Is Goldman Really That Good?

Goldman Sachs released its quarterly earnings yesterday, and the headline was  net income of $1.8 billion, doubling analysts’ estimates. I would say this is definitely good news for Goldman; whether it’s good news for the banking sector as a whole is more uncertain.First, as Bruce Wayne, one of our readers, pointed out, the quarter-over-quarter comparisons left out December. Because Goldman just changed its fiscal year end, its previous quarter ended in November and its latest quarter ended in March. December was reported separately and – surprise, surprise – Goldman took a net loss of $0.8 billion. So if they had mashed December into Q1, they would have had a four-month “quarter” with $1.0 billion in profits.

Second, the positive results probably reflect a better mix of businesses than other banks enjoy. Although Goldman has made big one-sided bets, its trading operation traditionally hedged many of its positions and made a lot of its money on volume. Its positive Q1 results were largely due to strong performance in fixed income, currencies, and commodities (FICC) trading, which reflects the fact that Q1 was a busy quarter – in part because of the massive unwind at AIG – and, as Goldman’s CFO politely said, “Many of our traditional competitors have retreated from the marketplace.” With fewer players in town, the oligopoly profits go up – another reason why the big banks are even more powerful than they were before the crisis.

When it comes to the value of its own investments, Goldman seems to have done less well. Its net revenues for principal investments, mainly “Other corporate and real estate gains and losses,” were negative $1.4 billion in Q1 and negative $0.8 billion in December. While Goldman was able to more than offset this with trading gains, I wonder what the implication is for commercial banks that are not dominant players in trading.

(The FT also raised an eyebrow at the fact that per-employee compensation in Q1 was much higher than in the year-earlier period. That actually doesn’t worry me, because I’m guessing those compensation expenses are bonus accruals – the better the quarter you have, the more money you have to set aside for year-end bonuses.)

Originally published at the Baseline Scenario and reproduced here with the author’s permission.