Unstructured Finance

Wall Street’s trading businesses turn to survival of the least dead

Darwin theorized that peacocks’ colorful plumage was a sign of        their evolutionary strength.

Wall Street has always been known as a cutthroat kind of place, but lately it seems big investment banks are just mulling around, hoping their competitors die first.

A report on Friday by Goldman Sachs bank analysts said that the industry has entered what they called a state of “reverse Darwinism,” in which banks are betting their long-suffering trading operations can increase revenue not by stealing business from rivals on a competitive basis, but by waiting for rivals to call it quits – leaving their clients with no choice but to move business elsewhere.

The Goldman analysts met with senior executives from Citigroup, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Lazard to find out what’s going on in their apparently stagnant capital markets businesses. The executives’ tone was “universally lackluster,” according to the analysts, who predict that investment banking and trading revenues will once again drop about 20 percent this quarter, as they did in the year-ago period. More pain is expected ahead as new derivatives trading rules, higher capital requirements and the long-awaited Volcker rule are implemented.

With that bleak backdrop, everyone is trying to figure out where they can cut costs and what businesses even make sense to stay in anymore. The only way to make money in trading, it seems, is to have such huge market share that enormous volumes can make up for the cost of the operation.

Goldman: 1, Volcker: 0

By Lauren Tara LaCapra

There’s an interesting article out today from Bloomberg, which accuses Goldman Sachs of skirting the yet-to-be-defined-or-implemented Volcker rule, and accuses its top executives, including CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, of being a hypocrite.

Bloomberg reporter Max Abelson has done some good work on the subject. His article is well written and well sourced—he spoke to at least 20 people and got many of them to go on the record about their former employer and describe how Goldman continues to place bets with the firm’s own money.

Abelson concludes “Goldman Sachs has worked around regulations curbing proprietary bets at banks. “ But what the article really points out is that Wall Street will keep finding new ways to move the goal posts in its favor when it comes to defining and clamping down on prop trading.

PIMCO and BlackRock go strolling down K Street

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

Wall Street may hate financial regulatory reform, but lobbyists certainly love it—especially ones working on behalf of giant asset managers PIMCO and BlackRock, which control a total of nearly $5 trillion in assets.

Last year, PIMCO and BlackRock both upped their lobbying expenditures in a big way.

The not-for-profit group OpenSecrets.org reports that Bill Gross’s Pacific Investment Management Company spent $450,000 on lobbyists last year, up from $120,000 in 2010. BlackRock’s spending on lobbyists rose to $2.5 million in 2011, up from $1.45 million in the prior year.

Hedge funds against Obama

By Jennifer Ablan and Matthew Goldstein

Class warfare has been the topic du jour this year and is likely to be a major theme of the 2012 election. In a speech two weeks ago, President Barack Obama blasted his Republican foes and Wall Street as he portrayed himself as a champion of the middle class.

In a speech meant to echo a historic address given by former President Theodore Roosevelt in the same Kansas town more than 100 years ago, Obama railed against “gaping” economic inequality and pressed the case for policies he insisted would help ordinary Americans get through hard times.

Not surprisingly, some hedge fund managers were none too pleased.

In fact, hedge-fund industry titan Leon Cooperman “front-ran” Obama’s populist speech by widely circulating an “open letter” to Obama, arguing that “the divisive, polarizing tone of your rhetoric is cleaving a widening gulf, at this point as much visceral as philosophical, between the downtrodden and those best positioned to help them.”

MF Global a month later and still a mystery

By Matthew Goldstein

It’s been about a month since MF Global began spiraling towards bankruptcy and still there’s no clarity about what happened to the missing customer money that was supposed to be kept in untouchable, segregated accounts. It’s not even clear how much money is missing.

When the Jon Corzine-led firm filed for bankruptcy on Halloween, it was believed some $900 million in customer money couldn’t be accounted for in MF Global’s segregated accounts maintained at Harris Banks and other institutions. That sum was quickly revised downward to about $600 million. And the number remained at $600 million until the court-appointed liquidation trustee surprised everyone last week by saying more than $1.2 billion in customer money might be missing.

But now even that $1.2 billion figure is in doubt. Officials with the CME quickly questioned the much higher figure and so did other regulators. A law enforcement source tells me federal investigators also doubt the $1.2 billion figure and believe the missing money is still about $600 million.

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