One need look no further than the ways in which the last two giants of New York banking have each recently spent upward of $30 billion to see that convergence is not going to homogenize the competitive landscape.
Citigroup Inc.'s deal for Associates First Capital Corp., as pure a play in the mass retail space as could be imagined, was almost perfectly counterbalanced by Chase Manhattan Corp.'s pickup of J.P. Morgan & Co., as blue-chip a name as has existed in banking.
Rather than reducing the top tier to a band of lookalikes, the decade of deals (during which three giants - Morgan, Manufacturers Hanover, and Chemical - were folded into Chase) has yielded a strikingly divergent array of management philosophies and styles. New York's surviving twin towers of finance are now leaning towers, Citi heavily tilted toward retail, Chase to wholesale.
Of course, each crosses over into the other's strengths. Citi after all owns Salomon Smith Barney, itself a hybrid of an underwriting-trading firm and a classic retail brokerage, while Chase continues to dominate the local market in bread-and-butter areas like deposits. According to FDIC data, its 23% deposit market share in New York as of mid-1999 nearly matched the next four banks combined.
The rationales behind these last two deals do echo each other. In each case, cross-selling was key, whether on a consumer-lending/insurance/brokerage basis or on a loan-syndication/investment-banking/merger-advisory basis.
And each acquisition was aimed at gaining a leg up in international markets. Associates (or is that Morgan?) is a major presence in Japan, while Morgan (or was that Associates?) will bring a boost in Europe.
But by wedding itself to J.P. Morgan, Chase showed its intent to henceforth be a much more indirect competitor to retail operators like Citi. The new J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. will derive more than half its profits from investment banking and about one in six of its earnings dollars from consumer businesses, down from a current level of nearly one in three. "This is all about wholesale," Chase chairman and chief executive William B. Harrison Jr. said.
Given that Mr. Harrison also noted that there would be no further major mergers for Chase, one can reasonably ask whether it has all been a preamble to the bank's exit from retail businesses. But Chase executives have since said that such a plan is the furthest thing from their minds.
Mr. Harrison, who has been addressing employees via a flurry of conference calls and memorandums, has stressed an ongoing commitment to consumer banking. "He's said he likes the diversity of the earnings stream that it brings and the fact that we have several leadership positions within consumer services," Chase spokesman Jon Diat said.
Still, retail banking was a revenue soft spot in the second quarter, with just 1% growth. Profits grew 6%, which is better - although the bank cited auto lending and narrowing margins on card portfolios as drags in the quarter.
What happens to Chase in consumer, ironically enough, is in the hands of an executive picked up when the company acquired the advisory firm Beacon Group, a deal that incidentally helped swing Morgan executives over to the view that they could thrive in a Chase organization. David Coulter, who arrived at Chase via Beacon from Bank of America, was chosen to head retail banking and Internet initiatives for the combined J.P. Morgan Chase. From retail to wholesale and back again.
On Wall Street, one of the great bastions of grade inflation, hundreds if not thousands of "strong buy" ratings are offered up for every occurrence of the rare "sell." As a consequence, anything but high praise draws immediate attention.
The tendency to politeness can reach extremes when analysts are asked to cover competitors.
So it was probably inevitable that J.P. Morgan analyst Catherine Murray's words would catch up to her. Within days of the news of the merger, the business pages of the New York Post, a local tabloid, recalled that Ms. Murray had just before the summer downgraded Chase shares to a decidedly tepid "market performer" rating.
Now, just months later, Ms. Murray finds herself working for the very company that just three months ago she counseled investors to bypass.
And they wonder why analysts are reluctant to issue "sell" ratings.