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Morgan Stanley Mulls Smith Barney'less Future

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Morgan Stanley (MS) will have to tread carefully in the post-crisis, anti-Wall Street era if it plans on dropping the Smith Barney brand.

Actor John Houseman became synonymous with Smith Barney for the famous tag line, "We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it."

Morgan Stanley is in the midst of acquiring the retail brokerage giant from Citigroup (C). The white-shoe investment banking firm is therefore making a big bet on the profitability of small-fry investors -- in stark comparison to the institutional and corporate clients on which it has built a solid reputation over the past 75 years.

It's an ironic twist in the long history of Morgan Stanley, which itself was once part of J.P. Morgan. Those franchises split in 1935, due to a post-Depression rule that didn't allow commercial banking and investment banking to exist under the same roof.

Fast forward to 2011: A new era of tighter regulation that promises, once again, to crimp big bank profits and dramatically alter the landscape of the financial sector. In a highly competitive and highly segmented environment for wealth management, Morgan Stanley has been turning to Main Street to make up for lost profits. As the integration begins to bear fruit, the firm also seems to be hoping those customers will embrace a foreign brand.

"What's interesting is the question of whether Morgan Stanley has the potential to be a retail brand," says Kenneth A. Posner, a financial services industry analyst who spent 15 years at Morgan Stanley. "The company has a long history of providing really first-class investment banking services - and that goes all the way back to the split from JPMorgan in the 1930s. But on the retail side, it's completely unknown whether Morgan Stanley brand will resonate with people or not."

Posner suggests that what the brokerage delivers will be even more important than whatever it's called. Differentiation is key to retaining existing clients and grabbing new ones, he says. But that's an especially difficult task in financial services where a product offered at one bank - whether a loan, deposit account, advisory service or trade - is almost impossible to tell apart from the same product offered at another bank, apart from price.

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