Sunday, November 27, 2005

US Financial Super-Utilities

Both Chase and Citibank have become massive, mediocre financial super-utilities in the past decade. But neither one has out-performed the S&P500 over the past 5 years. Chase’s last merger, with the combined Midwest banking conglomerate, FirstChicago-BancOne, hasn’t and won’t change that.

Ironically, my old boss, and SVP of Corporate Planning and Development of the “old” Chase Manhattan, Gerry Weiss, predicted back in 1986 that eventually the major money center banks of Manhattan would merge into one or two giant mediocre financial services companies. He was eerily prescient.

What Gerry saw from his unique vantage point was how difficult it was to effectively manage such a wide range of types of businesses at these banks, in conjunction with the lack of adequate managerial talent. Financial services has never attracted good managers.

Traders, deal-makers, and financial products innovators, yes. Consistently-effective managers, no.

My original research at Oliver Wyman & Company, now Mercer’s financial services consulting unit, confirmed this. Money center banks and large investment bank/brokerages never enjoyed consistent superiority in their shareholder wealth creation. They were out-peformed by single-line firms in credit card lending, mortgage banking, private banking, asset mgt, etc.

Empirical research of over a decade of company performances confirmed my old friend and boss’ hunch, and added a new finding. Not only were and are these financial leviathans simply too complex for the executives that are typically drawn up through their ranks to successfully manage. By being so broadly diversified, and large, they are sure to experience every major financial calamity which befalls the sector- be it real estate lending, sub-prime credit, risky proprietary trading, or, as in the Enron case, over-zealous complex financial products marketing which apparently crossed the line from finance to abetting financial fraud. The result is that consistent total returns prove to be an elusive goal, as these huge financial behemoths are beset with every market excess which occurs in the industry.

That is no doubt why these companies are rarely, if ever selected by my portfolio strategy. Revisiting my original sector research, and Chase’s and Citigroup’s recent performances, is a comforting reminder that my strategy’s bias in favor consistently superior performance is based on sound empirical research. Size for its own sake is of no value when you want to out-perform the market, despite what analysts may believe.

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