Bank of America has lurched from one public relations disaster to another this year. Its CEO has become a polarizing figure in an increasingly unpopular industry and recent announcements of job cuts in the neighborhood of 30,000 people have left the market rife with speculation about its future.
Even the once high-flying Merrill Lynch may have suffered a blow to its reputation. While it seems insulated from significant job cuts for now, the market is buzzing about how much of the parent's sins will be visited upon the subsidiary.
Indeed, rumors are buzzing about a possible split from its embattled parent company.
With the bank's reputation being publicly dragged through the mud, some market observers question how governance failures at the top of the company are impacting the ability of advisors to attract and retain clients. The market participants have lost faith in the ability of CEO Brian Moynihan to right the ship and the company is beset by regulatory investigations. While Merrill remains one of the most successful businesses in the sector, reputation damage may be starting to take its toll.
The financial advisory business is, and always has been, a relationship-based business. Investors develop ties with their individual advisors, not companies. So to some extent, advisors are insulated from the woes of the parent company and the public feeling toward large Wall Street firms.
Several Merrill Lynch advisors declined to comment for attribution, but did express confidence in their company and its management. And a company spokesman said that the firm has among the highest revenue per advisor in the industry at $894,000, an increase of almost 10% in two years.
That being said, many industry experts including some who have seen business dry up following significant scandals, believe BofA and, by extension Merrill Lynch advisors, are suffering.
There is no question, according to financial technology entrepreneur John Tabacco, "that the surety and stability of the parent company will definitely have a clear and present effect on the capital markets/sales divisions of any company soliciting new, or seeking to increase existing financial advisor-wealth management services. In the case of Bank of America, the effect right now is clearly a negative one. Who wants advisor/wealth management services from a limping bank...that can't even manage their own wealth, and make sound investments?"
Douglas Goldstein, Director at Profile Investment Services says, "I thank my good fortune that I am no longer tethered to a big wirehouse. I could never control what the Mother Ship would say or do, and I would never want to have to spin some story to my clients about why my wirehouse isn't the same as Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns or even Merrill Lynch." Goldstein used to work at Dean Witter. Like it or not, he continues, "the current attitude toward the big banks is impacting advisors. It is, without question, more difficult to get business done if you are working for Merrill (with BofA as a parent company)."
As is often the case, the answers may not be black and white. Shannon Wilkinson, President of Reputation Communications, for example, explains that while the reputation of a company does have a significant impact on the prospects for advisors working for such companies, a well-established advisor with a solid reputation may be well positioned to weather the storms. Newer advisors, who may not have the same long-term standing with clients, are the most vulnerable and may find attracting business very difficult.
Tim Yee, currently an independent advisor and a former sales manager for AIG has experienced first hand the damage that overall brand reputation can have on advisors. "I recall one of my advisors mentioning that he lost a prospective client 401(K) plan because of the issues that beset the firm, even though those issues had nothing to do with the securities side of the business," he explains.
Being part of the larger firm definitely presented problems. "It was difficult not to get questions when our name included AIG. We were a separate division to the insurance group but our name was AIG Financial Advisors. But all people heard was AIG. We actually lost business as a result of, I believe, our association to the insurance arm and because of the doubt that media reports created in the minds of clients."
When people see announcements such as the 30,000 job cuts, they start wondering about their own advisor. Will that person be around in six months, a year, two years? And then they see that Sallie Krawcheck, the Head of Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Services is getting cut. This plants the seed of "if the boss can get fired just like that then why would my advisor be safe?"
A further complication for Merrill Lynch is the transition of some advisors to retail branches. As Bryan Koslow, of Hudson Wealth Management explains, a lot of people worry that their advisor might be working for the next Lehman Brothers because retail clients don't always differentiate between an asset manager and an investment bank and the local retail bank on the corner.
There is a concern that assets may be used to fill holes in other parts of the business. "Take a look at Merrill Lynch for example. They have a great reputation but now they have some of their financial advisors in BoA retail branches trying to push checking accounts simply because they are part of BofA. That really has damaged perception of the firm," Koslow says.
At the end of the day the relationship is with the individual. So clients are being a little more choosey when it comes to who they are working with.
The concerning thing is that the actions of a single person, like the CEO, can damage not only their own credibility but also the credibility of all of their registered reps, investment advisors, bankers or agents associated with the firm and prevents them from operating in an advisory capacity with their existing and potential clients.
Henry Montag, a certified financial planner in New York, points out that years ago a client would have one primary advisor to handle the great majority of his or her assets. But today, post Bernie Madoff, studies show that clients with over $3 million in assets usually have three to four advisors helping them invest and protect their wealth. "The point is they don't want to place all of their trust in just one person or institution. Trust is a very important component of each and every transaction. When people don't trust they won't take any action."