In an attempt to generate prospect leads, Merrill Lynch last month launched a four-month trial program that offers the firm's research to the general public via the firm's Web site.
People who visit the trial site at www.askmerrill.com register and receive a password to access the research information. The registration information is forwarded to Merrill brokers who have volunteered to participate in the trial. The reps have been dubbed "cyber equity financial consultants." The firm hopes users of the service will want to develop a relationship with Merrill's financial consultants.
"We're obviously doing this to generate interest," says Frank Zammatarro, vice president and senior director of Merrill Lynch Online.
The reaction from reps is mixed, but for the most part the thought of on-line research does not cause them much concern. "It wouldn't affect my business," says one rep in the South. "It would probably bea supplement [to my business], but I can't see how it would be a plus or a minus."
Other reps speculated that the purpose of the trial is to show the general public how good Merrill's research is. Zammatarro confirms that reasoning. He says the trial is an opportunity for Merrill to broadcast its message about on-line investing, that "it's more than trading," he says. "Especially in times of volatile markets, the need is great to have a relationship with the firm."
But providing the public direct access to research is not without controversy. One Merrill rep in Massachusetts worries that having Merrill's research on-line seems to take away some of a financial consultant's value, but at the same time admits that it would not affect his business. A New Jersey rep is adamantly opposed to the idea: "I don't like it. I think it's a bad idea. When you give something away for free, that says it has no value. "