As the biggest banks agglomerate themselves into national or even global financial monoliths, there is little indication they want to follow in the footsteps of J.P. Morgan and gravitate almost exclusively to the institutional marketplace.
Witness Chase Manhattans insistence, for example, that it will stay active in consumer banking even after absorbing the banking offspring of the Morgan empire, and it becomes clear that no matter how big the biggest get, few can kick the retail habit.
That has led at least some to wonder, hope, or even act on the assumption that the bigger the monoliths get, the more vulnerable they are to the next next wave of bankers. Those in the next wave, like others who came before, aim to capitalize on the big guys need to expend energy coordinating businesses so disparate they might as well be trying to manage assets and manufacture industrial fasteners at the same time.
Such a theory lies behind the newborn Juniper Financial, an Internet financial services company not yet a bank, the company is borrowing a charter from a partner for now whose top executives expect retail customers will be won and lost almost purely on the strength of a focused approach.
Any time youre doing one thing instead of 10, you have a better chance to succeed, argues Richard W. Vague, chairman of Juniper, which plans to open its virtual doors today. (See story, page 10.) To that end, Mr. Vague, along with Juniper co-founder James Stewart, are returning to their direct marketing roots, using credit cards as the flagship of their new shop and attaching supplemental products like mortgages and brokerage through partnerships.
Well sell all the other products, Mr. Vague said. We believe in defining our own market as narrowly as we can.
In recent conference appearances, Mr. Vague has said the state of commercial banking commercial banks, more specifically is an oddity of evolution rather than the natural state of affairs. His theory: the creatures we know as the big commercial banks would not even exist today were financial services to begin from scratch.
The theory is an interesting one, but not necessarily untestable. Certainly, corporate America has passed through its conglomerates, and investors today seem to prefer razor-sharp focus in the companies they own.
But a few exceptions, not all of them relics of a bygone era, stand out.
Warren Buffetts Berkshire Hathaway is remarkably similar in shape to some of the old-style conglomerates, with its massive interests in insurance, its other operating units in businesses as disparate as candy, vacuum cleaners (sold door-to-door, no less), and substantial holdings in a wide range of blue-chip companies.
Mr. Buffetts sway is mighty even among the arms-length operations, sufficient, apparently, to request and receive the resignation of Gillette Co.s chief executive last week.
General Electric Co. is another example. A wide range of businesses that includes a massive financial services component has done little to hamper GEs ability to generate powerful earnings growth. Not to mention some of the highest plaudits in the history of Wall Street: The company boasts a market capitalization that is more than halfway to $1 trillion its value now outstrips even Microsoft Corp. by nearly $200 million.
Still, every once in a while, there is an exit, either from a line of business or from the arena altogether.
For example, last week Provident Bancshares became the latest in a series of companies to close its mortgage shop, as that business continues a wrenching consolidation to a few large players.
And then there was Alleghany Corp., itself a relic of sorts. Founded just months before the stock market crash in 1929 as a railroad holding company, Alleghany was financed by J.P. Morgan and over the subsequent decades diversified, first into insurance in 1949 when it bought Investors Diversified Services (IDS.)
Through an acquisition of Chicago Title and Trust itself a 150-year-old company Alleghany entered asset management, using later acquisitions to build an operation with $45 billion in assets under management. It sold IDS to American Express Co. in the early 1980s, spun Chicago Title off two years ago and last week quit asset management, too, selling the unit to ABN Amro.
Alleghany continues to own insurance businesses and, along with mining, it continues to hold a large ownership stake in Burlington Northern Santa Fe, an oft-merged successor to several old-line railroad companies.
The company also remains a leading provider of industrial fasteners.