Last night, the Federal Reserve announced that the last two private investment banks left standing, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, would be converting themselves to a "traditional" bank holding company structure, subjecting them to the oversight of bank examiners and regulatory agencies.
The New York Times runs an obituary for private investment banking in the United States this morning:
Radical Shift for Goldman and Morgan (New York Times, 22 September 2008)
The firms requested the change themselves, even as Congress and the Bush administration rushed to pass a $700 billion rescue of financial firms. It was a blunt acknowledgment that their model of finance and investing had become too risky and that they needed the cushion of bank deposits that had kept big commercial banks like Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase relatively safe amid the recent turmoil.
It also is a turning point for the high-rolling culture of Wall Street, with its seven-figure bonuses and lavish perks for even midlevel executives. It effectively returns Wall Street to the way it was structured before Congress passed a law during the Great Depression separating investment banking from commercial banking, known as the Glass-Steagall Act.
By becoming bank holding companies, the firms are agreeing to significantly tighter regulations and much closer supervision by bank examiners from several government agencies rather than only the Securities and Exchange Commission. Now, the firms will look more like commercial banks, with more disclosure, higher capital reserves and less risk-taking.
For decades, firms like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs thrived by taking bold bets with their own money, often using enormous amounts of debt to increase their profits, with little outside oversight.
They were the envy of Wall Street, dominating the industry’s most lucrative businesses, landing headline-grabbing deals and advising companies and governments around the world on mergers, stock offerings and restructurings.
But that brash model was torn apart over the last several weeks as investors lost confidence in the way they made those bets during the recent credit boom, when investment banks expanded with aplomb into esoteric securities, the risks of which were not easily understood.
Next step: Look for Goldman and Morgan to buy their favorite existing commercial banks under this new structure, rather than the other way around.
The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal's stories are linked below.