Merrill Lynch was responsible for what easily ranks as one of the greatest branding campaigns of all time. In the 70s the then independent brokerage firm ran commercials featuring a thundering herd of bulls running through a plain with a deep voiced announcer intoning, “Merrill Lynch is bullish on America.” I didn’t have a pot to piss in those days, but I knew that if ever I amassed a few shekels, I’d hand them over to Merrill Lynch in a heartbeat.
The commercials weren’t all hype. Merrill was an industry leader in technology and product innovation. The firm pioneered the cash management accountant, which combined its traditional brokerage margin account with check writing and Visa card privileges tied to a money market mutual fund. The hugely successful product provided a richer alternative to traditional checking accounts and brought in a slew of new customers who appreciated the only benefits banks offered were free toasters.
Merrill Lynch fell on hard times and its bullish on America culture was slaughtered along the way. What’s left of the business is now owned by Bank of America, which like Chase, Wells Fargo, and Citibank are small-minded banking companies who regard their customers as ATM machines and inflict them with mounting service charges intended to whittle away their net worth. Citibank, Chase, and possibly the other banks, have moved some of their customer support teams overseas, which I consider both a security breach and an affront, given that U.S. taxpayers in 2008 bailed out the financial services industry.
CNBC’s Scott Cohn this week revealed just how pathetic Merrill Lynch has become, a story he broke in July. New Hampshire has ordered Merrill Lynch to pay $24.25 million to Craig Benson, the former governor of New Hampshire, to compensate him for losses he allegedly sustained because of unauthorized and excessive trading. Cohn’s story sadly got very little pickup, allowing Merrill’s shameful behavior to go largely unnoticed.
If Benson’s experience is an indication of how Merrill treats its best customers, imagine how customers of more modest means are faring at the firm. I’m sorry, but I’m not inclined to believe or accept that Benson was an unfortunate victim of a one-off wayward broker. An online trade publication I read has a daily bevy of stories about wealth advisor wrongdoing at Merrill and the other major wire houses, albeit not on the scale inflicted on Benson.
I have a passing interest in wrongdoing in the money management industry, a legacy from my PR days when I represented one of the nation’s top securities arbitration attorneys. As a condition of opening a brokerage account, most, if not all, firms require that investors agree to settle any disputes through arbitration, rather than the courts. They do this because securities arbitration panels are heavily stacked with industry players, making the process akin to suing a newspaper for libel and being judged by a jury comprised of journalists from the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and other news outlets that rarely admit wrongdoing.
Only the very wealthy have an opportunity to get justice in the securities arbitration process. That’s because securities arbitration attorneys work on a contingency basis, meaning they don’t charge hourly fees but rather collect a portion of the settlements they garner. Understandably, that means only cases involving substantial wrongdoing are worth their time.
A prominent securities arbitration attorney I met at a party told me that it’s most unfortunate that arbitration hearings are held behind closed doors. He said it would be instructive for wealthy people to see how the major brokerage firms belittle and humiliate their customers who allege they were put into products that were misrepresented to them.
“So, you were smart enough to earn tens of millions of dollars running a network of plumbing supply stores but yet you didn’t understand the risks involved in a triple-leveraged summersault structured note pegged against the Bangladeshi taka?”
As best I can tell, Benson didn’t even win under the arbitration process. CNBC reported that New Hampshire’s Bureau of Securities Regulation imposed the penalty, and Benson’s securities arbitration claim was settled as part of the process. Benson’s savior appears to have been New Hampshire’s securities bureau, which possibly is following the lead of its Massachusetts counterpart doing right by aggrieved investors. FINRA is no friend of the individual investor of comparably modest means.
Bank of America is pressuring its Merrill brokers to cross-sell its mediocre products, which is possibly responsible for top performers bolting. UBS this week announced it recruited a team from a Merrill Lynch branch in Silicon Valley that managed more than $900 million in assets. In January, First Republic recruited a Merrill Lynch team in Los Angeles that managed $4.5 billion in assets.
Frankly, when I think of honesty and integrity in money management, UBS never comes to mind.
It’s a wonder to me why anyone would entrust their money to Merrill Lynch, regardless of their net worth. If you are a person of means, well then you have a bull’s eye on your back.
And if you are a pauper with $250,000 or less in investible assets, the company wants you to use its robo service, which NerdWallet, and Barron’s don’t rank too highly. That said, I wouldn’t put too much stock in Barron’s rankings. As my former American Banker colleague Jed Horowitz noted, the publication has lots of blemishes in its top wealth advisor rankings.
What’s a high net-worth person to do? If I had more than $100 million in need of money management, I’d play it safe and stash it away with my other funds at Fidelity.
And therein is why I will never have $100 million in my Fidelity account.