IN Daily Opinion/Column

Want to be Morgan Stanley's James Gorman for a day?

Given the bank's recent performance, there are probably easier jobs out there

Jan 12, 2011 @ 4:00 pm

By Evan Cooper

Regular watchers of TV's “Wheel of Fortune” are aware of the contest now under way in which a lucky viewer can win a chance to be Vanna White for a day.

The winner will be flown to Los Angeles, get the full star dress and makeup treatment, and appear with host Pat Sajak in Vanna's role as letter revealer. Sounds like fun.

Corporate America should take a leaf from “Wheel” and do something similar to rev up customer interest: Have a CEO-for-a-day contest.

The winner would get to fly on the company plane, eat in the boardroom and maybe fire a few people. Like Vanna and most CEOs, they'd be required to look nice and be friendly, but there's no need to break into a sweat.

If Morgan Stanley conducted such a contest — a Polka Dot Swan Event to be sure, compared to a merely rare Black Swan Event — imagine what it would be like to replace James Gorman for a day.

At the moment, I wouldn't want the job, considering the pressure Mr. Gorman faces.

When he took the company's top job last year, he said 2010 would be a year of “execution.” (a consensus of analysts' indicated they believed he meant that in a managerial, not penal, sense). By October, he revised his pronouncement and said that 2010 would still be a transition period.

According to an internal memo reported on by Bloomberg News, Mr. Gorman is optimistic about the company's prospects for 2011 and believes that the company's shares are undervalued. (Note to readers: If you ever read a report in which the CEO is quoted as saying his company's shares are overvalued, congratulate yourself on catching a typo.)

But meanwhile, Mr. Gorman faces a real challenge. His company will report its fourth-quarter results next week, and things aren't so hot. Investment banking profits are strong but not that huge. Trading is so-so, and the firm's giant retail business has come back but isn't setting the world on fire.

Of course, we're not talking about a mom-and-pop dry cleaner that can barely afford wire hangers. Morgan Stanley will still ring up about $4.5 billion in profit for 2010, and I'm sure Mr. Gorman will be amply compensated.

Still, his supposed managerial wizardry has bumped up against the one immutable law of the securities business that both kills and crowns Wall Street careers: It's so darn cyclical.

When markets are booming and deals are dealing, the guys who run banks and brokerage firms are geniuses. When customers aren't buying the magic and trades aren't trading, you can be Bernard Baruch and King Midas rolled into one: You can't fight the tape.

If equity markets continue their rise and if interest rates behave – and if corporate America goes on a merger binge – James Gorman will do fine in 2011. If not, you'll have more fun entering the Vanna contest.

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