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Ameriprise Profits Disappoint; Advisor Productivity, Headcount Improve

While Ameriprise Financial (NYSE: AMP) reported lower profits for the first quarter, the firm managed to bring advisor productivity back up near record levels and slightly increase its advisor headcount.

First-quarter operating earnings were $335 million, down 3 percent from a year ago, on total revenues of $2.5 billion, a gain of 1 percent year-over-year. The firm attributed the lower earnings to the low interest rate environment and technology expenses for its new brokerage platform.

Meanwhile, advisor productivity rebounded nearly to the record level of $99,000 reached in the second quarter of last year. Average production was up 5 percent from the fourth quarter 2011, to $98,000. This compares to $95,000 during the first quarter of 2011.

Improving advisor productivity has been a focus at the firm for the last couple of years. Since the second quarter of 2009, productivity per advisor has grown from $65,000 to $98,000. (Note: Ameriprise reports these numbers on a quarterly basis, unlike the wirehouses, which tend to report annualized numbers.)

Advisor headcount was also up slightly, bringing its total advisor force to 9,744 from 9,730 in the fourth quarter 2011. Meridian-IQ, a database provider that tracks rep movement using FINRA filings, also saw higher recruiting figures for Ameriprise. (Registered Rep.’s parent company, Penton Media, is an investor in Meridian-IQ.) According to Meridian, the firm added 107 net new advisors during the first quarter. (Refer to chart below to see where Ameriprise advisors are coming from.)

The firm has also been busy implementing its new brokerage platform. Ameriprise wouldn’t disclose costs associated with the technology, although last quarter Chief Financial Officer Walter Berman said investments in a new advertising campaign and the platform increased expenses by $14 million. At the time, he said he expected that pace to continue for the next few quarters.

So far, all of its employee advisors and more than 1,000 franchise advisors have converted to the new platform, and Chief Executive Officer Jim Cracchiolo expects to finish the conversion by the end of the year. But technology development, training and support costs, and the costs of operating the two systems have increased Ameriprise’s expenses, he said.

The firm reported total client assets under management and under administration of $675 billion, up 1 percent from a year ago and up 7 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011. Fee-based assets saw net inflows of $2.9 billion, the highest since the second quarter of 2007, Cracchiolo said during a conference call this morning.

Morningstar Senior Analyst Jim Ryan said earnings came in slightly below his expectations, primarily because of the low interest rate environment. “Clients of the firm also continued to increase cash balances, remaining cautious because of ongoing financial concerns,” Ryan said in his analyst note.

Within the firm’s advice and wealth management segment, earnings were $94 million, a 5 percent drop from a year ago. The segment posted net revenues of $954 million, up 4 percent from the year-ago quarter.

Cracchiolo said once interest rates start to rise, the firm’s advisor business will realize greater earnings power.

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