Goldman Preps for New Age of Regulation

“In the end, Goldman Sachs is still going to be Goldman Sachs,” Lloyd Blankfein recently remarked during a wide-ranging dinner conversation with Larry Fink, the chief executive of money management outfit Blackrock (NYSE:BLK), according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Fink, seated next to Blankfein at a tony New York City eatery, didn’t disagree, but some in the firm that Blankfein runs are now taking issue with that statement.

That’s because Goldman (NYSE:GS) is looking to alter its business model that for the past decade produced huge earnings by making massive trading bets in various markets across the globe, according to people with knowledge of the matter. Exactly what that new business model Goldman will adopt is still unclear, these people say.

But some clues are emerging, according to people at the firm. The firm has told analysts that it will expand its asset management business -- even possibly buying one -- the FOX Business Network has learned.

Regulators are also pressuring the firm to scale back on its business of taking trading risk, the driver of Goldman’s strong profits over the past decade. The Dodd- Frank financial reform law prevents firms from engaging in so-called proprietary trading where it risks its own capital to take market bets, but regulators are also forcing Goldman to scale back on other trading activities, including those that involve buying and selling securities on behalf of clients.

“There have been some tough conversations over there about the changing business model,” said Brad Hintz, an analyst for Sanford Bernstein. “They have to restructure the business with less risk and accept lower returns.”

According to Hintz, that means “less money is being made on the trading side because of regulations,” and that will continue for the foreseeable future. Internally, the shift is causing some friction. Under Blankfein, a former commodities salesman, executives in the firm’s sales and trading department have held key management positions and earned some of the highest salaries.

That will change, analysts say, as the firm must now embrace more client-focused businesses such as investment banking, mergers and acquisitions, and asset management. Fewer traders are expected to be named “partner” at Goldman, a special status that allows them to receive the  firm’s highest bonuses.

In addition to expanding client-related businesses, Goldman executives are debating whether to purchase an asset management firm, like Deutsche Bank’s (NYSE:DB) asset management unit, which is on the block, analysts with knowledge of the firm’s activities say.

A Goldman spokesman declined to comment about the firm’s business model changes, or Blankfein’s conversation with Fink.

Goldman, of course, isn’t the only Wall Street firm grappling with the changing environment in the wake of tougher, post-financial crisis regulations. Every major bank is scaling back operations, cutting costs and slashing its workforce as the new rules begin to impose new costs and force banks to exit profitable activities, like proprietary trading.

But Goldman may be the most vulnerable to the impact of these rules. Blankfein took over as CEO in 2006, and immediately began focusing the firm’s energies on risk taking in various markets, the very activities that the new rules are designed to curtail.

Blankfein, for his part, has made a few cryptic public statements about the firm’s future.  During a recent industry conference he explained the challenges faced by Goldman this way: “Each day, our clients seek advice and financing. They need someone to take the other side of a transaction in order to help them hedge risk; they need an asset manager to invest on their behalf, and a co-investor who will deploy debt or equity in growth opportunities. These activities do not go out of style, no matter what stage of the economic cycle we are in.”

A clue to what Goldman might be doing could be found in Blankfein’s use of the word “client,” according to people with direct knowledge of the firm’s activities. Goldman gained a reputation (and paid a large regulatory settlement) for ignoring client relationships, ramping up profits by selling toxic mortgage-related investments to its customers in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

The firm will now focus on repairing those relationships in order to bolster its investment banking business, which is largely unaffected by the new regulations as it looks to expand in asset management.

Another question is whether it will do all of this with Blankfein at the helm; earlier in the year, he told people he is tired of the job of running a bank that was the target of so much scorn and scrutiny for its activities during the financial crisis.

More recently, however, Blankfein has indicated to people he wants to stay.

“I think he will first want to solidify the direction of the firm before he steps down,” said a Wall Street executive who knows Blankfein.