Monday, March 07, 2011

US Commercial Banking, Evolution & Commoditization

My years with the Chase Manhattan Bank were spent under the tutelage of Gerry Weiss, SVP of Corporate Planning & Development. It was a privilege to work for such a bright, secure and gifted strategist.

Gerry didn't win a lot of new friends among his senior executive colleagues at the bank for holding the view that banking was one of the most commodity-like businesses in existence. With a few exceptions, most of the businesses at Chase were extremely difficult to differentiate because, at the end of the day, you were either borrowing, lending or processing money. Not exactly a patentable good.

Further, as technology became more important in more banking businesses, any single bank's ability to maintain a competitive edge for very long became increasingly difficult.

With all this in mind, I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal last week regarding federal arm-twisting of the major US banks on mortgage foreclosures. Leaving aside the subject of that article, which was the unwise attempt to force banks to forgive negative equity for borrowers, I was struck by the pedigrees of the few banks mentioned- Chase, Wells Fargo and BofA, and the one absent bank- Citicorp.

I realized, as pondered these names, how few people today probably recall that these, including Citi, are no longer the banks which originally had those names.

For example, Wells Fargo is really just the name of a former San Francisco-based bank acquired by what was once a staid Midwestern outfit- Norwest Bank of Minnesota. If I'm not mistaken, Norwest itself was acquired by a one-time rival, First Bank System. Along the way, it hoovered up the crippled Wachovia during the recent financial crisis, giving it, ironically, the old Golden West S&L, too. That was a product of Ken Thompson's wrong-headed mortgage bank acquisition at the peak of the real estate bubble. It cost him his job.

Meanwhile, BofA is just the surviving name of another San Francisco-based bank that took too many risks and became the prey of another regional US bank- Nationsbank, the renamed North Carolina National Bank. Hugh McColl busily assembled a large group of basic banking franchises beginning in the 1980s. The drive to aggregate assets and relationships culminated in the takeover of the once-proud BofA. McColl's successor, Ken Lewis, overreached when he bought Countrywide and Merrill Lynch during the recent financial crisis. That latter deal's murky details sent Lewis packing early from his CEO job at BofA.

Chase, as we know it today, is simply the name hung on the agglomeration of assets of most of the old money center banks of New York City, except for Citi and Bankers Trust. Back when I worked for Gerry Weiss, he once referred to Chase Manhattan, Chemical and Manufacturers Hanover Trust as three fairly interchangeable, mediocre banks. When asked about merging them, he snorted derisively,

'All you'd get is a much bigger mediocre bank that would be even more difficult to manage than what we've already got.'

Never the less, Chemical took over MannyHanny, then the two picked off Chase after its CEO, Tom Labrecque, finally ran the latter into the ground and attracted the unwanted attentions of fund manager Michael Price. In time, the CEO job went to Jamie Dimon, who had fled New York City to run the remaining Midwest regional commercial bank, Banc One- by then a product of a merger of the Ohio company of that name and the old First Chicago.

Citicorp wasn't mentioned among those in the foreclosure-related article because it essentially died, only to be resuscitated as a ward of the federal government after 2008. Before that, however, it was taken over from outside banking, when Sandy Weill prevailed upon then-Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin to allow him to 'merge' with John Reed's Citibank. Weill then hip-checked Reed out of the C-suite, hired Bob Rubin, and proceeded to build the most unwieldy, unmanageable financial supermarket ever attempted in the US.

My point is that if you were to have surveyed the national and regional banking field in the mid-1980s, as my colleagues and I did as part of our jobs as corporate and business strategists at Chase Manhattan, you'd have classified BofA, Chase Manhattan and Citicorp as the nation's three most important international money center banks. Chicago had just lost Continental Bank, but still had First Chicago. Bankers Trust and JP Morgan were smaller, more focused money center banks. All of these had senior management which felt and behaved as if their banks were special, different, and able to take risks which other US banks couldn't handle.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and you can see how wrong they were. The three premier US money center banks all lost their managements via takeovers.

In truth, the managements of what we now know as the leading US banks are products of duller, less-ambitious banks. Less ambitious in terms of scope, though, rather than size. And the businesses which are now part of these banking companies which aren't historic mainline banking units- brokerage, underwriting and merger and acquisition advisory- have become, as my old boss Gerry Weiss predicted, less lucrative due to the commoditization of them by the large commercial bank entrants.

In true Schumpeterian form, most of large commercial banking has become commoditized amidst growing competition. Thus, their equity price performances are, for the most part, anemic. Only Wells Fargo has a 35-year price performance which eclipses the S&P500 Index. Chase, BofA and Citi all trail it substantially.

What's different about Wells? Notice, first, that its outperformance slackened significantly around 2000. So it's not a function of recent management skill.

More likely, its earlier outperforming of the S&P resulted from its having avoided combining with any of the leading money center banks- ever. A host of old mid-sized California banking franchises- First Interstate, Crocker, and Security Pacific- if I recall, comprised the Wells Fargo that Norwest snared. As such, while predecessor banks got into some troubles, they tended not to be on the gigantic scale of the messes into which the three largest US money centers stepped throughout the past three decades.

Of the other banks, Chase managed to about match the S&P, while the Citi and BofA plunged noticeably.

So, from a perspective of over thirty years of large US commercial bank performance, it's evident that the risk-taking of the old international money center banking companies didn't result in their consistently superior performance. Rather, to the contrary, that strategy failed, as evidenced by the managements of more cautious, smaller commercial banks ultimately owning the marquees previously associated with their larger one-time rivals.

Now, no matter what you hear on CNBC or read in the Wall Street Journal, for the most part, the four major US commercial banks have become financial utilities which will, for the most part, fail to consistently outperform the S&P500 for any significant period of time. They've become large, slow-moving purveyors of financial commodities.

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