Friday, November 16, 2012

Jefferies: Comfortable in its Niche

In finance circles, Jefferies, the mid-sized, New York-based investment bank, is a "tweener"--too big and mature to be a young upstart, but not  large or imposing enough to earn the label "bulge bracket" or "too big too fail." Like a Knight Capital or MF Global, if Jefferies were in danger of sliding into oblivion, government regulators and market counterparties would let it go.

Amidst all the post-election squabble about "fiscal cliffs" and recent stomach-churning market volatility, Jefferies quietly slipped into the business news this month. It agreed to be acquired by its minority owner, the conglomerate holding company Leucadia.  The transaction won't shake the broker/dealer world. It may hardly move anybody in any way.

But it brings to mind the consistent, stable performance of a niche investment bank, one that has always been too small to be a threat of any kind to behemoths Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. Yet it is one that is a bit too large to be called a specialized boutique (like Greenhill or Evercore) and too broad in scope to be a Lazard.  The quiet acquisition reminds us how one firm through decades of incarnations and shake-ups has survived when others (bigger and better known) like Bear Stearns and Lehman couldn't.

MBA students interested in banking and finance usually don't know the firm as well as it should. Jefferies is not widely known to criss-cross the country to visit top business schools and make flashy corporate presentations, hungry to recruit the best MBAs. And some might rate its diversity  record slightly less than satisfactory.  Bankers and traders across the globe are from various ethnic groups, many backgrounds and countries. The board of directors and executive committee, however, appear to be a club of long-time Jefferies executives--with virtually no representation from under-represented groups (women and minorities).  

The firm, which used to promote itself the go-to investment bank for the "middle market," has endured its share of troubles, problems and scares. When the dust often settles--whether they were insider-trading problems years ago or European-debt turmoil of a year ago, Jefferies appears to wipe itself off and proceed with its normal course. Or it sometimes swoops in to purchase the valued pieces left behind by other firms that failed.

The acquisition by Leucadia will come with synergies and provide a resource for more capital, if and when it needs it. (Leucadia, known also to be a "Baby Berkshire," manages private investments in multiple industries.) Jefferies will continue its business as usual. In times when capital is king, Jefferies likely decided that it should have a parent that could provide capital at a moment's notice--without it having to fall into the hands of the big boys like JPMorgan or Credit Suisse. Jefferies can now have access to capital, but still be Jefferies after all.

The bank manages a diverse array of businesses (sales & trading, investment banking, equities, fixed-come, precious metals, and brokerage) with a $3.3 billion capital base--too large to be called a pure-advisory boutique like Greenhill or Moelis, too small to be in the league of Goldman or Morgan Stanley.  To its credit, it has never aspired to go head-to-head with Morgan Stanley in most of its business lines.

Years ago it pronounced itself as the favorite investment bank for middle-market clients, seizing upon a niche that even the boutiques and bulge-brackets often ignored.  Growing, middle-market companies are enterprises that issue modest amounts of new equity and high-yield debt to support growth. Jefferies elected, too, to tap aggressively into the high-yield niche, when boutiques couldn't do so and the bulge-brackets wavered about their commitment to "junk bonds."

The bank has certainly withstood its share of storms. Its founder, Boyd Jefferies, got caught in the whirlwind of insider-trading scandals of the 1980s. At the time, the firm was better known as a "third market" trading firm, making markets in equities after normal trading hours. More recently, as the financial crisis unfurled, the firm got caught with excessive amounts of high-yield and mortgage securities on its balance sheet (just like its larger peers). 

Last year, when the whole world watched the crumbling state of finances in Greece and Spain, market watchers turned suddenly to Jefferies and wondered whether the firm was overloaded with European debt or other related exposures.  Rumors swirled, and its stock price tanked. When MF Global collapsed, partly because of excessive Europe exposures, financial markets wondered if Jefferies would be next. Markets always play a guessing game of who's-next. Some made unfair, ungrounded accusations about what toxic waste might be hiding on Jefferies' balance sheet.

Somehow Jefferies escaped that tumult and pulled through to have a stellar, profitable year in 2011.  In 2012, it's on its way to a $250-million-plus earnings year (good enough for a respectable 8-10% ROE).

Every other year, there are industry shake-outs. While firms like DLJ, Drexel Burnham, A.G. Edwards, Alex Brown, Hambrecht & Quist, Montgomery Securities and L.F. Rothschild have disappeared to the back financial history books, Jefferies plods along. Richard Handler is its CEO, who roared often when others claimed the firm was overloaded with Greek exposure, and will also become the head of Leucadia.

A strategy of remaining comfortable and aggressive within its niche, allowing itself to seize pockets of opportunity when they arise, has probably made the difference. It would, however, be nice to see it do better in diversity at its top rungs.

Tracy Williams

See also

CFN:  MF Global and Its Collapse, 2011
CFN:  Knight Capital's Darkest Day, 2012

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