The gloves are off.
Speaking at SIA's Retail Management Conference in Chicago, James Gorman, president of Merrill Lynch's private client group, directed blunt comments at those who imply that Merrill and other big wirehouses are "boiler rooms."
While Gorman never mentioned Charles Schwab & Co. by name, his remarks seemed directed at the discount broker and its recent ads portraying traditional Wall Street firms in a derogatory manner. The most prominent ad features a branch manager telling his team to dress up a terrible stock by putting "some lipstick on this pig."
Schwab's ad campaign follows the various analyst-related scandals that rocked the brokerage industry, including the WorldCom debacle that ultimately cost Salomon Smith Barney analyst Jack Grubman his job. Now Merrill has another embarrassment on its hand--the recent discovery of private e-mails exchanged by Merrill employees expressing misgivings about stocks they had publicly recommended.
Those are being used as evidence in New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer's investigation.
"It's insulting to describe us as a boiler room," Gorman said. The Merrill exec decried those that would seek to reinvent themselves overnight as comprehensive advisory firms when the process involves compliance, training and a strategic shift in thinking. Again, this seemed to be a veiled reference to Schwab, which has recently stepped up efforts to take market share in the high-net-worth market by developing a more robust private client group.
"Giving advice is easier said than done," Gorman said. "This is a sophisticated, complex business about serious stuff—investing is not supposed to be ‘fun;' it keeps going until after you're retired." By advertising that one can "convert themselves to advisors" overnight, Gorman said, is "to trivialize it, which borders on the ridiculous."