Goldman Sachs steps back from casino banking

The Vampire Squid launches a private bank for wealthy clients

Liz Rappaport, the Wall Street Journal:

Goldman Sachs is building an in-house bank to lend money to wealthy people and companies, in a significant shift that underlines the harsh business climate facing Wall Street since the financial crisis.

The New York securities firm, known for its aggressive trading and big corporate deal-making, is ramping up its activities to become a private bank to serve wealthy customers around the world. The new unit will also lend more directly to corporations, some of whom already make investments and do business with Goldman. Executives have set a goal of $100 billion in loans, up from $12 billion at the end of March.

Ever since the financial crisis, so-called "casino banking" has been a very unpopular area to be in. The actual practice itself was frequently condemened, for causing unsustainable booms in food and oil prices, as well as leading to the sort of attitude which caused the crash, where complex financial instruments were traded with little regard to fundamentals causing spiralling valuations which eventually got out of control.

But as well as casino banking being unpopular for what it is, it's unpopular for its relationship to regular banking. The idea is similar to that of "too big to fail", but the fear is that casino banks which also take consumer deposits are thus underwritten by the taxpayer, in the form of deposit insurance. It is for this reason that there are calls, in both Britain and the US, to split the former from the latter, or to allow banks to gamble, but not with customers' money. This latter requirement, the Volcker Rule, is what JP Morgan is suspected to have been bending in their disastrous "London Whale" trade.

Goldman Sachs' private bank is unlikely to fall on the retail side of any such divide, however. It's customers' deposits will be well in excess of the amount covered by insurance, so there will be little incentive for it to hamstring its activities. But its a long way to go to rehabilitate the Vampire Squid.

A vampire squid.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.