Is your Banker/Financial Planner Loyal?

Is your Banker/Financial Planner Loyal?

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Following a mass migration of brokers from Merrill Lynch after the buyout by Bank of America, some high-ranking executives and brokers are returning. Is this an exhibition of disloyalty and conflicts of interest between brokers and you, the client?

The financial world, and banking in particular, is built on trust. An evaporation of trust, no matter how good your liquidity or credit might be, results in bankruptcy (just ask Lehman Brothers). Loyalty, however, appears to be a quality in shorter supply than Federal surpluses.

I read with disapproval recently a report in the Wall Street Journal with the following content:

“Sam Chapin and Todd Kaplan, who left Merrill Lynch & Co. amid an exodus of top investment bankers as the securities firm was sold to Bank of America Corp., are returning to their old firm, according to people familiar with the situation. The pair were among a large group of veteran investment bankers and top executives who bolted before and after the deal was completed at the start of last year.”

After the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, an entire host of financial advisors and investment banking staff left the firm. A lot of them joined rivals including Smith Barney, which was ironically also sold, to Morgan Stanley. During the darkest days at Merrill Lynch, the exits compounded the situation and left very many clients in the hands of new brokers when they would least afford it.

At the time, Merrill Lynch head John Thain was fired after spending ridiculous amounts redecorating his office. Former Merrill Lynch President Greg Fleming, who played a central role in the firm’s survival and subsequent sale, also left for Morgan Stanley. Thain, a former NYSE Chief Executive Officer, is now at CIT Group, which recently emerged from bankruptcy. His office decoration costs have yet to be disclosed.

In order to lure more brokers back to Merrill, the firm set aside $4 billion in compensation, which is apparently similar to 2006 levels. The firm has also managed to slow down the huge number of exits. It’s unclear whether or not the record high compensation had anything to do with that.

Brokers are free to move between firms and often take their clients with them. However, a broker moving from Merrill Lynch to Smith Barney is going to come under considerable pressure to change the portfolio of his client from Merrill products to those provided by Morgan Stanley. In that case there is a definite conflict of interest - the broker is chasing higher commission and compensation versus the best interests of their client.

While this is no new phenomenon when it comes to the provision of financial services and the brokerage industry in general, it’s crucial that you establish and iron out any conflicts that arise. A broker is employed by a big firm to sell you products that meet a specific need, but at the end of the day they operate out of the profit motive. Merrill is posting big profits not because they have a big client base. It’s because they have a big client base that pays them big fees. The same can be said of Smith Barney and all the other big firms that pay exorbitant bonuses based on no loyalty at all.

If you are unable to mange your own finances and require the assistance of a financial planner, always ensure that your interests are aligned with his. A classic “deal-breaker” would be to question why you have in your portfolio a security issued by his employer firm over that of another firm. It the answer is because it’s a better product, be warned – it probably pays a higher commission too!

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