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Opinion

Abigail with attitude: There are more questions than answers for the entire banking industry, and not just BNP Paribas

Blackberry meltdown adds to woes of desperate bankers; Sherwood stands out among disappointing diners at new Savoy Grill; Watch out for the next generation Weinberg at Goldman Sachs

Abigail Hofman
Bankers feel the pressures of the Blackberry crumble 

For BNP Paribas, there are more questions than answers

Woody stands out as power crowd shun new Savoy Grill

Watch out for Weinberg G3 in Goldman succession stakes

Industry in meltdown heads towards inevitable iceberg


Bankers feel the pressures of the Blackberry crumble 

Somehow, we seem to be back in the TMT era. Do you even remember what those initials stood for? Think telecoms, media, technology, and dial back 12 years to the dot.com mania and the 3G auctions for mobile phone licences.

In mid-October, the BlackBerry email network went down for several days causing consternation to most financiers. For several years now, the BlackBerry has been seen as uncool. “A device for boring, old men,” one teenager sniffed.

But I should point out that the London rioters planned their nocturnal activities using BlackBerry’s free messaging service.

The BlackBerry crumble, as they’re calling the hiatus, presumably means that the Apple iPhone will gain ground as a business tool.

One senior banker wailed: “I’m on a business trip in the States and I have no access to email. That means, when I return, I will need to read at least 1,500 emails. It’s unbearable.” I made soothing noises but inside I felt smug. I changed my BlackBerry for an iPhone more than a year ago. The Abigail with attitude column is always ahead of the curve. 

Prot interview on Handelsblatt's website


 
For BNP Paribas, there are more questions than answers 

So that’s your technology nugget, but the media story of the moment is causing nearly as much discussion. An empty interview occurred in the German Handelsblatt newspaper.

BNP Paribas’ chief executive Baudouin Prot did an on-the-record interview with the banking editor, but then insisted on revising his answers. 

Irritated by this interference, the German paper published the interview without the answers. I’m not sure this shows Monsieur Prot in his best light – he certainly doesn’t come across as a master of the universe if he has nothing to say for himself.

Realising they might have scored an own goal, BNP’s press team subsequently posted their version of the interview on their website.

The blanks prove that freedom of the press is still alive despite the dictates of big business. 

Woody stands out as power crowd shun new Savoy Grill 

I recently had lunch with a charming mole, who took me to the Savoy Grill. This was once a legendary meeting place for the power crowd. It has now been refurbished and is run by Gordon Ramsay.

 

To me, the crowd seemed less powerful: a sprinkling of CEOs and a surfeit of more mundane, middle-ranking executives munching on expense accounts.

However, at the next table, I spotted a grey-haired, glum-looking gentleman. “It’s odd,” I mused to Mole. “That chap looks a bit like a much older version of Mike Sherwood (co- head of Goldman Sachs International). Mole laughed. “Abigail,” he said. “Welcome to 2011. That is Woody himself.”

 

Sherwood, who has spent most of his career at Goldman Sachs – rising through the ranks of the fixed income, currency and commodities division – owns a lot of Goldman stock. One source estimates the share stack at close to $40 million.

Perhaps that’s why Sherwood looked so gloomy. After all, Goldman’s share price has declined by more than 40% from its $175 peak in January.

By the way, it’s worth pointing out that most bank employees now receive a lot of stock as part of their compensation. All plans awarded in early 2011 must now be severely under water.

Watch out for Weinberg G3 in Goldman succession stakes

Woody’s glum demeanour might also have been due to succession planning or the lack of it at the firm. For more than a year, commentators have been insisting that Goldman’s chief executive Lloyd Blankfein would have to step down.

There have, indeed, been some enormous bumps in the road: the Abacus CDO case with the Fabulous Fab in the driving seat; the obvious hostility of regulators towards the firm; the ‘We do God’s work’ interview. But Teflon Lloyd prances on.

And I’m not convinced he’s going anywhere in a hurry. But if he were to be run over by a bus tomorrow, who would ascend the Goldman throne? Sherwood has been mentioned as a contender, but my sources say this is unlikely.

Potential candidates Gary Cohn, president, and Mike Evans, head of growth markets, are not popular internally. I wouldn’t discount David Viniar, the firm’s respected chief financial officer.

But might the baton fall to Johnny Weinberg, co-head of the investment banking division?

Weinberg keeps a low profile but has form. He is the third generation of a dynasty that has been at Goldman since the early 1900s. Johnny’s father John L Weinberg ran the firm from 1976 to 1990 and his grandfather, the sainted Sidney, was in charge from 1930 to 1969.

Sidney, who started as the janitor’s assistant aged 16, came to epitomise the art of relationship banking. In his heyday, he sat on more than 30 corporate boards and is said to have attended an average of 250 board or committee meetings a year.

People close to Goldman say than Johnny is popular internally, has done a great job in the investment banking division and would be a credible public face for a firm that has had to get used to living in the headlines.

Industry in meltdown heads towards inevitable iceberg 

Blankfein might turn out to be one of the great survivors. Nevertheless, I am becoming convinced that the investment banking industry can be compared to the good ship Titanic, silently advancing through the dark night, towards the immutable iceberg.

Bank CEOs and bank boards have done their shareholders a terrible disservice: they refused to contemplate a plan B – what to do if there was no sustainable economic growth after the rebound in 2009. And, of course, regulators have twisted the knife by insisting on higher capital requirements and lower leverage ratios.

One mole moans: “This is an industry in meltdown.” As we wait to see if European politicians will proffer anything more substantive than woolly words, the European banking industry stands on the edge of a recapitalization precipice, and the results from American financial institutions will be poor.

For how much longer can the industry justify an egregious compensation structure that elevates the pocket-books of employees and mocks the interests of shareholders? 



What do you think? News and views please to abigail@euromoney.com  

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