My old colleague (and former TheStreet.com columnist) Gary Weiss used to have a favorite word for such practices: coinkydink.
As in, ain't it a coinkydink when investment banks recommend stocks of companies that are their banking clients?
Which brings us to Morgan Stanley's(MS) - Get Report list of 36 Secular Growth Stocks, released last week to the usual fanfare from investing sites including this one. On the one hand, Morgan Stanley says its secular-growth lists have handily beaten the market since 2010, rising 128% compared to 89.9% for the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index.
On the other hand, I counted at least 23 companies that are Morgan Stanley banking clients. Most of them are companies whose initial public offerings Morgan Stanley ran or co-managed, several of them with Goldman Sachs(GS) - Get Report , the other prestige IPO bank that seems to land all the pretty girls.
In some cases, like Tesla Motors(TSLA) - Get Report where it missed out on the IPO, Morgan Stanley has helped run more-recent debt deals. In others, like Starbucks(SBUX) - Get Report , the IPO was long enough ago that the filings don't readily turn up on the Securities and Exchange Commission's Web site, but Morgan Stanley has also helped with debt sales.
Coinkydink? Morgan Stanley didn't respond to a request for comment.
Partly, this is going to be coincidence. Morgan Stanley was the #1 IPO underwriter in the U.S. last year, ahead of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase(JPM) - Get Report , up from fifth in 2013, and you don't get there without having good companies in your stable. (The 2013 leader, Bank of America's(BAC) - Get Report Bank of America Merrill Lynch, fell all the way to seventh.) But it's way above Morgan Stanley's 11.6% share of the IPO market, as reported by Thomson Reuters for last year.
So maybe I can give them a pass on Salesforce.com(CRM) - Get Report -- I like the cloud-based software-on-demand market, too, even if I've always found the stock a tad rich for my blood. Alphabet(GOOGL) - Get Report and Facebook(FB) - Get Report are gimmes -- there's little doubt they meet Morgan Stanley's criteria of being likely to grow 10% a year in sales and 15% annually in profits through 2017. (I invest through funds, so I don't own any of these stocks directly.) Each is up about 20% this year.
But I'm more dubious of names like LendingClub(LC) - Get Report , which has traded down since its post-IPO pop last fall. It offers credit-card refinancing loans, mainly, to people who often can get cheaper credit if they actually look. I'm also not much on Fitbit(FIT) - Get Report -- I'm swayed by the disclosure that more than half of the Fitbits ever sold aren't actively being used. (I've been wrong about Fitbit so far; it's 31% below its Aug. 5 peak, but still about 18% above its price when I lambasted the company on its IPO day in June.)
Workday(WDAY) - Get Report , another on-demand software play, is an excellent company with real prospects, but one I suspect might have been left off such lists if it were a Goldman client. It's still losing a lot of money, and got on the list by a back door -- Morgan Stanley's report says it let analysts waive the criteria for inclusion, including for money-losing growth companies, if they felt especially high conviction about a stock.
Where I get interested is when Morgan Stanley highlights companies to which it has no obvious connection. (I say obvious because I may have missed some in my quick review of filings). Apparently forgiven for picking Goldman to run its IPO, Under Armour(UA) - Get Report is on the list -- and has killed it this year. It's the best performer on the list this year other than Abiomed(ABMD) - Get Report , a medical device stock that has more than doubled this year on strong earnings and federal approval of a new version of its heart pump to treat angioplasty.
There are a lot of non-client names on the list from the health-care sectors. Molina Healthcare(MOH) - Get Report provides insurance to lower-income clients and is a play on Medicaid HMO expansion under Obamacare. Cerner(CERN) - Get Report , sells electronic medical-records software to hospitals. Lifepoint Hospitals, which consolidates rural hospitals in a strategy likely to maximize its negotiating power with insurance companies over rates. All of these, to one degree or another, are solid-looking bets on health care's ongoing reform.
Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty is a well-known Apple bull, and she hasn't been wrong -- even if Goldman has been running those billion-dollar bond deals to fund its stock buybacks. But Apple is too obvious a pick to win Morgan Stanley too much credit, even if it has sagged a bit this year.
But as investment sage Omar Little said, some things are all in the game.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.