You could probably think a few things about GS’s earnings released this morning. If you’re an employee, you might gulp nervously at that $292k comp accrual so far and the 1,300 folks whose mastery of the universe became less masterful this quarter. If you’re a shareholder, you have to be modestly pleased with mostly adequate revenues in most businesses though kind of pissed about ICBC. If you’re an accounting purist, you thrill to the idea of a bank that managed not to book billions in DVA gains.
Here, though, is a thing not to think: “Goldman Sachs lost money by doing all of the things the Volcker Rule says it shouldn’t be doing.”
There is some appeal to this: Goldman had okay-not-great results in advisory (up y/o/y, #1 in M&A, faint yay!), equities (up y/o/y), and FICC client business (down 36% y/o/y, but that’s in line with JPM and better than BAC); its net income was negative because of a $2.5bn loss in “Investing & Lending”:
These results reflected a significant decline in global equity markets and unfavorable credit markets. Results for the third quarter of 2011 included a loss of $1.05 billion from the firm’s investment in the ordinary shares of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Limited (ICBC), net losses of $1.00 billion from other investments in equities, primarily in public equities, as well as net losses of $907 million from debt securities and loans.
Now, losing money on investments is obviously prop! Prop trading is bad! FDIC insured banks losing money on prop trading is the worst!
Well, maybe. But Goldman has closed its “prop trading” business. The Investing & Lending business houses longer term investments. Like the ICBC stake, which is responsible for over 40% of the loss. Or like Facebook. Or like lending to and investing in companies.
These are sort of classic “banking” activities, although to be fair equity investing as a form of banking is less common in America. And they won’t be blocked by Volcker: right in this crystal-clear flowchart you can tell that positions held for more than 60 days are more or less not covered “proprietary trading” and so are not forbidden by the Volcker Rule. Investing in a private equity fund is a problem, but just making private equity investments – never mind loans – is fine.
The Volcker issues are going to come up mostly in Goldman’s FICC business, where profits come from market making activities that can skirt the line of prop versus client facilitation. And there, Goldman did … sort of okay-ish. Maybe. Kind of.