NEW YORK – For 147 years, Goldman Sachs has been best known as a secretive, Wall Street dealmaker with the ear of the White House. It helps big institutions and billionaires bet on the markets, and large corporations raise money.
What it hasn’t done – until now – is work closely with the average American.
Now, the elite New York bank is jumping into the world of retail banking, launching GS Bank to offer high-yield online savings accounts for those with as little as $1. The investment bank is also serving up retirement savings accounts. It won’t be long, too, before consumers can ask mighty Goldman Sachs, which requires clients to have at least $10 million for its wealth management services, for a loan of a few thousand dollars to fix a roof or get rid of high-interest credit cards.
The move is a stark example of the changes the financial world has undertaken since the 2008 financial crisis. New regulations have made consumer banking an attractive market for Goldman – and a potentially profitable one.
To be successful, Goldman will have to contend not only with a crowded field of big-name banks, community institutions and credit unions, but with new technology upstarts leveraging the power of mobile phones and the Internet. And it will likely have to shake the public perception that it helped cause the financial crisis and shirked distressed homeowners in the process. Goldman Sachs has repeatedly defended its conduct, insisting it did not misled investors, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders often mentions the firm when lamenting Wall Street greed, andGoldman has been hit with billions in fines and penalties for alleged crisis-era misdeeds.
“If there was ever a test of whether or not the stigma . . . of Wall Street’s too-big-to-fail banks has faded it would be Goldman Sachs,” said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a financial markets public interest group.
Since the crisis, Goldman has attempted to be more transparent and show the public how what it does benefits the economy. It has started a Twitter account, and even occasionally hosts podcasts. It has been making efforts to engage with the public more, Goldman officials have said.
Its move into retail banking is in part a response to the 2010 financial reform package, known as Dodd Frank, that is helping to shape a significant – and largely unnoticed – transformation of the U.S. banking sector. Competition has squeezed hundreds out of small and mid-tier banks out of the market, and the survivors have fortified their balance sheets, holding onto more cash and borrowing less.
But regulators still aren’t satisfied and there is a growing call for the big banks to be broken apart, forcing financial industry executives to continue to adapt.
For Goldman the pressure is hitting as sluggish markets and new regulations have stung some of its most historically profitable areas, including trading. The bank reported a 57 percent drop in first quarter profits and is still smaller, in terms of total assets, than it was before the financial crisis.
Now, it has launched a broad effort to diversify into new markets. “We look at that platform [retail banking] as a basis for building new businesses that will contribute to the growth of the firm,” said Stephen Scherr, Goldman chief strategy officer.
That effort has started with the Goldman Sachs savings account, which comes with few perks, but offers competitive rates industry experts say could attract customers. The account has a 1.05 percent yield, while a one-year certificate of deposit has a 1 percent return. Both are stingy by historical standards but are much higher than what most banks are currently offering. (A savings account at Bank of America and Wells Fargo, for example, earns about 0.01 percent, according to Bankrate.)
But Goldman’s status as a newbie to this part of the financial industry also shows. Checking accounts may be coming soon, but Goldman no has plans for a physical bank branch and currently lacks the millennial calling card-a mobile app. Still, Goldman says it has seen intense interest in the savings accounts, a business it bought from GE Capital Bank earlier this year.
“It’s pretty heartening to us. . . the extent to which consumers are open to engaging with Goldman Sachs as an institution for their business and it is our ambition to see to it that we keep and attract customers,” said Scherr. “We will be successful only to the extent that our product offering is competitive and their experience is a good one.”
Goldman’s Main Street charm offensive will continue later this year when it plans to launch an online-lending project. The bank hasn’t discussed how big the loans could be, but expects to be able to offer competitive rates.
The bank is also getting into the retirement business. In March, it purchased Honest Dollar, an Austin-based start up that helps employees set up individual retirement accounts. With a mobile app, an employee can quickly set up an account, starting by taking a picture of their drivers’ license, Goldman says.
These new businesses will require a cultural change, industry experts say. Goldman has a well honed playbook when it comes to pleasing the uber wealthy but the everyday headaches of dealing with Main Street will be new.
“Investing the funds of someone with $10 million or $20 million is very different than someone with a small savings account,” said David Becher, an associate professor of financial at the University of Pennsylvania.
Goldman’s entry into the consumer banking world dates back to a fateful decision in 2008. Then the bank and its rival, Morgan Stanley, were investment banks, exempt from many of the regulatory hurdles faced by traditional retail banks. But in the early days of the crisis, Goldman and Morgan Stanley found themselves in a funding crunch and in need of government help. In order to get it, they became bank holding companies.
“If you are a bank holding company and the government is going to be on the hook for you, they want to make sure you have enough cash to deal with any crisis that comes along,” said Becher.
Now, under stricter government oversight, Goldman and the rest of the banking sector must convince regulators that if faced with another cash crunch, they will have enough money set aside to operate without taxpayer help. In judging whether banks are living up to those standards, regulators even rate where banks are getting their funds and view money from retail banking-savings and checking accounts-most favorably.
Those funds, up to $250,000, are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and customers are less likely to withdraw their money in a panic if there is a crisis. That makes them more “sticky” during tough times and has made this sector more attractive to Goldman Sachs, which has traditionally depended on short-term loans now discouraged by regulators.
“Capital is so precious,” said Ken Leon, global research director at S&P Global Market Intelligence. “Goldman Sachs’ balance sheet can no longer be leveraged like it was in 2008.”
Goldman Sachs could also deploy those retail banking assets – the money consumers have set aside in savings accounts – to help fund other parts of its business. Otherwise, Goldman could use consumers’ savings to make loans to companies or for other of the bank’s traditional businesses, industry experts say.
“The money doesn’t sit there. They are pooled savings and they are going to be deploying that money,” said Kelleher from Better Markets. “That is the whole concept of banking.”