Morgan Stanley upbeat about future profits, performance

Fri Jan 18, 2013 4:06pm EST
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By Lauren Tara LaCapra

(Reuters) - Morgan Stanley Chief Executive James Gorman said the bank has turned itself around and can meet its goals for profitability, his boldest pronouncement yet about the near-term potential for a company that has long lagged its peers.

The investment bank and wealth manager on Friday posted fourth-quarter earnings that beat analysts' average estimate by a wide margin, helped by a big jump in trading revenue and stronger performance in its wealth management group.

Morgan Stanley's fixed-income trading business performed worse than its rivals, and its overall return on equity, a measure of how efficiently the bank wrings profit from shareholder money, was less than half that of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. But Gorman told investors the bank was "working aggressively" to improve its return on equity.

In current market conditions, the bank's return on equity can reach 10 percent, Gorman said on a conference call. Analysts said the figure is the bare minimum that many investors demand, but it is far above Morgan Stanley's recent performance, and Gorman's statement marks the first time Morgan Stanley has said it can meet that goal even if business doesn't pick up.

"After a year of significant challenges, Morgan Stanley has reached a pivot point," Gorman said in a statement. "Our firm is now poised to reach the returns of which it is capable on behalf of our shareholders."

Morgan Stanley's stock climbed as much as 8.2 percent on Friday, to $22.46, the highest price since August 2011 and marking the biggest intraday jump since June, before closing at $22.38.

"I think Morgan Stanley has turned the corner," said Joe Terril, president of St. Louis-based money manager Terril & Co, which invests in bank stocks. "I believe they'll gradually improve quarter after quarter -- it's not a one-time event."

Morgan Stanley said its wealth management division delivered a 17 percent pretax profit margin in the quarter, exceeding an internal target months ahead of schedule.   Continued...

Investment bank Morgan Stanley is pictured in New York City, September 17, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Segar