In a sign of the rocky times on Wall Street,
reported a 3% decline in first-quarter earnings Tuesday despite higher earnings.
In the quarter, the big Wall Street securities firm earned $1.21 billion, or $1.21 cents a share, compared with $1.25 billion, or $1.21 cents a share, a year ago. The firm took in $6.2 billion in net revenue, up 3% from a year ago.
Even though profits slid, Merrill's earnings and revenue came in slightly ahead of expectations. Analysts, according to Thomson First Call, had predicted Merrill would earn $1.18 a share and generate net revenue of $6.15 billion.
The strongest performing division at Merrill was its asset-management group, which took in $1.44 billion in revenue, a 9% gain over last year.
The revenue gains in asset management helped offset first-quarter weakness in trading revenue, which declined 15% to $879 million, and investment banking, which reported a 3% decline in revenue to $837 million.
Trading revenue, however, rebounded sharply from a poor fourth quarter, posting a 197% gain.
Commissions from stock trading were flat at $1.35 billion compared with a year ago.
"We are very pleased with our performance in the quarter,'' said Merrill Lynch Chairman and CEO Stan O'Neal, in a prepared statement. "We posted solid revenue growth ... despite increasingly challenging market conditions in March.''
Meanwhile, Merrill announced a $4 billon stock buyback. Shares of Merrill are down 11% this year. It also approved a 25% increase in the quarterly dividend to 20 cents.
Despite the rough time for stocks, Merrill continued to boost staffing in the quarter. The firm added 300 employees in the quarter, bringing total employment to 50,900.