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BofA CEO reaffirms Merrill Lynch is sticking with Broker Protocol

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Rival wealth management firms may have quit the Broker Protocol, but Merrill Lynch remains committed to the industry accord, Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan says.

"We continue to monitor the market but we have not changed our position [on the protocol]," Moynihan said during a fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts.

The reiteration of the firm's policy comes as rivals have left the industrywide pact that permits brokers to take basic client contact information with them when switching firms. Last year, Morgan Stanley and UBS quit the protocol. Citigroup followed suit earlier this month.

Rival wirehouses have suffered from advisor attrition in recent quarters, and UBS and Morgan Stanley's protocol exits sparked a raft of departures: over 90 advisors managing more than $12 billion in client assets.

Merrill Lynch reduced its recruiting efforts earlier this year and placed greater emphasis on its training program. Headcount has remained steady or risen in recent quarters. For the fourth quarter of 2017, the firm reported that advisor headcount at 14,953 was up 2% year-over-year. It was flat from the previous quarter.

Merrill Lynch also reported record client balances of $2.3 trillion, up 10%, from the year-ago period. The growth was driven by higher market values and client flows, according to the firm.

The wirehouse's revenue increased 6.5% to $3.8 billion, boosted by higher asset management fees and net interest income.

Overall, Bank of America's wealth management unit, which includes Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust, reported net income of $742 million, up $108 million from the same period a year ago. The unit also had AUM flows of $18.2 billion, which was down slightly from the $20.7 billion for the previous period. The firm said this partly reflected a continued shift from IRA brokerage accounts to managed relationships.

Looking ahead, Moynihan said the company is focused on new technology investments to push its wealth management business to higher profitability.

"We're talking about a more fundamental reset. On the lower end, we're driving Merrill Edge and some other things. And there is a lot of automation of work we can do for advisors that will make them more efficient," the chief executive said.

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