October 17, 2017 / 5:44 PM / in a year

Breakingviews - Goldman pips Morgan Stanley on style not substance

By Antony Currie and John Foley

A Wall Street subway stop sign is seen in New York October 10, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

NEW YORK/LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Goldman Sachs pipped Morgan Stanley on style in the third quarter, but not on substance. Lloyd Blankfein’s firm cranked out $2 billion of earnings in the three months to the end of September, at an annualized return on equity of 10.9 percent. That bested the 9.6 percent showing of Goldman’s main Wall Street rival – the first time this year that it has come out ahead. Morgan Stanley boss James Gorman, though, has crafted a more attractive-looking business for the longer term.

Goldman still has strengths. The blue-chip firm came back from a dismal first-half performance trading fixed income, currencies and commodities, reporting a 26 percent year-on-year decline in revenue from that business. While horrid, that places Goldman in the Wall Street pack rather than behind it. And the firm leads its peers in merger advice. Fees generated by Goldman’s dealmakers increased by 38 percent in the quarter, year on year, where the industry fee pool fell by 9 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The trouble is that most of Goldman’s outperformance last quarter is thanks to gains on its private-equity portfolio, which helped push revenue in its equity investing division up by more than half to $1.4 billion. Without that, the bank’s annualized return on equity would have been less than 9 percent. Such gains tend to be lumpy so they can’t be relied upon every quarter.

Morgan Stanley’s earnings look more repeatable. That’s in large part because wealth management is now purring along nicely, even managing a 26.5 percent pre-tax margin, which beats Gorman’s target for the year. The unit brings in almost half the company’s revenue using just a quarter of its capital. Blankfein’s efforts to diversify Goldman’s earnings are still relatively tiny – one example is Marcus, the fast-growing but small retail-banking business. Gorman also has a fixed-income trading business that has weathered recent storms far better than Blankfein’s.

All in, that means Morgan Stanley may not provide as many thrills as Goldman, but it also ought to avoid many of the spills. Goldman’s $94 billion market capitalization has edged back ahead of its rival’s, after they briefly traded places in the summer. There’s a case that they should swap around again.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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