Morgan Stanley should relish being the odd one out.
Like its five bigger peers, the firm on Wednesday posted results that handily beat Wall Street's expectations for its second-quarter earnings. But it bucked a trend that afflicted those five: Morgan Stanley's shares actually bounced higher in pre-market trading on Wednesday, underscoring its achievement of a rare feat: broad-based satisfaction among shareholders.
This time last year, James Gorman, the bank's chairman and CEO, deemed it too early to take a celebratory victory lap over its decision to reorganize its fixed-income trading business (a move it made after shifting its focus toward wealth management). Back then, the unit's revival showed early signs of health through its delivery of more than $1 billion in revenue. A recent Wall Street Journal profile of Morgan Stanley's trading chief Ted Pick reiterated the bank's hesitance to celebrate its burgeoning success: he had been telling associates that the division was "operating with 'omentum'— that is, momentum with an 'm' so small it is invisible."
It's nice to be humble, but the numbers paint another picture. Morgan Stanley's latest results show the bank blew through $1 billion in fixed-income trading revenue for the fifth consecutive quarter. In doing so, it's been able to better the results of close rival Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for a second straight period.
Morgan Stanley's ability to displace its stalwart rival, in part by taking on more risk, isn't going unnoticed. Even though executives will likely continue to play it down, they've earned the right to some out-of-the-spotlight high-fives and pats on the back.
It's easy to see why investors are so upbeat: Although there is room for improvement, the bank's return on equity, a key profitability measure, is finally more dependable and once again within management's targeted range. (This quarter it even bested ...you guessed it, Goldman Sachs).
And it's not just the top line -- Morgan Stanley also has kept a watchful eye on expenses. This quarter, its compensation ratio -- traditionally the biggest cost for banks -- fell to a whisker below 45 percent, which itself is a level that Bloomberg Intelligence analysts weren't expecting it to hit until 2018. Investors will be grateful that the New York-based bank has been successfully keeping a lid on non-compensation expenses, too:
The bank is ticking all the boxes, despite having to operate in the same challenging environment afflicting its rivals -- and it's being rewarded by Wall Street as a result. The stock now trades at a price-to-book-value ratio of 1.2, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, a rightful premium to its five-year historic average. That itself will give Morgan Stanley further bragging rights -- its shares basically no longer trade at a discount to Goldman's.
Whether or not the bank can justify its current valuation, which may well shift higher, will depend on its ability to maintain its 'omentum' not only in fixed-income trading, but across key businesses of equities trading and wealth management, which appear to be bulletproof. For now, it's hard to foresee a halt to its progress.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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