Bear Stearns (NYSE:BSC) wasn't able to match Goldman Sachs' (NYSE:GS) recent earnings outperformance. But fourth-quarter results here were still quite strong -- even a bit better than those of Lehman Brothers (NYSE:LEH), relative to estimates. That should tell you something about the sector right off the bat: Investors are worrying about how significantly these companies surpassed guidance.

Bear Stearns' growth performance also happened to rank between Goldman and Lehman's. Net revenue rose 19% in the quarter, while earnings increased 36% and earnings per share rose 34%.

Capital markets are far and away Bear Stearns' largest segment, and top-line growth there totaled 20% for the quarter. While growth in equity trading and investment banking was far stronger than that for fixed income, fixed income still dwarfs both in terms of revenue. Interestingly, Bear Stearns reported growth in mortgage-related revenue (and ended the year as the No. 1 mortgage-backed underwriter), while Goldman and Lehman reported results that were flat and down, respectively.

Bear Stearns still isn't quite so impressive in its asset-management arm. Revenue was up nicely, and assets under management rose 14%, but the total amount of assets involved remains rather small. Lehman has four times as many assets under management, and even if you append a "0" to the end of Bear Stearns' number, it would still be lower than Goldman's.

Word also came today that the SEC has accepted Bear Stearns' $250 million settlement offer related to mutual-fund-trading naughtiness. While I've seen some media sources characterize the entire amount as a fine, that's not entirely true -- $160 million of it is a surrender of profits, while the fine comprises the remaining $90 million.

I've been bullish on Bear Stearns for a while now, and I'm not really looking to change my mind. True, investment-bank valuations have jumped, but there still seems to be a lot of money to be made in M&A activity and trading. Bear Stearns is a generally risk-averse company that still has some global expansion potential. It might be not quite as strong a buy as it was before, but I wouldn't rush to fill out a sell order just yet.

For more Foolish thoughts on the big banks:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).