BROKER'S WORLD: 2010 Looks Fairly Bleak For Brokers
By Annie Gasparro A DOW JONES NEWSWIRES COLUMN
NEW YORK (Dow Jones)--The markets may have bounced back, but the outlook for many financial advisers remains decidedly bleak.
Industry consolidation, hits to compensation, lost client assets and regulatory uncertainty all are still shaking up what was, not so long ago, a booming and lucrative profession. And then, of course, there are the cutbacks in perks that advisers once took for granted.
"There's still a lot of doom and gloom among brokers," said Matthew Bienfang, senior research director specializing in wealth management at TowerGroup, a financial-services research firm. "From a compensation standpoint, there are a lot of problems they are still facing."
Advisers at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Bank of America Corp.'s (BAC) Merrill Lynch and Wells Fargo Advisors are working their way through the joint ventures and acquisitions that reshaped the industry last year. UBS AG's (UBS) U.S. wealth-management group is adjusting to a new management regime and strategy.
All are having to find their way amid new management structures, revised pay scales and different fee schedules.
Hurt worst by the compensation changes are advisers who bring in less business, while top earners' pay was cushioned by the brokerages' efforts to keep them in the fold. "There is a shrinking pool of experienced advisers, so it is expensive to get them and to keep them," said Dennis Gallant, president of GDC Research, a financial-services consulting firm.
Gallant said he expects the industry's good times to return relatively quickly, as the economy does. "It's amazing how easily people forget," he said.
That may be little consolation right now, when losses in client assets continue to sting even some of the best brokers. While the rise in stocks has improved client accounts, many brokers saw clients simply walk away in the crisis and take their assets with them. Many wealthy clients decided to split up their investments among more than one adviser.
To make up for the losses, successful brokers have had to go back to something they haven't done since their early years in the profession: Focus more time on client acquisition.
The brokerage industry has long been known for the incentives it lavishes on brokers, including luxurious vacations, fancy dinners or hot-ticket events. Nearly every major brokerage has cut back on these. Some are cancelling vacation awards entirely, or moving them to domestic locations like Florida instead of a more distant, and costly, island stay.
Advisers who once spent their time wining and dining clients at business luncheons and on golf greens are now seeing their entertainment budgets slashed, too.
"We can't even do all the charity events that we used to sponsor, and those were great for prospecting" potential clients, said a Merrill Lynch adviser in the Midwest.
Some advisers paying for this kind of activity out of their own pockets--that is, when they can get out of the office. For the past year and a half, since the markets started melting down, brokers' phones have been ringing off the hook and talking to existing clients has claimed much more of their time.
"It is an ongoing relationship struggle for advisers," Bienfang said. "Most investors are still hesitant to really trust their adviser."
Brokers are also awaiting expected regulatory reforms that are expected to result in a more uniform ethical standard. Most expect brokers, who now are required to pick suitable but not necessarily the best investments for clients, to see their standard raised to the fiduciary level--that is, a requirement that they always act in the client's best interest. Exactly how that is enforced could mean major changes, or not, for brokerages.
"Regulation is the biggest piece of the puzzle, and there is still a lot of uncertainty as to where that is going to land," Bienfang said.
(Annie Gasparro writes about financial advisers and their jobs, with a focus on the challenges brokers face as the industry moves from traditional stock brokerage to high-net-worth wealth management. She can be reached at 212-416-2244 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)