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Berkshire Hathaway Investment Puts Spotlight on Merrill Lynch Advisor Moves

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When Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. invested $5 billion in Bank of America, it capped off a rocky month for the bank and fed speculation that Merrill Lynch financial advisors might seek cover at other firms.

Financial services recruiter Mindy Diamond said she opened this week with about five new multi-million dollar leads on Bank of America Merrill Lynch financial advisors looking to move to another firm.

Now, even after news of Berkshire Hathaway’s investment emerged on Thursday, Diamond said she has not seen that interest subside.

In fact, she spent the first half of the day after the Berkshire Hathaway news broke talking with Merrill Lynch advisors from her Chester, N.J.-based firm, Diamond Consultants.

“From the advisors perspective, their wealth is being eviscerated because a lot of their wealth is tied up in Bank of America stock. There’s been a lot of bad press about the firm and they’re tired of that,” Diamond said. “That volatility is scary. It just makes them feel a loss of control.”

The watch on Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s financial advisors began this month in large part because of the hit the firm took to its stock price, which is also tied to advisors’ compensation.

While Berkshire Hathaway’s injection helped lift Bank of America’s stock up 9.4% as of market close to $7.65 on Thursday, the bank’s stock had also fallen about 40% since the beginning of the year. News of continuing mortgage loan woes for the bank also emerged this month.

But any evidence that significant numbers of Bank of America Merrill Lynch financial advisors could take August’s events as a sign to leave is largely anecdotal.

All recruiters, including Diamond, agree that any moves inspired by these recent events will take months to materialize as advisors usually take at least several months to do some due diligence before making a move. Also, not all recruiters have seen an uptick in interest from Merrill Lynch advisors.

“Brokers come and go from every firm. We aren’t seeing a huge deluge of brokers wanting to leave any firm at this point,” said Rick Peterson, president of Houston-based recruiting firm Rick Peterson & Associates, who declined to comment directly on Merrill Lynch because of his professional relationship with the firm.

But Rich Schwarzkopf, president of New York-based Schwarzkopf Recruiting Services, said that conversations with potential Merrill Lynch recruits that were once casual have turned more serious.

“Brokers are now willing to talk, whereas two months ago, three months ago, it was wait and see, wait and see,” Schwarzkopf said of possible Merrill Lynch leads. “Now there are some large producers talking to recruiters all over the country.”

However, there have been recent indications that at least some Bank of America Merrill Lynch financial advisors are serious about leaving.

In July, Bank of America Merrill Lynch father and son team, Robert “Bob” Brooks and Wyatt Brooks, moved to Raymond James & Associates in Tallahassee, Fla. Their move was as much inspired by the changing culture at Bank of America Merrill Lynch as it was by the opportunity for more independence at Raymond James, Bob Brooks told On Wall Street earlier this month.

At the same time, Merrill Lynch added new talent this month with the hiring of Wells Fargo Advisors financial advisor Adam Gurien in Bedminster, N.J. Gurien previously oversaw $283.3 million in client assets and had $3.1 million in annual fees and commissions.

That move came as Bank of America’s Global Wealth and Investment Management group’s client-facing headcount, which includes financial advisors, rose by 603 to 20,876 total in the second quarter, according to a Bank of America spokesperson -- its eighth consecutive quarter of growth.

“Our advisor hiring and retention have been and will continue to be strong,” the Bank of America’s spokesperson said. “We continue to invest in our people, and specifically, in our advisor trainee program -- at a rate well above our peers -- while our advisor attrition continues at historically low rates.”

Several Merrill Lynch financial advisors who spoke with On Wall Street this week said that while they are keeping an eye on events at the firm, they are not planning to break away.

“As far as the type of business that we run, we’re not really looking to jump ship or go anywhere,” one Merrill Lynch advisor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said of their team. “Everyone’s concerned about the price of the stock. But going to the point where they’re actually thinking about leaving, I haven’t seen that.”

That advisor also said they are confident the Merrill Lynch brand will stay intact, whether it stays under Bank of America or is sold or spun off.

Bank of America Chief Executive Brian Moynihan has publicly denied any plans for such a transaction.

Diamond, for one, said that that kind of transaction ranks high on the wish list of the Merrill Lynch advisors.

“They’re actually saying if the stock continues to decline that somebody will come in and buy Merrill Lynch and they’d be happy about that, really happy to be spun out from Bank of America,” Diamond said.







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