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Sometimes, a bit of repetition is just what is needed to keep up the excitement. For the third year in a row, Goldman Sachs has delivered record earnings. Due to its glittering performance in the first half that was a given. What was remarkable, however, is where much of its earnings power came from.
In the third quarter, Goldman had already tweaked downwards its estimates of how much of its revenue windfall would end up in the pockets of employees. It turns out, however, that the bank did even better once it actually set bonus levels. In the fourth quarter, the investment bank’s compensation ratio fell to an abnormally low 26.6 per cent of revenues, even when the impact of prior-year share grants was included.
Goldman benefited from a 47 per cent jump in fourth quarter revenues and gains were especially strong in principal investments, where compensation accruals tend to be lower. Meanwhile, the reclassification of power generation costs as operating expenses – rather than a reduction to revenues – is a reminder of how broad Goldman’s activities have become.
Nevertheless, even the full year compensation ratio of 43.7 per cent suggests that, for a change, shareholders, as well as rainmakers, are prime beneficiaries of the boom. More encouragingly still, cost discipline should leave some wriggle room once the environment starts turning less favourable. The rise in effective tax rate offers further reassurance on earnings quality.
The trouble is that it remains almost impossible to figure out how bad things could one day get. But with return on tangible equity at an annualised 50 per cent in the fourth quarter, it is worth repeating that anyone betting on good times lasting forever should think again.