Goldman embarking on biggest cost cuts in years

The Goldman Sachs logo is displayed on a post above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in this file photo from Sept 11, 2013.
The Goldman Sachs logo is displayed on a post above the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in this file photo from Sept 11, 2013.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Goldman Sachs is embarking on its biggest cost-cutting push in years as it tries to weather a slump in trading and dealmaking, according to two people with knowledge of the effort.

The firm, already expected to report a steep drop in expenses for the first quarter, recently began dismissing more support staff and is increasingly rejecting bankers' spending on airfare, hotels and entertainment unless it directly serves clients, the people said. For example, the company cut technology workers in London this week, one person said, and some employees in Europe aren't being permitted to take once-routine trips to other offices in the region, said another. Additional cuts are likely.

Chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein, 61, is trying to ride out a years-long bond-trading slump that's being compounded by market swings and stiffer regulations - challenges that have forced many competitors to scale back. He already has adjusted his workforce, relying more on junior bankers, moving support staff to cheaper locations and investing in technology to improve productivity.

The question is whether his efforts will be enough to satisfy investors when the bank reports quarterly results on Tuesday (April 19). Betsy Graseck, a Morgan Stanley analyst, estimates Goldman Sachs will say operating expenses declined 29 per cent to US$4.76 billion - the lowest for the start of a fiscal year in a decade. Still, that's not as steep as the 37 per cent drop in revenue that analysts anticipate.

At a conference in February, Mr Blankfein reassured investors that he's keeping an "eagle eye" on expenses and that the firm had more flexibility to reduce them.

"We can do a lot more on the cost side if we have to," he said. "We can always do more. I mean, necessity really is the mother of invention in this case, especially when you have to deliver a return."

Cost reductions may also come from deferring projects, choosing not to fill open positions and spending less on printing pitch books or brochures, another person said, asking not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

Ultimately, the latest push to reduce expenses probably will amount to the biggest since 2011, or possibly even earlier, the people said. In July of that year, the bank announced an initiative to trim more than US$1 billion in costs including compensation, a plan that entailed cutting 1,000 jobs. By year-end, expenses had dropped 14 per cent from the previous year.

The company held operating expenses below US$23 billion for four years before they rose 13 per cent to US$25 billion in 2015. Litigation and regulatory costs drove the increase.

JPMorgan Chase & Co and Bank of America, which reported first-quarter results this week, countered their own revenue declines with cost cuts that went deeper than analysts expected. "There's a lot more to do," Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told analysts Thursday of his focus on expenses.

Goldman Sachs's senior employees haven't been immune this year. More than a half-dozen partners have left since the end of 2015, though it's not unusual for departures to increase in a year in which a new class is named. The company is scheduled to promote another cohort to that top rank later this year, a nod to its history as a private partnership.

Mr Blankfein's reliance on junior bankers has helped contain costs. From 2012 through last year, the number of partners and managing directors decreased 2 per cent, while the ranks of analysts, associates and vice presidents increased 17 per cent, Blankfein said in the February presentation. Even as its workforce grew 11 percent, the company cut US$270 million in compensation, the presentation shows.

Goldman Sachs is particularly focused on improving results in its securities division, which houses the sales and trading units, the people said. The New York-based firm already decided to cut its fixed-income business deeper than a typical annual push to eliminate underperformers, a person briefed on the matter said last month. Typically, the firm eliminates about 5 per cent of its total staff to make way for new hires.

Still, in areas where the firm sees potential for growth, it has added staff. And the latest cuts don't appear to be as broad as those made during and immediately after the financial crisis.

In 2008 and 2009, Jon Winkelried, who shared the title of president and chief operating officer with Gary Cohn, led efforts that eliminated more than 10 per cent of the company's personnel. By the end of 2009, the workforce shrank to 32,500. By the end of last year, the firm had 36,800.