NEW YORK (Reuters) - The recent executive shakeup at Bank of America (BAC.N) followed by reports of massive layoffs at the bank may leave you wondering what the turmoil means for you - either as a client of the banking colossus and Merrill Lynch, the brokerage firm it owns, or as a shareholder.
As experts ponder these moves - which include the departure of Sallie Krawcheck, head of the bank’s wealth management unit and Merrill’s public face - they see a rocky period in the days ahead for the company’s shareholders, but not necessarily its clients.
What should Merrill customers do? If you like your financial adviser, a shake-up at the top shouldn’t impact a good financial planning relationship. “This announcement does not affect how Merrill Lynch financial advisers interact with clients,” says Selena Morris, a Bank of America spokesperson. “By reorganizing Bank of America around its three core client groups, the company is ensuring that it delivers the best of what it has to offer to clients.”
Larry and Sandy Reed of Oak Park, Illinois, say they aren’t going anywhere with their investments because the connection they have with the firm - and their adviser - is deep.
“We’ve worked with Merrill Lynch since 1981 because my uncle worked there at that time, and my grandfather had given us stock through Merrill Lynch for our wedding,” Sandy Reed says. While she initially came to Merrill because of family ties, she takes comfort these days in Warren Buffett’s decision to invest $5 billion in Bank of America last month.
The Reeds find other Bank of America headlines troubling, including those involving controversial mortgage practices at Countrywide Financial, which the bank purchased in 2008.
Existing clients should ponder whether Bank of America’s financial woes will put too much pressure on the company to change its bottom line - meaning that Merrill’s advisers may have a new agenda, such as pushing products that generate the most profits for the bank.
“Is the adviser doing what’s best for me, or is the adviser doing what’s best for the company?” says Jack Waymire, founder of Paladin Registry, an information services provider that rates financial advisers. “I would view Merrill Lynch more as a distribution system to sell products; in this environment, Bank of America just tells Merrill Lynch to sell its products.”
That may not pose problems on its own. But Waymire, author of “Who’s Watching Your Money?”, believes Merrill Lynch and other big Wall Street firms now put their profits way ahead of investor gains.
“If you’ve got these household names handling your money, you may feel relatively safe,” he says. “Merrill has all these resources, and they’re using sales skills to convince you they’re experts. The advisers are not even managing the money half the time. It’s a big, big mess and it’s not going to be cleaned up anytime soon.”
The bank disagrees. “These comments are woefully dated and do not reflect the reality of how our financial advisers serve their clients,” says Bank of America spokeswoman Morris. Nine out of 10 clients would recommend a Merrill adviser to their family and friends, she notes. “The average length of our relationship with clients is 13 years, and our client attrition rates are in the low single digits,” adds Morris. “Our training program for advisers is the longest and most rigorous in the industry.”
Moreover, Merrill Lynch “is hiring in a big way,” says David A. Geracioti, editor in chief of Registered Rep magazine and RegisteredRep.com. This has generally meant forcing out financial advisers who produce less than $400,000 per year -prompting some defections of long-time Merrill advisers to the likes of HighTower, a Chicago-based aggregator of financial adviser firms.
For customers sticking with Merrill, such as the Reeds, there is good news: “Client assets have held up pretty well, all things considered,” Geracioti says. “The only way Bank of America would spin out its best-performing unit is if it had to ‘burn the furniture’ to raise capital. In fact, Merrill Lynch is the crown jewel of Bank of America, one of the bright spots in an otherwise troubled company.”
Bad news has dogged Bank of America since the 2008 financial crisis. The bank has lost half its share value since January and reported an $8.8 billion quarterly loss in July. Much of that loss is related to a settlement over lingering mortgage problems, stemming from the bank's ill-timed purchase of Countrywide Financial. And reports estimate layoffs of 40,000 employees in the coming months (see link.reuters.com/nav63s).
By realigning its management team, the Charlotte, North Carolina-based bank is another effort to turn fortunes around. David Darnell, who rose to a newly-created co-COO position, will direct retail banking and take over Krawcheck’s duties, which include supervising more than 16,000 financial advisers.
“If you’re a Merrill investor, you’re a Bank of America investor now,” says Bill DeShurko, author of “The Naked Truth About Your Money” (Penguin) and president/owner of 401 Advisor, LLC in Centerville, Ohio. “And here’s the concern: You’ve got a bank that’s in financial trouble. There’s no question about that; the stock market is not so stupid to value Bank of America at $7 a share if they didn’t have serious problems.”
Several brokerages are trimming their earnings estimates for the company. Skeptics say Bank of America needs an extreme makeover, which could include spinning off Merrill Lynch, a Chapter 11 restructuring or placing all of the rotting mortgages into a new entity.
Even the bulls who believe Bank of America can earn its way out of its problems freely admit that the bank’s stock is not likely to do much the next several years. Says Australian hedge fund manager John Hempton, whose Bronte Capital owns a sizable stake in Bank of America: “I own a zombie bank.”
On the surface, Bank of America would seem, like Merrill Lynch, to fall into what Waymire calls the “too big to die” bracket. It serves about 58 million consumer and small business relationships with approximately 5,700 retail banking offices, 17,800 ATMs and an online banking system with 30 million active users, according to bank statistics.
Yet it also has one big, fat albatross on its balance sheets: Countrywide Financial. Bank of America acquired Countrywide for $4 billion, a deal that has proven a huge headache not just in dollars and cents, but in terms of the bank’s reputation. “Basically all the mortgages that Countrywide produced from 2004 to 2007 were excrement,” Geracioti says. “The question is: What are Bank of America’s liabilities from Countrywide? Some say $100 billion, others say, ‘Who knows?’ The liabilities could be ginormous. The government is hassling the bank in a big way.”
Bank of America has long held that Countrywide’s problems were it own doing. But on September 2, the Federal Housing Finance Agency sued 17 firms - including Bank of America and Countrywide - for violations of federal securities laws in the sale of mortgage-backed securities. In an 88-page filing, the FHFA alleges that around 2005, top executives of Countrywide - which it labels as a “notorious mortgage lender” for its practice - “complained to each other at the time that BOA’s appetite for risky products was greater than that of Countywide.”
What does all of this mean for customers? Layoffs could impact customer service, but chances are the bank will pull out all of the stops to keep your business, which may include slashing your mortgage rate or extending any existing credit lines, assuming you have excellent credit scores.
Geracioti is a satisfied customer. The bank recently lowered the interest rate on his credit card - “by a lot,” he says.
Additional reporting by Jennifer Ablan. Editing by Lauren Young