Is Goldman Sachs Going Soft?

Matthew C. Klein writes for Bloomberg View about the economy and financial markets. He previously wrote for the Economist magazine and its economics blog, Free Exchange.
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Bloomberg News reports that the life of a young investment banker may be getting a lot better, at least for those who work at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Instead of demanding 100-hour work weeks that include frequent all-nighters and weekends, the bank is now discouraging fresh college grads from coming into the office on Saturdays and Sundays and aiming to "give analysts more-predictable working hours."

The simple explanation is that Goldman is trying to retain its best talent. Bloomberg News quotes Goldman's co-head of investment banking as saying that he wants "our analysts to be here for a career." Right now, top investment banks pay their young pups as much as $140,000 a year only to have the best of them leave for the sunlit uplands of private equity and hedge funds as soon as they start getting good at their jobs.

Banks find this trade worthwhile because, as my colleague Matt Levine notes, they work their analysts likedogs. It does tend to encourage the most capable workers to leave as soon as possible, however. Those who remain, or those who join banks after business school as associates, may not be as talented. From this perspective, making life better for the best entry-level employees in exchange for decades of committed service would be a good example of Goldman's tendency to be "long-term greedy."

Assuming the higher-ups actually enforce the new policy -- "Don't kill yourself working this weekend, but I still need that pitch book by Monday morning," says the managing director on a Friday afternoon before walking out the door -- it isn't clear whether the analysts would get paid as much under the new regime. Cutting hours by as much as half while keeping compensation constant would be a huge pay increase. Cutting both hours and pay (with lower bonuses), on the other hand, might be a clever way to help the bank adjust to coming structural changes in the market for big expensive deals.

There is some evidence to suggest that this may be a consideration behind Goldman's push for fewer working hours. Andrew Ross Sorkin's latestcolumndescribes the falling value and volume of global mergers and acquisitions. One possibility is that companies have finally realized that many mergers are a bad idea. After all, when academics studied more than 12,000 deals made by public companies from 1980 to 2001, they found that these deals ended up destroying a total of $218 billion of shareholder value. Most of that value was destroyed by the biggest combinations, which also happen to be the most profitable ones for investment bankers.

This global trend might be affecting the section of Goldman's investment banking division that handles mergers and acquisitions. The financial advisory unit, which also advises companies on, among other things, divestitures and risk management, brought in less net revenue over the past four quarters than over any other comparable period since the recession ended.

Investment banking as a whole has been sustained by a white hot debt underwriting business, although rising interest rates and an increasingly cautious Federal Reserve don't bode well for the future. Goldman has been cutting costs -- especially compensation -- just to preventprofitsfrom shrinking. (The bulk of those cuts have probably been concentrated in Goldman's trading business, which is much larger than its advisory and underwriting businesses.)

Paying workers less -- and cutting their hours -- would be a reasonable response to a world in which there is less work to be done.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.