Updated from 9:26 a.m. EST
Three big securities firms disclosed fourth-quarter profits Thursday that reflected a decidedly mixed landscape on Wall Street. The reports included a mix of hefty restructuring charges, one-time gains and savings associated from cost-cutting.
In the strongest of the three,
posted an 87% rise in fourth-quarter profits, as the firm benefited from a jump in revenue from selling and trading bonds.
The big loser was
, which reported that its fourth-quarter profits fell by 16% from a year ago. The firm had been expected to a report a 4% profit decline from last year.
Less surprising was
, which did just about as expected, posting a 5% gain in fourth-quarter profits.
Lehman's fourth-quarter earnings of $243 million, or 91 cents a share, were aided in part by a one-time gain from an insurance settlement related to the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Goldman posted net income of $505 million, or 98 cents a share.
Morgan Stanley, meanwhile, reported earnings of $732 million, or 67 cents a share, which includes a $235 restructuring charge due to job cuts and real estate losses.
The weakest-performing division at Morgan Stanley was institutional securities, which includes investment banking. The division generated $454 million in net income, a 21% decline from a year ago.
Morgan Stanley, which has a big aircraft leasing business, didn't take any charges in the quarter for anticipated losses. That differs from
Bank of New York
, which said late Tuesday that it will take a $240 million charge for aircraft lease losses in the fourth quarter. The bank's stock got slammed Wednesday on the news.
Morgan Stanley officials conceded that the outlook for the aircraft leasing business is not good. But the brokerage said the value it places on those lease may be less than what other lenders place on them.
"We were never looking for a rosy outlook for this business," said Morgan Stanley Chief Financial Officer Steven Crawford in a conference call.
The one bright spot for Morgan Stanley was its Discover credit card business, which posted $194 million in net income, a 1% gain over last year.
But some of the gain is due to a 4% reduction in the money Discover sets aside in reserve to cover defaults by consumers on their credit-card bills. The reduction in the reserve account to $319 million seems a bit unusual because at 5.96%, the charge-off rate for bad consumer debts is up from 5.85% a year ago.
Mark Constant, a Lehman brokerage analyst, said Morgan's earnings were "not a diaster, but certainly not inspiring." However, Constant questioned whether the firm should have excluded some of its restructuring charges from its reported operating earnings of 81 cents a share -- which exceed the consensus estimate.
"This restructuring charge included 4 cents a share (after-tax) of severance costs, which are typically included in operating results in this sector, suggesting that the EPS figure most comparable to published forecasts was just under 77 cents."
Goldman's profit report reflected the struggle that many Wall Street firms have been experiencing since the onset of the bear market nearly three years ago.
In the fourth quarter, Goldman took in $523 million in net revenue from investment banking, some 34% less than a year ago and 20% less than the third quarter of this year.
Goldman's performance even suffered in its fixed income and commodities trading divison -- which had been one of the firm's strongest-performing groups this year. Net revenue in that division was $793 million, compared with $867 million a year ago.
Both Lehman's and Goldman's numbers came in ahead of the Wall Street consensus estimate. Morgan Stanley's also came in ahead of the consensus estimate, but that was only when you exclude the restructuring charge, something many analysts had done.
The big three reported numbers a day after
kicked off Wall Street's earnings season by announcing that it performed far better than expected in the fourth quarter. The firm posted a 23% rise in fourth-quarter profit, continuing a streak in which Bear has ranked as one of Wall Street's stronger performers this year.
Bear's good numbers were attributed to gains in revenue from trading bonds and mortgage-backed securities -- two staple businesses for the New York firm. It also cut operating costs by trimming bonuses and eliminating jobs.
But Bear's numbers were seen by many as something of an anomaly because it's not as dependent on investment banking revenue as other Wall Street firms.
Many brokerage stocks have rallied strongly the past two months, rising on average some 30% after cratering on Oct. 9. But the rally in brokerage stocks seems at odds with the generally sour mood hovering over Wall Street, what with securities regulators still sifting through firm emails looking for dirt and year-end bonuses being slashed as fast as personnel.
The market for initial public offerings, meanwhile, remains dead, with fewer than three dozen IPOs waiting in the pipeline for early next year. The three firms all reported weak investment banking numbers.