Accounting charge trims Morgan Stanley revenue; earnings beat estimates

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Morgan Stanley reported a first-quarter loss on a big accounting charge Thursday. But investors ignored the charge and focused instead on how the bank beat Wall Street’s forecasts for earnings and revenue, sending the stock higher on a down day for the market.

Revenue rose to $8.9 billion from $7.8 billion a year ago excluding the charge, trouncing the $7.6 billion predicted by analysts polled by FactSet.

The bank’s results reveal what investors are plowing their money into. Revenue from underwriting bond sales increased as both high-grade and riskier companies raised money by selling debt. On the other hand, revenue from underwriting stock sales plunged as fewer companies went public. Advisory revenue also fell as fewer companies sought advice on mergers and acquisitions, a sign that business leaders are uncertain about the future of the economy.

CEO James Gorman, speaking on a conference call with analysts, called market conditions “reasonable” — but “not exactly a bullish market environment.”

Sales and trading revenue increased, excluding the accounting charge, with a much bigger increase coming from bonds versus stocks. The bank attributed the increase partly to investments it has made in technology and the leadership of the respective units.

“I don’t regard it as a bolt of lightning out of the sky,” Gorman said. “I’m sure we’ll see some ups and some downs over the next several quarters, but it shows evidence that the investments we’ve made are in the right direction.”

Morgan Stanley’s stock rose 1.6 per cent to $17.93 in afternoon trading. In a statement earlier, Gorman said the results were “further evidence that Morgan Stanley has rebounded from the financial crisis of 2008.”

Nonetheless, there are still reminders that the banking industry of today is far different compared with the halcyon days before the crisis. Return on equity, an important measure of profitability, was about 9 per cent excluding the accounting charge. That was up dramatically from the paltry 2 per cent it hit at the end of 2009, before Gorman took over. But it was also down sharply from five years ago, when it nearly topped 30 per cent.

Gorman had a long to-do list when he took over as CEO at the start of 2010. He characterized the most recent quarter as a culmination of some of those goals.

Gorman has been trying to expand Morgan Stanley’s wealth management business, where returns may be less spectacular than in investment banking during flush times but have the benefit of being steadier during lean times. Like its chief rival Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley is under pressure to rejigger its revenue sources before new government rules crimp some of the business practices that have been reliable generators of profit in the past.

Chief financial officer Ruth Porat said in an interview that the bank expects deal activity to pick up in the second half of the year as companies become less nervous about the global economy, including concerns over Europe. “If you’re going to do something big and sizeable, you want to have a generally stable environment so you know you’re doing it at the right time and your shareholders like it,” Porat said.

Porat said the European Central Bank’s decision to extend emergency loans to banks had been a “game changer” that at least temporarily calmed fears about Europe. But, she added, “It gave them time … It didn’t solve the problem. The euro zone remains fragile.”

One of Gorman’s goals is buying the rest of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, the retail unit that Morgan Stanley jointly owns with Citigroup. Morgan Stanley currently owns 51 per cent, and Gorman said the bank had “a clear plan” for buying the rest of it but felt “no particular compulsion or anxiety to accelerate that.”

Overall revenue for global wealth management, which includes Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, held steady. The number of employees at the unit, which offers financial advice for wealthy individuals and small and medium-sized businesses, fell to about 17,200 from 18,100.

Revenue from asset management, which manages investment portfolios, fell 14 per cent.

Under Gorman, Morgan Stanley has been cutting jobs and trimming expenses to make up for unsteady returns. The bank shed nearly 3,000 jobs, or about 5 per cent of its workforce, over the year. The bank spent slightly more on compensation and benefits, $4.4 billion versus $4.3 billion a year ago, though that included $138 million it spent to lay off workers in January.

Morgan Stanley has also been cutting its exposure to risky European markets. The bank’s gross exposure — which doesn’t include hedges it has taken to protect itself — to Italy fell to $1.9 billion from $2.9 billion in January. It also trimmed its exposure to Greece and Spain, though its exposure to Ireland increased.

The bank is still paying for concerns from last fall over its European exposure. In the third quarter, its stock plunged more than 40 per cent on worries about its exposure to Europe, and it still hasn’t fully recovered.

Excluding the accounting charge, Morgan Stanley earned $1.3 billion on continuing operations, up from $866 million the year before. On a per-share basis, earnings were 71 cents, far exceeding the 44 cents predicted by analysts.

The bank had to book a $2 billion hit to its revenue because of accounting rules related to an increase in the cost of the bank’s debt. Because the bank would theoretically have to buy back its debt at a higher price, accounting rules require that a loss be recorded.

Including those charges for this quarter and previous quarters, revenue was down, falling to $6.9 billion from $7.6 billion in the year-ago period. With the accounting charge, the bank swung to a loss instead of a profit, losing $103 million on continuing operations.

The bank also lost money for the quarter when discontinued operations are included. The bank is selling Saxon, a mortgage-servicing unit.