Merrill Lynch’s worldwide sales force of financial advisers shrank by about 800 brokers in the first quarter of 2001, the company reported today.

In a conference call explaining the firm’s first quarter results, Investor Relations Director Martin Wise said the broker sales force dropped from 20,200 producers at the end of the year 2000 to 19,400 brokers at the end of the first quarter of 2001. The reduction was the result of normal attrition, slower hiring and the closing or sale of some private client branch offices, he said.

A firm spokesperson told RR the branch sales and closures were all outside the United States, mostly in New Zealand and Australia.

“Merrill Lynch continues to selectively hire talented professionals into each of our businesses,” said Wise during the conference call.

Merrill CFO Tom Patrick added that the firm plans to intensify its belt-tightening initiatives throughout the rest of the year. “In light of the uncertain market conditions, we have accelerated our resource-allocation initiatives,” he said. Patrick said that the firm will especially tighten its spending on technology, but remains committed to funding the rollout of its Financial Advisory Center for smaller investors.

Merrill’s retail revenues dropped 20% during the first quarter of 2001. But the private client group’s pretax profit margin increased two full percentage points to 16.4% in the first quarter, partly thanks to the firm’s cost-cutting measures throughout the past year, Patrick said.

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