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Rich women increasingly call the shots, wealth management execs say

Rich women mean big business for some of the world’s largest wealth managers.

Women control about $14 trillion in assets in the U.S., which is comparable to the gross domestic products of China and India combined — and they’re under-served by financial advisors, said Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. The industry needs to hone its services to reflect the growing power of female clients, said Shelley O’Connor, co-head of wealth management at Morgan Stanley.

“It’s so important that firms listen to what women want,” while also increasing diversity among their advisors and branch managers, O’Connor said at a SIFMA conference Thursday in Naples, Florida. “The success of wealth management in the years ahead depends on making sure we all look like the clients and communities we serve.”

UBS Investor watch survey of high-net-worth (rich) women clients

Women are becoming more educated, outliving their spouses and inheriting money from their parents, Sieg said in an interview. Those demographic shifts are becoming more pronounced, giving women greater authority in financial decisions, he said. Representatives from UBS, Raymond James, Ameriprise Financial and Charles Schwab also spoke about gender and ethnic diversity to an audience of about 250 wealth managers.

SIFMA Private Client conference photo of Shelly O'Connor, co-head of wealth management at Morgan Stanley

“Increasingly, the female member of a couple is the shot-caller,” said Sieg, whose business brought in a record 17,625 new client relationships in the first quarter. “Arguably it’s the most powerful trend in our industry.”

Bank of America, which owns Merrill Lynch, is holding a series of “Women, Life & Money” events across 10 markets this year and next featuring authors and other speakers. The company is also conducting research on the financial needs of its increasingly diverse client base, said Jen Auerbach, head of strategic growth markets at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

“This is a commercial imperative,” Auerbach said in an interview. “The gender of wealth in our country has fundamentally changed, and the complexion of wealth in our country is going to continue to change. It is only going to accelerate.”