Morgan Stanley Earnings: What To Watch

Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) reports its quarterly earnings on Thursday July 17, and analysts are expecting earnings of $0.58 per share.

More important than the numbers, however, is whether or not Morgan Stanley's growth strategies are still on track to deliver long-term returns for shareholders. Here are three main points to watch as the company reports that will provide clues as to where Morgan Stanley is heading.

Wealth management: one number to watch
The wealth management division has certainly done well lately, earning 16% more pre-tax income during the first quarter than it did during the same quarter last year.

Part of the reason for this is that assets in fee-based accounts grew by 17% compared with the prior year. However, this can be somewhat misleading when trying to determine the health and growth of the business.

During years when the overall stock market performs very well, like it did in 2013, it's easy for assets to grow! The S&P 500 rose nearly 30% for the year, so of course the investment assets of clients grew. It is entirely possible for a company's assets to grow, even if it is losing clients' deposits, simply because the market is doing well.

What you should really pay attention to is the flow of money in or out of the business. Specifically, we want to see positive inflows of money into the wealth management business. This means that either existing clients are investing more money with Morgan Stanley or the client base is growing, bringing new deposits with it.

During the first quarter, Morgan Stanley saw $19 billion in assets flow into fee-based accounts. While the overall assets almost certainly grew during the quarter as the market has reached new record highs, the asset flows are the number to watch.

Institutional securities: can the growth continue
Accounting for nearly half of Morgan Stanley's net revenue, the Institutional Securities Group (ISG) is crucial to Morgan Stanley's profitability.

This division includes all of the company's capital raising activities, corporate lending, trading, and market-making activities, and also includes the investment banking business.

During the first quarter, the division saw excellent growth, particularly in advisory services and underwriting, which resulted from the increase in M&A, IPO, and bond activity. Since these have stayed strong in the second quarter, the impressive growth should continue, and provide a nice boost to the company's bottom line.

Investment management's strong growth
Even though the investment management segment is Morgan Stanley's smallest, it is very important due to its high profit margins.

The investment management business operated at a pre-tax profit margin of 36% during the first quarter, compared with 29% for the ISG and 19% for the wealth management business. So, the 15% year-over-year revenue growth actually contributed a disproportionately high amount to the company's overall profitability.

And, just like the wealth management business, one of the most important pieces of data here will be the flow of assets. During the first quarter, the investment management segment recorded net inflows of $6 billion.

As I mentioned before, this is how long-term growth will happen. Asset values will go up and down over time, but the sure way to grow the business is to bring in more clients and more assets from the existing clients.

Cheap, but for how long
Despite all the growth, Morgan Stanley is still pretty cheap on a historical basis. Shares trade for 1.17 times tangible book value, and even though it is much improved, it's far from the pre-crisis valuation.

MS Price to Tangible Book Value Chart

Plus, tangible book value itself is improving, so as the fundamentals of the company improve and the market's confidence in the financial sector improves, we could see Morgan Stanley's share price climb much higher. Combined with the higher share buybacks and dividends, there is a lot of upside potential here

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