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Why Morgan Stanley CEO’s $23 million payday is bad news

Morgan Stanley Chief Executive Officer James Gorman InterviewMorgan Stanley Chief Executive Officer James Gorman Interview
James Gorman, chief executive officer of Morgan StanleyPhotograph by Bryan van der Beek — Bloomberg via Getty Images

For Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman, playing it safe is clearly paying off.

On Wednesday, the Wall Street firm said in a filing it had paid its CEO $23 million for 2014. That was 25% more than the Gorman got the year before, and the biggest raise announced for a Wall Street CEO so far. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon got no raise in 2014. Citigroup’s Michael Corbat and Bank of America’s Brian Moynihan both took pay cuts. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein received $24 million in salary and bonus in 2014, up from $23 million the year before.

And Gorman’s pay increase was far more than what the average Wall Streeter got. Bonuses were up just 2% in 2014.

Gorman’s pay included a bonus of $4.7 million is cash, and another $4.5 million in stock. He also got a $1.5 million salary. The rest of the pay came in the form of long-term incentive awards, which Gorman will not actually receive this year.

The question is whether Gorman really had that good of a 2014. Profits at Morgan Stanley (MS) rose 19% last year. Gorman has steered the firm away from investment banking and toward asset management, which tends to be a steadier and less risky way for a Wall Street firm to make its money. That’s been a hit with regulators and investors alike. Low risk is in vogue these days.

And while shares of most of the big banks languished in 2014, Morgan Stanley’s rose 23% during the year.

But Gorman’s new safety-first model is not really paying off in terms of profits. Indeed, no Wall Street firm is as profitable was a few years ago. But profitability has dropped more at Morgan Stanley. The firm’s return on equity was just under 5% last year. That was lower than an average of 8% for investment banking in general, and about half of Morgan Stanley’s internal target.

Early on in his tenure, after the financial crisis, Gorman had some tough talk about Wall Street pay, and how investment bankers needed to adjust their expectations. And I recently wrote about the problems investment banks are having, and who that’s leading to an exodus from Wall Street. My conclusion: The only way Wall Street is ever going to return to its old profit glory days is to pay less. Gorman’s raise is another step in the wrong direction.

One side note: Morgan Stanley’s filing also reveal that it had paid its former CFO Ruth Porat $13 million in 2014, or $57.7 million less than she will get at her new employer Google. Wall Street ability to win the pay wars is over.