Why Morgan Stanley is buying E-Trade
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You don't need millions in the bank to become a client at Morgan Stanley anymore, said Greg Iacurci at CNBC — all you need to have now is an E-Trade account. Last week the Wall Street investment bank agreed on a $13 billion purchase of the discount brokerage. E-Trade, with 5.2 million customers, was once a revolutionary platform that "helped usher in a dramatic shift among financial services firms" and fueled the rise of indexes and exchange-traded funds, making investing vastly easier for do-it-yourself investors. If approved, the deal — "the biggest bank takeover since the 2008 financial crisis" — would put Morgan's blue-chip "financial advice at the fingertips of a population that hadn't previously had access." For Morgan, these new customers are a chance to "steady the ship," said The Economist. A decade ago, two-thirds of Morgan's profits came out of buying and selling securities. That high-stakes strategy produces "large, lumpy sums when markets are strong," but it's not a dependable source of revenue. Wealth management actually brought in more money last year, and Morgan is betting that IT will become "the bank's main business."
To hear liberals tell it, the whole story of finance is "Wall Street getting richer as folks on Main Street scrape by," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. So why are Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, a couple of the most revered names on Wall Street, so eager for E-Trade's Main Street customers? Despite constant liberal sniping, wealth growth isn't confined to the top 1 percent; stock and mutual fund holdings for the rest of America have doubled since 2010. The people benefiting from share buybacks and increasing dividends are ordinary Americans. And Wall Street's most prestigious banks believe that trend will continue. That's why they're "making long bets on the middle class becoming richer." Morgan Stanley buying E-Trade and Goldman offering no-fee bank accounts are ways to get to middle-class investors while they are still building wealth. Morgan Stanley also knows that young people "only want to interact with the bank digitally," said Brian Chappatta at Bloomberg. E-Trade gives Morgan access to digital natives and their "emerging wealth." Get them into the fold early and they'll be more likely to eventually "move over to the bank's existing wealth-management offerings once they accumulate more money and need a robust financial plan."
For Morgan Stanley's brokers, buying E-Trade is like "inviting cannibals in for dinner," said John Foley at BreakingViews. After all, it's discount brokerages like E-Trade that killed brokerages' traditional source of revenue. But it's worth it for Morgan Stanley to steal the opportunity from Goldman Sachs. There's a decades-old rivalry between the two investment banks. Both are trying to expand to a broader base of customers, and this is a chance for Morgan to put Goldman "on the back foot." Let's just hope E-Trade and Morgan Stanley's clients win in this, too, said Jason Zweig at The Wall Street Journal. "Much as the Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo, from flesh to skin to horn to sinew and hooves," brokerages have become increasingly adept at finding new strategies for harvesting money, even as stock-trading commissions fall to zero. Investors who don't want to get skinned should keep asking themselves if they're getting the best deal.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, try the magazine for a month here.