Morgan Stanley Takes Another Step Forward

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Federal Reserve's bond-buying program isn't going away soon because the U.S. economy still stands on shaky legs. Will Ben Bernanke roll up his stimulus fire hose before he's absolutely sure the fire has been put out?

It didn't go unnoticed that no fewer than three central bankers over the past 24 hours have publicly calmed markets and clarified some misunderstandings. This came as Fed Bank presidents from Dallas and Minneapolis both moved to downplay the perception that quantitative easing is in imminent danger of ending.

At the same time, China's central bank said it will provide more liquidity and take needed steps to support local banks that are tight on cash or experiencing a credit squeeze. That helped the U.S. stock market to rebound on Tuesday.

One of the beneficiaries of that rebound was Morgan Stanley , which recently announced that it will soon complete the purchase of brokerage firm Smith Barney. MS closed Tuesday at $25.03, up 2.6%.

Acquiring the part of Smith Barney it doesn't already own is a big deal, in fact the biggest since 1997 when MS bought Dean Witter Discover. The leadership of MS knows how to operate retail brokerage companies.

The current MS CEO is James Gorman, the same James Gorman who used to head Merrill Lynch's brokerage division. He and the board of directors want to transition MS into a company that enjoys the multiple streams of income that derive from wealth-management fees.

According to a June 21 press release, the company has received regulatory approval to buy the remaining 35 % interest in Morgan Stanley Smith Barney from Citigroup , fulfilling a key strategic priority.

The MS press release reads, "Upon the close of the purchase, Morgan Stanley will own 100% of the business, which operates under the name Morgan Stanley Wealth Management. Morgan Stanley will notify Citigroup that it intends to exercise its right to purchase the remaining interest at a previously established price of $4.7 billion, payable in cash. The closing is expected to take place on or about June 28, 2013."

It's been a very good year for MS stock. Last year CEO Gorman, in an effort to boost profitability, reduced the MS bond-trading side of the company and ramped up the wealth-management and brokerage side. As the chart below shows, it was well received by Wall Street.

MS Chart
MS data by YCharts

If an investor had purchased shares of MS late last July, they'd still be up 100% after the latest market bloodletting. That said, I'd rather hold out for a price-per-share correction below $24 before beginning to accumulate.

The stock currently pays a dividend of less than 1%, which still represents a rather high payout ratio of 38% -- in spite of the fact that as of March 31, MS had total cash of nearly $617.6 billion and trailing 12-month operating cash flow of over $21 billion.

Some big pluses for shareholders are that MS leadership has publicly stated that once it owns the rest of the Smith Barney business it would improve the firm's pretax income by $200 million a quarter. It will also open up some revenue growth opportunities via lending and routing orders to MS' trading desk.

MS shares are trading at a forward (one-year) price/earnings ratio of under 10, with a book value per share of over $31. The company will be reporting quarterly earnings again in July or August and that will be another opportunity for Gorman to talk up the advantages of the MS wealth- management business focus.

In an interview June 20, the CEO remained optimistic that MS is on track for success. "This is an undernourished bank, with a lot of deposits and few assets. It's all upside, from my perspective," he said.

As long as the investment markets stay healthy and Dr. Bernanke keeps using his fire hose to cool rising long-term rates and keep short-term rates near zero, things should go well for wealth-management-centric firms such as Morgan Stanley.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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