What GE’s Decision to Exit the Finance Sector Means
In the case of GE, the decision to exit the finance sector is based on a specific set of circumstances in the post-Lehman Brothers era. Its finance arm has not been growing and, more important, it was designated a “systemically important financial institution” by regulators. That means it will be subject to regulations that have caused serious problems for big banks. So GE’s on-going dribble of sales of small financial firms has been changed to a program of
The real “take away” from the GE decision, to lapse into management jargon, is less what it tells about optimal corporate structures than what it tells about the outlook for the business of lending money, which is what GE financial was all about. The regulatory risks run by players in this sector are now obvious — even the best-managed banks have become involuntary financiers of the Department of Justice, which has separated them from billions in fines, and is now considering how it can appease the liberal base of the Democratic party by bringing criminal actions against individual bankers. And talk that the only way to end “too big to fail” is to end “too big” by breaking up the big banks — the top five control almost half of all bank assets in the U.S. — has gained enough traction to force Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan’s CEO, on the defensive. Unthinkable? No more so than breaking up ATT was thought to be before it was dismembered in 1982, with subsequent benefits for consumers, most notably in accelerated innovation in the telecoms sector. “The regulatory environment today is the most tension-filled, confrontational … of any time in my professional career,” H. Rodgin Cohen told a finance industry conference a few weeks ago. As senior chairman of Sullivan Cromwell, the law firm of choice for many banks, he knows whereof he speaks.
Yes, there is still money to be made in banking, but profits are harder to come by and less certain in these post-crisis days: first-quarter earnings of such titans as Wells Fargo, America’s largest mortgage lender, and Bank of America disappointed investors. The persistence of low interest rates and regulators’ imposition of higher capital requirements are more than offsetting the cost-cutting efforts of many banks.