The decline of financial services

Speaking of the future of the services industry (see earlier posting) , today’s Wall Street Journal is running a Page One story Has the Financial Industry’s Heyday Come and Gone?:

For the past three decades, finance has claimed a growing share of the U.S. stock market, profits and the overall economy.
But the role of finance — the businesses of borrowing, lending, investing and all the middlemen in between — may be ebbing, a shift that would redefine the U.S. economy. “The role of finance in the economy is going to come down significantly in the coming years,” says Carlos Asilis, chief investment officer at Glovista Investments, a New Jersey money manager. “From a societal standpoint, we got carried away with finance.”
The trend already has hurt companies beyond banks and Wall Street firms. General Electric Co.’s first-quarter profits at its financial-services businesses were 21% lower than a year earlier. Retailer Target Corp., which got 13% of its before-tax profit last year from credit cards, last month wrote off $55.5 million in credit-card loans, 8.1% of its total portfolio at an annualized rate.
“I think you’re seeing a clear inflection point,” says Tom Gallagher, an ISI Group analyst. “Whether it’s financials as a share of the stock market or financials as a share of GDP, we’ve peaked.”
. . .
For finance workers, this shift could resemble the 1980s, when manufacturing lost its pole position in the U.S. labor market and thousands found that skills they had honed over the years were less marketable. The Bureau of Labor Statistics already counts 60,000 fewer people working in finance than a year ago. Merrill Lynch & Co. is cutting 4,000 jobs, and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. is cutting 1,425. Many of Bear Stearns Cos.’ 14,000 employees are expected to lose their jobs when J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. swallows the firm.
[New York University economist Thomas] Philippon argues that the surge of financial activity that began in 2002 created an employment bubble that is now busting. His model suggests total employment in finance and insurance has to fall to 6.3 million to get back to historical norms, and that means losing an additional 700,000 jobs in the sector.
Finance has seen job cuts before and bounced back. After the 1987 stock-market crash, E.F. Hutton & Co. was taken over by Shearson Lehman Brothers, then a division of American Express Co., and shed 5,000 jobs. Among them was Jeffrey Applegate’s job as a strategist. He spent the subsequent year doing carpentry and thinking he might make a career of it if financial jobs didn’t come back. He got hired by Shearson Lehman, which evolved into the present-day Lehman Brothers.
Now chief investment officer for Citigroup Inc.’s Citi Global Wealth Management, Mr. Applegate thinks the damage to the financial sector this time will be more lasting than 1987. (Citigroup has announced 6,000 job cuts since the credit crisis began.)
But he doubts finance’s role in the economy will ebb much. Globalization’s demand for free-flowing capital will continue. And the process of turning loans into securities is too powerful a tool for risk management and credit creation to abandon. “Is securitization going to go away? I doubt it,” he says. “Is it going to be more transparent? Are ratings going to be more robust? Is there going to be more regulation? Yeah.”

Are financial services going to wither up and die? No. Is the growth in the financial services sector going to slow down or possibly even retreat? Yes. The bloom may be off the rose, put the rose bush remains — thorns and all.
And that should be a lesson on understanding shifts in the economic structure: just because a sector is hot today doesn’t mean that it will be the economic savior of tomorrow.

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