25%, which is higher than their cost of capital. Their long-run average is 16% (see chart 5). Goldman, with a staggering 33% return on equity last year, has the highest valuation. But with so much more capital now deployed, the banks have to work harder to improve returns.

There is growing uncertainty about future earnings, however, pushing price-earnings multiples close to historic lows. This is partly because investment banking is a cyclical business, which may be peaking. It is also because their earnings are, to put it mildly, opaque. As Mr Hintz (a former chief financial officer of Lehman and treasurer of Morgan Stanley) candidly admits: “We can't be totally confident how they make money trading or how sustainable trading is.”

disclosure: long ubs, short gs

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