January 15, 2020 / 12:37 PM / 8 days ago

Goldman pledges 'concrete' expense target after profit decline

(Reuters) - Goldman Sachs Group Inc (GS.N) will set an expense target at its investor day later this month, management said on Wednesday, after the bank missed Wall Street profit expectations due to inflated costs.

FILE PHOTO: The Goldman Sachs logo is displayed on a post above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, September 11, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

A big portion of Goldman’s bloated expense line came from setting aside another $1.1 billion (844 million pounds) to cover legal and regulatory costs related to the 1MDB Malaysian corruption scandal.

However, Goldman also spent more on compensation, technology, occupancy costs and professional fees, some of which pertained to new businesses, like the credit card it launched with Apple Inc APPL.O and its transaction banking business.

The bank’s operating expenses rose 42% in the fourth quarter and 6% for the full year.

Overall, the bank spent 68 cents for every dollar of revenue it produced in 2019, up from 64 cents per dollar the prior year. Investors watch that efficiency metric closely, to gauge how well a company manages costs.

Several analysts quizzed Chief Executive Officer David Solomon and Chief Financial Officer Stephen Scherr about costs on an earnings call, asking when the bank’s investments in various businesses will start paying off. Goldman spent roughly $700 million on growth initiatives in 2019, before taxes.

Management plans to offer an expense target “in very concrete terms” at its investor day on Jan. 29, Scherr said.

He also said Goldman will move away from a $5-billion fresh annual revenue target it outlined in 2017, confirming a Reuters report from November. The bank will instead set measures for returns and efficiency, which better represent its goals, Scherr said.

Scherr also mentioned that of its equity investments, which are investments the bank makes with its own money, it dumped its shares of Uber Technologies Inc (UBER.N) and reduced the amount of shares it owned in Tradeweb Markets Inc. (TW.O).

Goldman shares rose 0.3% to $246.34 in afternoon trading.

During the fourth-quarter, Goldman’s profit fell 26%, to $1.7 billion, or $4.69 per share, from $2.3 billion, or $6.04 per share in the same period of 2018.

Analysts had expected a profit of $5.47 per share, on average, according to the IBES estimate from Refinitiv. Some said the bank beat estimates by a stretch when excluding legal and regulatory provisions.

All but one of Goldman’s four new business units reported better quarterly results.

Global markets, which houses the trading business, reported $3.5 billion in revenue, up 33%, thanks to easy comparisons with the year-ago period. The strong trading performance mirrored trends at major rivals JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), Citigroup Inc (C.N) and Bank of America Corp (BAC.N).

The only sore spot for Goldman during the quarter was investment banking, where revenue fell 6% to $2.1 billion, hurt by lower M&A advisory fees, as well as a slowdown in corporate lending.

Goldman changed its reporting lines this month in response to long-standing requests for more transparency from analysts and investors.

The new structure offers more insight into consumer banking, a pillar of Solomon’s strategy to offset sharp declines in trading revenue over the past decade or so.

That business is a tiny but fast-growing part of Goldman Sachs. It represented just 2.4% of the bank’s revenue in 2019, at $864 million, which was up 41% from the prior year.

Evercore ISI analyst Glenn Schorr characterized the results as encouraging, because of Goldman’s revenue growth, its progress in building out new businesses and signs that it is getting closer to resolving 1MDB matters.

The government of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak set up the 1MDB fund in 2009, and the U.S. Justice Department estimated $4.5 billion was misappropriated by high-level fund officials and their associates between 2009 and 2014. Goldman has been investigated by regulators in at least 14 countries for its underwriting role.

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Solomon said the bank is actively engaged with authorities to settle as quickly as possible, though he cautioned that there is no guarantee of a settlement or when one might occur.

Schorr said it could take time before the bank is generating significantly better returns for investors.

“Markets won’t always be this strong and the new builds will take years to achieve scale and materially contribute,” he wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday.

Reporting by Anirban Sen in Bangalore and Elizabeth Dilts Marshall in New York; Writing by Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Anil D'Silva and Nick Zieminski

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