(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is back, and that's a problem.
The bank that is still led, at least for now, by CEO Lloyd Blankfein on Tuesday delivered better-than-expected first-quarter results that were driven by a part of the bank that many increasingly thought Goldman was on the path to de-emphasizing. But that wasn't the case in the first three months of 2018. Instead, Goldman's beleaguered fixed-income, currencies and commodities (FICC) unit produced its best quarter in more than three years. The unit's revenue jumped 23 percent from a year ago to nearly $2.1 billion. Goldman's rivals were able to capitalize on the volatility as well, but only in their equities divisions. Debt trading at rivals Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co, was either flat and down. In equities trading, Goldman's 38 percent jump matched the high end of its rivals.
All told, revenue at its client services and execution unit was up 31 percent from a year ago and contributed 44 percent of Goldman's overall revenue, up from 30 percent in the last three months of 2017.
But the revival of its trading arm comes at an awkward time for the firm. Goldman has been increasingly looking as if it wanted to pivot from its trading-dominated business model back to its investment-banking roots. The firm recently named David Solomon, an investment banker (and disc jockey), as its sole chief operating officer, all but solidifying his position as Blankfein's successor. Solomon was chosen over Harvey Schwartz, who like Blankfein had spent much of his career in the firm's trading division.
Goldman has also pointed to its new consumer lending division, Marcus, and a new push into corporate lending as part of an effort to increase the firm's revenue by $5 billion. Marcus's performance remains something of a mystery. Goldman doesn't break out the parts of the consumer lending business. Instead, it reports its overall lending business -- which is still small compared with those of its megabank rivals -- as part of its "investing and lending business," which was long thought to be code for the remnants of its proprietary trading and investment banking operation. But Goldman said that division included more than $550 million in net interest income. Goldman's net revenue from debt securities and lending was up 53 percent compared with figures a year ago.
And if Goldman plans to make investment banking the profit driver, the bank stumbled in the first quarter. It finished in third place among global mergers and acquisition advisers, as measured by deal volume. That was the worst start to the year for Goldman's M&A team in 15 years. Fees in that business fell 22 percent from a year ago. Overall, investment banking revenue was up just 5 percent.
Given the troubles Goldman has had with trading revenue in recent quarters, a return to soon-to-be CEO Solomon's investment-banking roots appeared to be a clear and less risky path forward, one embraced by investors. But if trading regains its role as the firm's profit driver, Solomon may find adjusting the Goldman mix is a harder act than it seemed at first.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen Gandel is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering equity markets. He was previously a deputy digital editor for Fortune and an economics blogger at Time. He has also covered finance and the housing market.
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