Why should the fate of a bank in one of the tiniest American states be of any concern to the global banking sector? After all, Delaware is hardly the place to look for broader trends. But the manner in which one of the state’s banks, Wilmington Trust, was forced to sell to rival M&T for a song could end up haunting the entire industry.
Wilmington didn’t look shockingly spooky initially. The bank has been struggling for a while, losing money each quarter since the first half of last year. And in early October it became clear chief executive Donald Foley, who only took over in June, was looking to raise more capital. That left the bank looking like any number of regional institutions, including more than 600 that took money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, that were still struggling with the after-effects of the real estate crash.
Bruce Wasserstein left behind a healthy Lazard. During his nearly decade-long reign, he whipped into shape a firm that had been mired in internecine warfare. When Wasserstein died unexpectedly a year ago, there were fears in some corners his hard work might unravel and Lazard would revert to its bad habits. The shares tumbled in the days following the news. But as the third full quarter of results under new boss Ken Jacobs shows, these concerns have so far proven unfounded.
There’s no apparent sign of vicious infighting or a mass exodus. And revenue for the first nine months of the year in its mergers sweet spot jumped 28 percent from the same period last year, twice the increase in overall global deal volume. That virtually offset the inevitable decline in revenue from its restructuring business as corporate defaults began to decline.
James Gorman took a bop on the nose in the third quarter. While his peers have largely beat estimates by analysts, Morgan Stanley’s chief executive presided over results that not only missed the target but racked up an unexpected $91 million loss—and had to lean on investment gains and a tax break to fend off an even worse showing. After a decent first half of the year, the setback is disappointing.
The surprising writedown on an Atlantic City casino project pushed the firm into the red. Morgan Stanley already had taken what appeared to be a full hit on the Revel investment when deciding to offload its stake early this year. But it has yet to find a buyer at the price initially marked on the books.
What should Goldman Sachs do with its excess capital? According to David Viniar, the finance chief, the Wall Street firm already appears to have more than enough to surpass the minimum 7 percent Tier 1 common equity ratio that will be required under Basel III, and may have as much as 11 percent by the end of 2011.
That is stoking speculation that Goldman could increase its common stock dividend, buy back shares or go on a spending spree. But the first thing executives should do is retire the $5 billion of cumulative perpetual preferred stock that Warren Buffett bought two years ago.
Goldman Sachs is coming down to earth with a bit of a bump. Sure, the Wall Street giant’s third-quarter earnings of $1.9 billion handily beat analysts’ expectations. That’s good news in any quarter, and especially after talk of a summer slowdown. But Goldman’s results usually lead the pack. Not this time.
Take the firm’s market-leading franchise in fixed income, currency and commodities trading, where revenue fell 14 percent from the second quarter, or around 10 percent once accounting for losses taken marking up the value of its own debt.
Vikram Pandit has snatched some of Jamie Dimon’s market mojo. The JPMorgan boss has been setting a smooth tone for earnings season of late. But growing foreclosure fears overshadowed the bank’s latest set of decent results. Now Pandit, his counterpart at Citigroup, seems to be the one reassuring investors.
That might not make immediate sense. After all, it’s not as if Citi’s third quarter was a blow-out performance. Its $2.2 billion of earnings equates to an annualized return on equity of just 5.4 percent, below what the bank reported in the previous two quarters and virtually half what JPMorgan managed in the three months to September. And Citi had to rely on its lower tax rate of just 21 percent to eke out even that paltry return.
Prospective investors in General Motors’ upcoming initial public offering have the automaker and its majority investor, the U.S. Treasury, over a barrel. Sure, GM is pottering along nicely and no longer burning cash. But the early hard sell about the size and timing of the deal has backfired, leaving Treasury looking like a distressed seller.
For months, the message leaking from Detroit was that GM’s share sale would raise up to $20 billion, which would make it the largest ever U.S. IPO. On top of that, insiders, from top executives like Ed Whitacre to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, fanned expectations the deal would launch in the fourth quarter.
Wall Street’s bankers and traders are getting jittery again. This time, it’s not fear of regulatory backlash that has them concerned, it’s the more traditional worries about bonuses and layoffs. That’s because the industry has suffered a couple of tough quarters right after banks started to hire again. Unless business picks up soon, the prospect of less revenue feeding more mouths means job cuts are in the offing.
The cull may have started already. Bank of America is trimming up to 5 percent of staff in parts of its investment bank. Others may not be far behind. One place to look for vulnerabilities is the line in earnings reports detailing the average compensation per employee banks have put aside.
Bankers returning from summer vacations have some reason to be happy to be back at work. After all, the momentum suggests business at something closer to normal for the rest of 2010. But markets remain choppy, and that could mean an extended, and unwanted, break for some.
The temperature wasn’t the only thing hot in August. This was a record August for new junk bond sales and the best for announced mergers and acquisitions since 1999, according to Thomson Reuters. With interest rates still low, such deal-making may well continue.
The ghost of Ken Lewis continues to haunt Bank of America’s shareholders. The Charlotte-based bank has made progress since he resigned as chief executive almost a year ago following a second bailout by the U.S. government. Yet the megabank’s stock has fallen 38 percent from this year’s high, more than rivals, and now trades at a whopping 43 percent discount to last quarter’s book value. Investors may have taken fright too easily.
Granted, the ghouls of Lewis’s expansionism are still rattling their chains. In early August, the bank revealed that it may be on the hook to buy back up to $11.1 billion of mortgages made by the bank or the troubled mortgage business, Countrywide, that it acquired in 2008. That’s up 45 percent from the end of 2009 and almost three times what Wells Fargo’s saddled with and almost four times JPMorgan’s load.