Morgan Stanley is planning a reduction of as much as a quarter of its fixed-income staff after years of revenue declines and insufficient returns, according to people with knowledge of the plans.

The cuts will be across all regions and are set to take place in the next two weeks, said two of the people, who asked not to be identified because the decision hasn't been publicly announced. Hugh Fraser, a spokesman for the New York-based bank, declined to comment.

Morgan Stanley last month reported a 42% plunge in bond-trading revenue in what Chief Executive Officer James Gorman called its worst quarter for fixed income, currencies and commodities since he took over in 2010. While the financial industry may finally be reaching the end of a years-long slide in that business, it still is not clear how much revenue it will typically produce after stabilizing, Colm Kelleher, head of the investment banking and trading division, said at a Nov. 17 investor conference.

"The trick for us is to size our business appropriately to what we think the fee pool is," he said at the conference. While trying to gauge that, the investment bank needs to keep the unit "credibly sized" to compete globally, and "make sure we have enough flex or leverage that when the markets recover, which we do think they'll recover, you'll be able to participate in the upside of that," Kelleher said.

Gorman last month placed Ted Pick, who has led the equity- trading business, in charge of the entire trading division. While Morgan Stanley has reduced the capital that its fixed- income unit requires by more than half over the past four years, the bank still hasn't reached its goal of a return on equity of at least 10%.

Such a staff cut would be "a pretty substantial step" from a company that previously made incremental moves in fixed income, said Brennan Hawken, an analyst at UBS Group AG, who has a buy rating on Morgan Stanley.

"The fixed-income environment was rough last quarter, and it remains tough," Hawken said. "They've struggled to generate sufficient return on equity in this business, and it's nearly 40% of their risk-weighted assets, so it's hard to generate good ROEs for the company when that much of your capital is generating such a weak return."

Stiffer capital rules, a slump in client transactions and a shift toward electronic trading have crimped margins in key fixed-income markets, pushing banks to pull back and eliminate staff. Kelleher said last year that the new supplementary leverage ratio made banks unable to earn sufficient returns in some interest-rate trading businesses.

Morgan Stanley generated $3.75 billion in fixed-income revenue in the first nine months of this year, seventh among major global investment banks, according to data from Bloomberg Intelligence. The firm produced $6.31 billion in equity trading revenue in that period, most among the banks.

Revenue from fixed-income, currencies and commodities trading, or FICC, is on pace to drop to $65 billion this year at the 10 largest global investment banks, according to industry analytics firm Coalition Ltd. That would be the lowest since the financial crisis and less than half of what those companies produced in 2009. The firms on average employ 1,700 front-office workers within FICC, according to Coalition.

The withdrawal from the business has been particularly severe in Europe, where firms including UBS, Deutsche Bank AG and Barclays Plc have sought to shrink their operations to rein in costs.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.