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Voices: Morgan Stanley loosens the purse strings

Morgan Stanley is, all of a sudden, Wall Street’s big spender.

The Wall Street firm reported second-quarter earnings on Wednesday morning that were broadly better than expected. Most notable was Morgan Stanley’s fixed-income and commodities trading, which beat expectations. Rival Goldman Sachs missed in that unit, where it had once dominated Morgan Stanley, but the fortunes of the two firms have reversed.

Overall, Morgan Stanley’s revenue was $10.6 billion, which was more than $500 million above analysts’ expectations and 12% higher than they were in the quarter a year earlier. Earnings rose nearly 40% from a year ago, but more than half of that gain, like at the other big banks, was thanks to President Trump’s signature tax cut. Morgan Stanley’s tax rate dropped to nearly 21% in the quarter from 33% a year ago.

The one exception was expenses, which were higher than expected for Morgan Stanley. The firm has always been a bigger spender than the big banks that have large traditional lending businesses because of Wall Street’s outsized salaries. But even compared with Goldman, Morgan Stanley’s expense gap has widened. A year ago, Morgan Stanley’s noninterest expense as a percentage of revenue was just 3% more than Goldman’s. This quarter it was 8% larger.

Taxi cabs pass in front of Morgan Stanley headquarters in New York, U.S., on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Morgan Stanley is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 18. Photographer: Bess Adler/Bloomberg
Taxi cabs pass in front of Morgan Stanley headquarters in New York, U.S., on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Morgan Stanley is scheduled to release earnings figures on July 18. Photographer: Bess Adler/Bloomberg

Goldman also cut its costs 9% from the previous quarter. Morgan Stanley’s expenses dropped 2%.

Some of that difference reflects Goldman’s struggles. Analysts said Goldman juiced its earnings this quarter by putting less aside for bonuses than typical. But it’s also a shift for Morgan Stanley. Just a few years ago, CEO James Gorman famously told the firm’s bankers that bonuses would have to be curtailed. He said anyone who didn’t like that could work elsewhere.

Now it appears Gorman has loosened the purse strings compared with his bank’s rivals. It’s a luxury for a firm that was nearly wiped out in the financial crisis but now appears to be at the top of its game. Investors most likely won’t grumble for now. But Morgan Stanley has a business that is much more tied to the market, as well as a joint venture in China. If a trade war, or something else, causes the firm’s performance to slip, Morgan Stanley’s hard-won spending privileges may get revoked quickly.