Merrill Lynch ( MER), the nation's biggest brokerage, said Tuesday that first-quarter profits nearly doubled due to a revival in its investment banking business. The strong performance from Merrill continues a trend that was set last month when the firm's Wall Street peers, Bear Stearns ( BSC), Goldman Sachs ( GS), Lehman Brothers ( LEH) and Morgan Stanley ( MWD), also reported sharp gains in profits. In the quarter, Merrill earned $1.25 billion, or $1.22 a share, compared to $643 million, or 67 cents, a year ago. The profit easily bested the Thomson First Call consensus estimate of $1.08 cents a share. The big Wall Street firm, which had its most profitable year in 2003 due to aggressive cost cutting and a surge in revenue from proprietary bond trading, scored huge gains in the first quarter in revenue from broker commissions and investment banking work. Commission revenue totaled $1.36 billion, up 27% from a year ago, as customers traded more stocks and mutual funds. Investment banking revenue rose 70% to $837 million due to a surge in stock underwriting and corporate advisory work. Stock underwriting revenue rose 83% to $672 million. Principal transactions, revenue from proprietary bond and stock trading, held steady from a year ago at $1 billion.