"Expense control was a bit better than we had expected thanks to some early payoff from management's ongoing cost savings initiative (with more in the way to come)," wrote Credit Suisse analyst Howard Chen following Lazard's first quarter earnings release before the market opened Friday.
Shares opened lower on Friday but were up 3.77% to $34.41 shortly before noon.
Lazard earned adjusted net income of $37 million, or 28 cents per share, compared to $45 million, or 33 cents per share a year ago. Revenue in the financial advisory business, which advises companies on M&A, capital raising, restructuring and other activities fell 39% vs. a year ago, while asset management revenue rose by 14%
KBW analyst Joel Jeffrey characterized management's view of the M&A market as more positive than that of Greenhill (GHL), but less so than Evercore (EVR) "with management citing a strong pipeline and major deal assignments but labeling the M&A environment as uneven," Jeffrey wrote.
Cost savings have been a major focus for Lazard and Wall Street has been keeping a close eye on its progress in this area in particular following a major investment in the shares by Nelson Peltz's Trian Partners last year.
Since Peltz disclosed a 5.1% stake in Lazard on June 15, shares are up nearly 50%, vs. 63% for Evercore, 37% for Greenhill and 19% for the S&P 500.
During the first quarter, Lazard brought compensation and benefits expenses down to $248 million compared to $313 million a year ago, excluding charges in both periods. Lazard's ratio of compensation to operating revenue, which has been a major focus for management, fell to 60%, compared to 62.7% for the 2012 first quarter and 61.8% for the full-year 2012. Lazard aims to bring that ratio down "to the mid- to high-50s," according to a company press release.
-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.