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How the Financial Crisis Reshaped Morgan Stanley

5 minute read
Stephen Gandel

Two and a half years ago, at Morgan Stanley’s annual meeting, CEO John Mack fielded a question from a worried investor. Mack’s firm had had a good 2006 and early 2007, but the questioner was concerned that much of the new profits seemed to be coming from increased borrowing and bets the bank was making with its own capital. Mack answered defiantly.

“Do we take a lot of risk? Yes,” Mack told the shareholder. “I think the firm has the capacity to take a lot more risk than it has in the past.”

What a difference a financial crisis makes. Mack has spent much of the past year putting Morgan Stanley on safer ground. He has dramatically lowered borrowing and shut down the firm’s proprietary trading desk. He changed Morgan from a Wall Street dealer to a bank holding company, and more than tripled the firm’s deposit base, which is a safer source of capital. And in a major break from the bank’s 70-year history he de-emphasized investment banking as the driver of Morgan Stanley’s profits. In June, he completed the purchase of a majority stake in Salomon Smith Barney’s brokerage division, instantly turning Morgan Stanley, once an élite white-shoe institution, into the largest brokerage house in America.

(See TIME’s special report “The Financial Crisis After One Year.”)

The financial crisis and its aftermath have dramatically changed investor perceptions, particularly with respect to the soundness of our financial system. In response, big financial firms are changing, but few firms have changed more than Morgan Stanley. The latest sign of Morgan’s transformation came two weeks ago when the firm announced that James Gorman would replace Mack in January. Unlike Mack, and nearly every other head of Morgan Stanley, Gorman has never been an investment banker. Gorman, a former McKinsey consultant, joined Morgan three years ago from Merrill Lynch, where he had run that firm’s brokerage force. At Morgan, he was in charge of revamping the firm’s brokerage division, and recently integrating the Smith Barney acquisition. Observers say Gorman’s background will likely move Morgan further away from its roots.

“When Gorman was named CEO that was a defining moment in Morgan’s history,” says Charles Geisst, a Wall Street historian and author of the book Collateral Damaged. “The large brokerage force is going to change Morgan. People begin to see you more as a distribution business than in the investment-banking business.”

Gorman has said that while the firm will shut down part of its trading desk it has no plans to fully exit the investment-banking business. It still plans to advise clients on mergers and manage stock and bond offerings, as well as complete trades for others. Gorman recently told employees at a town-hall-type meeting, “The heart, the DNA — the fabric of this place — has always been the institutional securities [investment banking] business and, frankly, should always be … That’s our roots.”

(See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)

Still, it’s clear that Morgan has taken a different road out of the financial crisis than its closest rival, Goldman Sachs. In the past year, Goldman has dramatically ramped up its trading desk. That move has led to big profits in the past year but the firm has also opened itself up to bigger losses should its traders get things wrong. Based on its trading activity now, Goldman says it could lose as much as $250 million in a day should its bets go wrong, up 30% from a year ago. What’s more, even though Goldman has become a bank holding company, like Morgan, it has done little to begin to attract more deposits.

Morgan, on the other hand, estimated the most it could lose on its daily trading desk on any given day was $114 million, or less than half of what Goldman could lose. And Morgan is in the process of eliminating nearly all of the trading it does for its own account, which means how much it risks in the market each day should continue to drop.

And Morgan, unlike Goldman, seems to be really interested in building up its deposit base. Last year, the firm hired former Wachovia executive Cece Sutton to run its retail-banking division. Last month, Morgan said it would soon be adding more employees in Charlotte and New York to help expand its banking operations. Already the bank has nearly tripled its customers’ deposits to just over $100 billion.

The hires come at a time when the bank’s traditional investment-banking operations seem to be shrinking. Overall, Morgan has lowered its payrolls by 8% in the past year, but its ranks of investment bankers have fallen by a slightly steeper 10%. And in underwriting, a key investment-banking business, Morgan has continued to lose ground. Through the first six months of this year, Morgan ranked as the sixth largest underwriter of stock and bond offerings, down from fourth two years ago.

But the biggest change by far for Morgan Stanley comes from the acquisition of the Salomon Smith Barney brokerage division. The deal, which was announced in January, has boosted the number of brokers at Morgan Stanley to just over 20,000. That makes Morgan the largest brokerage house in the country. Brad Hintz, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., estimates that after the acquisition is complete Morgan will get 42% of its revenue from its brokerage division, up from 20% a year ago.

“Morgan Stanley is not abandoning its investment-banking roots, but it is making the bet that retail brokerage operations are going to be valued more in the market than in the past,” says Hintz.

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