(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley are the two Wall Street banks most connected to high-stakes trading. Historically, that made them seem glamorous relative to the other big U.S. institutions, which focused on the more steady business of retail banking.
The tide has turned. Persistently low volatility has made it clear that banks can’t count on traders to drive profits. Goldman’s equities revenue beat expectations earlier this week, in a small sign of hope, but Morgan Stanley’s results on Thursday were more far more indicative of the trend. Its $2.13 billion from equities was the highest among banks but was down 14% from a year ago and fell short of even the lowered estimates of $2.27 billion. In fixed income, currencies and commodities, revenue dropped 18% rather than the expected 7% decline.
This puts Goldman and Morgan Stanley in a tough spot. They’re not well positioned to immediately compete with Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. in catering to the banking needs of Main Street. At the same time, the bank executives have to feel pressure to limit the quarter-to-quarter fluctuations that are at the mercy of the whims of the global markets.
Reading between the lines, their answer to this quandary appears to be more emphasis on wealth management.
Now, this isn’t exactly a revelation, nor an abrupt shift. Morgan Stanley has been moving into wealth management strategically for a while, and Goldman’s division already oversees more than $1 trillion in assets. Still, the banks’ latest commentary and moves in the past quarter make clear that they see this business, which produces a steady stream of fee-based income, as a way to leverage their reputation as titans of Wall Street.
In Morgan Stanley’s earnings call on Thursday, Chief Executive Officer James Gorman specifically praised Dan Simkowitz for his work on building up the firm’s asset-management unit. And by all accounts it was well deserved, with the division’s revenue at the highest in five years. On the wealth-management side, Morgan Stanley posted $4.41 billion of revenue, which was 2% higher than last year and blew away analysts’ estimates for a 9% decline.
Moreover, Morgan Stanley’s wealth-management division posted an impressive 28% profit margin. So impressive, in fact, that it drew more than one question from analysts about whether the bank can sustain that sort of momentum, including from Mike Mayo of Wells Fargo. Gorman insisted “it’s not like we are sitting back and saying we are really milking this.” Rather, “we’re playing for the long run.”
At Goldman, Chief Executive Officer David Solomon on Tuesday highlighted its $750 million purchase of wealth manager United Capital, which was announced in May and represented one of Goldman’s biggest acquisitions in recent memory. Bloomberg News’s Sridhar Natarajan noted at the time that Solomon has made building out fee-based businesses a high priority so that shareholders can more easily estimate the bank’s growth and earnings.
None of this is to say that Morgan Stanley and Goldman will abandon their positions as premier trading firms. But it’s notable to parse what Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Jon Pruzan told Bloomberg News’s Sonali Basak in an interview. “We’re No. 1 in the world” in equities trading, he said, adding that “we would expect to maintain our market share in this type of environment.” He reiterated those comments during the analyst call.
It’s certainly possible that volatility will resume, given that stock markets are hovering near all-time highs and global central banks are on the verge of further easing monetary policy. But framing expectations in terms of maintaining market share would seem to indicate that Pruzan expects further challenges for trading in the coming months and years.
Ted Pick, who oversees all of Morgan Stanley’s traders and investment bankers, made some interesting comments in May about the equities business. He said he had led the division with “high levels of paranoia” because it felt like a couple of competitors were coming after the bank, either on price or looser risk requirements or something else. He said “that’s not a game we’re going to play.”
Rather, as these second-quarter earnings make clear, Morgan Stanley is playing the long game. So is Goldman. When it comes to dealing with the fickle nature of financial markets, sometimes the most sound strategy is to play the hand you’re dealt.
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Brian Chappatta is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering debt markets. He previously covered bonds for Bloomberg News. He is also a CFA charterholder.
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