The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall

Sure, stocks have been on a tear since March. But the S&P 500 is still off by 7 percent over the last 12 months. Not surprisingly, assets held at wealth management houses have shrunk by a $3 trillion (to $10.8 trillion) in 2008, according to data compiled by Aite Group, a consultancy. A further $1 trillion was lost in the first quarter of 2009, Aite says. That represents a 22 percent drop in assets

Sure, stocks have been on a tear since March. But the S&P 500 is still off by 7 percent over the last 12 months. Not surprisingly, assets held at wealth management houses have shrunk by a “staggering” $3 trillion (to $10.8 trillion) in 2008, according to data compiled by Aite Group, a consultancy. A further $1 trillion was lost in the first quarter of 2009, Aite says. That represents a 22 percent drop in assets in 2008 — followed by another 9 percent drop in the first quarter of this year. Ouch, indeed. Some precincts of the industry are feeling it more than others — namely the wirehouses, says a new report from the Aite Group, titled “New Realities in Wealth Management: Ready for Sea Change?”

“Our market data suggests a significant shift toward both the independent advice model and use of self-directed brokerage platforms,” says Douglas Dannemiller, senior analyst with Aite Group and co-author of the report. “As a result, the independent broker/dealer and registered investment advisor segments have both gained market share at the expense of the dominant wirehouse firms.” (See table.)

Wirehouse firms — Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Wells Fargo Advisors and UBS — were hit hardest, with assets down 25 percent last year to $4.2 trillion from $5.7 trillion in 2007. This is at least in part because of all of the mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street, says the report. Of the big national names, only UBS's brokerage unit has not changed hands since the crisis began. (And yet rumors abound. UBS, embarrassed by the tax-cheating scandal, is rumored — again — to be shopping its global wealth management unit around.) Between the start of 2008 to the end of the first quarter of 2009, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Smith Barney recorded combined net asset outflows of client assets totaling $150 billion, and combined rep count at the firms plummeted by about 6,000. (UBS alone has lost about $122 billion in client assets worldwide in 2009.)

“So much happened during that time period,” says Dannemiller. “There was tons of M&A, especially at wirehouses, which faced the most difficulty. Now, firms are trying get back on their feet and regain their focus.”

By comparison, client assets managed by firms Aite defines as “self-clearing,” regional brokerage firms, such as LPL Financial, Ameriprise, RBC Wealth Management and Edward Jones, dropped just 12 percent to $1.5 trillion in 2008. “Wirehouses have clearly given up a lot of ground to smaller competitors,” the study notes. These firms have also been winning the battle to build their advisory forces at the expense of wirehouse firms, says the report, adding 3,000 financial advisors in 2008 alone. Edward Jones hired 50 percent of those while LPL and Ameriprise gained 18 percent each.

Meanwhile, the RIA channel saw client assets fall 13 percent to $1.2 trillion from $1.4 trillion in 2007. In the asset gathering game, Schwab is winning, capturing more than half of new RIA assets — Fidelity has been winning about 25 percent. Online brokerage assets also declined significantly — down about 25 percent to $1.8 trillion from $2.3 trillion in 2007. However, the Aite Group estimates that the online brokerage group (Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and Fidelity Investments) added about $100 billion of new client assets last year. TD Ameritrde saw a 9 percent increase in the number of accounts in 2008 and a 2 percent increase in the first quarter of 2008.

Down But Not Out

Of course, the wirehouse channel, with its 62,500 advisors and 40 percent of all U.S. wealth management assets, is still in pretty good shape. The book of business that an average wirehouse rep manages is typically more than twice the size of that managed by an advisor outside the wirehouse, and about equal to the book of an advisor at an RIA firm. “Right now, wirehouses are trying to hold the line on assets. Their first priority is to keep the most profitable advisors. And they've done a fairly good job of that with the retention bonuses they're offering,” Dannemiller says.

That may be, but wirehouses are nevertheless losing assets and revenue to the next tier of firms. During 2008, wirehouse firms lost 2.1 percent of their market share, representing $225 billion in assets.

“The favored big advisors get nice retention packages while others in the bottom one third don't,” says Dannemiller. “It's interesting though, because those advisors are sought after in the next level of firms. That's fueling a lot of the movement. Producers with about $300,000 or $500,000 in revenue will get that attention they're not getting at wirehouses.” Advisors of that size also tend to bring with them a greater chunk of their client assets — about 75 to 80 percent of their book. (Larger advisors who depart from a wirehouse can bet their high-net-worth clients will be contacted by the firm's management, who will offer all kinds of incentives to keep the clients.)

Indeed, non-wirehouse brokerage firms and RIAs grabbed between 0.1 percent and 1.5 percent additional market share last year. The RIA group now manages about 10.8 percent of the wealth management industry's client assets. And leading RIA custodians have reported that 311 advisor teams set up RIA firms in 2008, representing $24 billion in breakaway assets.

When the markets rebound, firms with expanded advisory forces are likely to gain further asset share, says Aite's report.

The challenge for these firms, says Dannemiller, is to increase the average size of their reps' books of business.

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