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Merrill, MSSB Invest in New Technology

Wirehouse firms continue to upgrade their advisor workstation technology following the recent consolidation among firms.

Wirehouse firms continue to upgrade their advisor workstation technology following the recent consolidation among firms. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney plans to finish rolling out a new investment research platform for both sides of its retail operation this October. Meanwhile, Merrill Lynch expects to complete the conversion of legacy Bank of America brokerage advisors to its workstation platform in September, said Mark Alexander, who heads technology and operations for global wealth and investment management.

Morgan Stanley’s new research platform, The Center for Investment Excellence, consolidates the different research tools that were offered through Morgan Stanley and Smith Barney before the merger, says Managing Director Jeffrey McMillan. “None of them had all the research. They all had different elements of it, depending on who you were. There was some frustration when you had to go to multiple places to answer a question,” he says.

The previous research platform offerings served both retail and institutional client needs, whereas the new platform is designed for advisors serving retail clients. McMillan says the firm plans to create a separate system exclusively for institutional clients in the future.

“If you look at some of our competitors, their (research) platforms are used by both institutional and retail. We strongly feel there’s a different constituency and a different business need there,” McMillan says. “Everything we’ve tried to do is to give the advisor the story in very, very short and unambiguous terms. Just by getting access to the last 73 research reports on IBM doesn’t help you do that.”

Financial advisors using the new platform will find more intuitive functions for accessing in-house and outside investment content; this fall it will add an application that will provide advisors with tools for finding tens of thousands of investment products and easily executing sales.

In the last month, Morgan Stanley has held 70 demonstrations of the research platform around the country. More than 40 percent of advisors are accessing the system so far, McMillan says. “We feel pretty confident that financial advisors are using this, and then once we bring in the other pieces we think it’s really going to be a killer app for us.” Morgan Stanley expects to roll out a consolidated advisor workstation platform for all business functions starting in the summer of 2011, he adds.

Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, has been periodically upgrading its Wealth Management Workstation over the past 10 years. One segment of it that covers managing client portfolios was improved 18 months ago and is popular with advisors, Alexander says; among other things, it can quickly produce reports that can be shared with investors and it integrates readily with other software programs that advisors routinely use. Some functions are being prepared for mobile phone applications and will be rolled out late this year or early 2011, he adds; next year all Bank of America customer data will be fully integrated into the planning tools of their Merrill Lynch advisors.

Some analysts predict that the advantages that technology affords the big players in the financial advisory industry will eventually trickle down to the smaller ones; tech gets cheaper over time, after all. But Alexander doesn’t see it that way. Merrill has spent more than $1 billion over the past 10 to 15 years to get its technology where it is today, he says. “It’s not something you could replicate easily. … Building sophisticated software is a huge competitive advantage, and a huge barrier to entry,” he says. “Many of the houses don’t even make sufficient return to really justify it.”

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