Goldman Sachs Seeks Stars to Revive Commodities Unit

  • Firm is also enlisting dealmakers to pitch corporate clients
  • Commodities unit said to struggle in start of third quarter

Bloomberg’s Stuart Wallace discusses plans for the commodities unit at Goldman Sachs. He speaks with Alix Steel on 'Bloomberg Daybreak: Americas.' (Source: Bloomberg)

Goldman Sachs Group Inc., seeking a rebound in its commodities business after a bout of losing trades dented earnings, has a plan built around hiring fresh stars and luring new clients.

The bank will bring in a few high-profile commodities salesmen as well as some traders, an acknowledgment that the roughly 180-person unit’s performance has suffered in recent years from failures to replace senior talent as it cut costs, people familiar with the strategy said. The firm also is enlisting its top rainmakers to pitch corporate clients in the energy, power, and metals and mining industries, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the firm hasn’t publicly discussed the plan.

The effort has yet to take hold, and the commodities division struggled in the first few weeks of the current quarter, according to a person familiar with the matter. The unit’s performance has been under review for months, during which it posted the worst quarter in 73 periods as a public company.

Long one of the biggest commodity traders on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs stood out in recent years for sticking with the business while competitors including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley scaled back.

Chief Financial Officer Marty Chavez said last month that the poor performance in commodities resulted from the “market backdrop” and lower client activity. He acknowledged that the firm “didn’t navigate the market as well as we aspired to or as well as we have in the past.” Chavez, along with Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein and co-president Harvey Schwartz, rose from the commodities unit to lead the company.

Gas Bets

A large loss came from trading natural gas, where the firm’s traders failed to properly hedge bets on the direction of gas prices, a person familiar with the matter said last week. Another losing trade came from holding a long position in oil, while the price of crude dropped 11 percent during the quarter, the person said.

The fixed-income division that houses the commodities unit is courting corporations and long-only asset managers to reduce the firm’s dependence on hedge fund customers. After years of trimming, the division’s leaders decided to take a break from cutting jobs, costs and capital devoted to the business, according to a person with knowledge of the firm’s plans.

The commodities strategy comes out of a review led by Isabelle Ealet, one of the banks’ co-heads of trading. The unit was a topic of discussion at a late-June board meeting in London. The review examined the unit’s size and client mandates, as well as how traders managed risk amid concern that they weren’t properly hedging positions that may be illiquid and therefore last months.

Corporate Pitch

To turn it around, the bank plans to add senior salespeople with corporate relationships. The firm also is asking its investment bankers to pitch commodities business or introduce sales and trading colleagues to companies’ finance chiefs and treasurers, two of the people said. The dealmakers will look to extend more credit lines used to trade commodities such as jet fuel, metals or power, according to one of the people.

In particular, the review found the unit could work more frequently with the investment banking division’s more-than 1,500 natural-resources clients, according to one of the people. The bank has employees in 14 cities globally who serve customers in the energy, power, infrastructure, chemicals, metals and mining and alternative energy industries, according to its website

For Goldman, which traditionally has catered to hedge funds and other investors in commodities, going after corporate clients such as oil companies and miners is likely to prove difficult, rival executives said. Unlike Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan and some European banks such as Societe Generale SA, Goldman hasn’t historically been a big lender to the natural resources industry, a key prerequisite for some companies to engage with banks on other products.

Revenue Plunge

The commodities unit brought in about $95 million in the first quarter, and was barely positive in the second quarter, according to two people. The bank has brought in an average of $250 million or so in quarterly revenue from commodities market-making and principal trades over the past few years, according to estimates compiled by Glenn Schorr, an Evercore ISI analyst. The performance contributed to a 21 percent drop in overall fixed-income trading revenue in the first half, while many rivals posted increases.

The pause in shrinking is a recognition that there is only so much austerity that traders and salespeople can take and still perform at a high level, one of the people said. The fixed-income unit’s risk-weighted assets dropped by about 30 percent over the past two years, filings show. That business’s headcount fell 10 percent in the three years through 2015, while compensation and benefits costs plunged 20 percent, according to a presentation.

“Goldman admits that it may have cut too deep into FICC over the years post the financial crisis,” Schorr wrote in a report earlier this month. “Our gut says that Goldman has done what it can on expenses, headcount and assets and will now shift their focus on growth to better support, and be more engaged with, their clients.”

At the same time, a senior executive privately admits that if markets decline or the trading environment worsens, the bank may be forced to consider downsizing again.

Earlier this month, Blankfein said in a Bloomberg Television interview that he knows how to fix the trading troubles, and he’s not panicking. Blankfein’s attention to the business has grown more intense in recent months, the senior executive said.

“Believe me, none of us are hysterical about this, but we’re focused on it,” the CEO said in the Aug. 2 interview. “We underperformed, we know what we have to do, and we’re doing it. It’s an execution matter for us, and guess what, that’s what we do.”

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