(Recasts headline, adds data on millionaire clients)
By Jed Horowitz
NEW YORK, April 17 (Reuters) - Morgan Stanley's big bet on wealth management is looking strong as fees, commissions and interest collected by its more than 16,000 brokers fueled a 13 percent rise in the business's first-quarter net income from a year earlier to $423 million, the company said Thursday.
Chief Executive James Gorman, who devised the plan to buy Citigroup's Smith Barney and become the world's biggest stockbroker as measured by sales force, said issues related to integrating the firms over the past five years are now resolved. The stability and profitability of Morgan Stanley's wealth and asset management businesses, he added, made it possible to double the firm's dividend payment and install a $1 billion stock buyback program this year.
"Growing earnings from wealth and investment management suggest an annual dividend of two or three times recent levels," he said on a conference call with analysts. Investors in the sixth largest bank can expect dividend and share buyback payouts in the future to just about track the profit Morgan Stanley makes in wealth management, subject to regulatory approval, he added.
Like wealth management rivals such as Bank of America's Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo Corp's Wells Fargo Advisors, Morgan Stanley's brokers are basing more of their sales on fee-based accounts rather than transaction-based commissions and encouraging traditional brokerage customers to buy mortgages and other loans from their bank affiliate.
Assets collected by brokers in the first quarter rose 24 percent from a year ago and 2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2013 to $19 billion. Total fee-based assets in client accounts reached a record $724 billion at the end of the quarter, helped by market gains as well as new assets.
Wealth management in the first quarter comprised 40.6 percent of Morgan Stanley's total revenue and 30 percent of its pretax profit from continuing operations. Wealth management's profit margins continue to outpace those of the company's other businesses. Its pretax profit margin hit 19 percent in the quarter, and the firm's chief financial officer said it is on target to reach 22 percent to 25 percent by the end of next year. Its return on equity from continuing operations was 14 percent in the first quarter versus 8.9 percent for the company as a whole.
Big banks increasingly point to their growing wealth management businesses as stable counterparts to their riskier trading and capital-raising businesses. Bank of America's Merrill Lynch on Wednesday said assets managed in its wealth unit climbed 13 percent in the first quarter to $841.8 billion and total client balances in all brokerage and bank accounts jumped 7 percent to $2.4 trillion. Its net income inched up 1 percent to $729 million.
Revenue in Morgan Stanley's wealth businesses, which caters to households with at least $250,000 to invest, trailed record results in last year's fourth-quarter, although asset management and other fees crept up 2 percent since the beginning of the year to $2.0 billion. Fee-based asset accounts at both Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch comprise 37 percent of total client assets and are growing, both firms said.
Investment banking, trading and investment income in Morgan Stanley's wealth unit was hurt by fewer trading days in the January-March period and by a virtual famine in issuance of closed-end funds, an important product for U.S. retail investors, Ruth Porat, the company's chief financial officer, said on the conference call.
She forecast that asset management fees in the second quarter are likely to grow because of higher market values, and also said compensation expenses should fall from seasonally elevated first-quarter levels when corporations pay higher social security and Medicare taxes for employees.
The strongest potential for wealth management growth continues to lie in selling large mortgages and loans collateralized by investment portfolios to wealthy clients, executives said.
"We've got a great client base (and) we're under-penetrated with loan products," Porat told Reuters, repeating that lending is very profitable but that Morgan Stanley trails competitors such as Merrill and Wells Fargo in selling credit.
Loans and commitments to lend in the first quarter rose 58 percent from a year ago and 12 percent from last year's fourth quarter to $33.1 billion. Net interest income, largely from sales of credit products, rose 30 percent from a year ago at Morgan Stanley Wealth to $539 billion.
The company also is targeting its services primarily to the very wealthy. Seventy-seven percent of of its $1.9 billion of retail client assets come from households with $1 million or more to invest.
Morgan Stanley's brokerage force edged up 1 percent from a year ago to 16,426 financial advisers, in contrast to the smaller group of 13,725 brokers at Merrill Lynch. The Merrill advisers produce more than $1 billion of annual revenue based on first-quarter results while annualized fees and commissions for Morgan Stanley brokers are $881 million, up 4 percent from a year ago.
(Reporting By Jed Horowitz and Lauren Tara LaCapra; Editing by Bernard Orr)