Goldman Sachs Group Inc. headquarters stands in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

Goldman's Bright Spots Keep $5 Billion Goal Within Reach

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- Some bankers at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. must be feeling the winter chill more than others. 

The Lloyd Blankfein-led bank delivered fourth-quarter results on Wednesday that showed it hasn't been able to stop the bleeding within its fixed income, currencies and commodities (FICC) unit. Initial efforts to do so -- including hiring new staff and refreshing its client mix in a bid to capture more market share -- are yet to bear out, leading to the worst quarter for such trading since the financial crisis. Commodities trading, to which the bank remains committed (but should consider trimming), remains a drag

There is a silver lining, though: Goldman's other businesses are picking up the slack. The bank managed to squeeze out 4.8 percent in overall revenue growth in fiscal 2017 despite the 30 percent drop in FICC revenue, which is actually better than any of the major U.S. banks with the exception of Morgan Stanley, which reports on Thursday. It's also the first time Goldman has delivered annual revenue growth since 2012. 

Goldman's Bright Spots Keep $5 Billion Goal Within Reach

Investing and lending, which contains Goldman's merchant banking arm and includes its private equity investments, was the year's savior, delivering $2.5 billion more in revenue that alone made up for the FICC unit's $2.3 billion decline. Also housed in this unit is its consumer arm Marcus, launched in October 2016, which this week expanded into home improvement loans, one of firm's initiatives employed as part of a quest to generate $2 billion in extra revenue from lending and financing through 2020. (Yet as my colleague Lisa Abramowicz has warned, this doesn't come without risk.)

But the real standout in the fourth quarter was investment banking. The business of mergers and acquisitions appears resistant to disruption for Goldman, and the bank has managed to retain its commanding position despite the rise of boutique advisory firms and rife competition from longtime rivals. In the fourth-quarter alone, the firm was involved in three of 2017's biggest deals: Broadcom Ltd.-Qualcomm Inc., CVS Health Corp.-Aetna Inc. and Walt Disney Co.-Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. (as well as the spinoff of certain Fox assets), which have likely contributed to its healthier backlog.

Also in investment banking, the area of equity capital markets has been a happy hunting ground for Goldman, which has landed a myriad of roles including one on Spotify AB's unusual offering. But if other sizable IPO-wannabes follow the streaming music company's lead in pursuing a so-called direct listing, the size of the combined fee pool chased down by Goldman and its rivals could shrink by hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Admittedly, most private companies may stick to the path of traditional listings in part because they need to raise fresh capital, but it's a risk. 

Goldman's Bright Spots Keep $5 Billion Goal Within Reach

Notably, in 2017, the firm's decision to be more aggressive in financing deals ranging from buyouts to strategic M&A, paid off handsomely.

Goldman's Bright Spots Keep $5 Billion Goal Within Reach

The bank posted its highest debt underwriting revenue ever, with its efforts to bolster its U.S. leveraged loans presence rewarded with a third-place finish in the league tables, up from eighth in 2016. Underpinning that was involvement in 482 deals totaling $100 billion, marking its busiest year ever by volume and its highest market share since 2007, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Similarly, among book runners for global corporate high-yield bonds, Goldman scored a top-three league table finish for the third year running, reflecting its ability to defend share while concurrently expanding elsewhere. 

To be sure, as shown by its flailing FICC trading business, the bank's business is largely dictated by client activity. That means any slowdown in borrowing, capital markets or deal activity could halt Goldman's progress toward meeting its goal of adding $5 billion in new revenue by mid-to-late 2020. Still, if recent progress is anything to go by and assuming things eventually turnaround for its FICC arm, those targets are looking noticeably less far-fetched. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gillian Tan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals and private equity. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. She is a qualified chartered accountant.

To contact the author of this story: Gillian Tan in New York at gtan129@bloomberg.net.

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