After Morgan Stanley took control of Smith Barney in May 2009 from Citigroup Inc., David Hopkins grew disillusioned with his new bosses.
Hopkins, 50, says he had built a roster of about 150 clients with $38 million in assets in nine years as a stock broker at Smith Barney in Southern California. After the acquisition, the New York-based bank imposed new maintenance fees on Smith Barney accounts and stripped away some of the autonomy of its brokers -- moves that Hopkins says were hurting his relationships with investors.
In March, Hopkins got a call from a headhunter who urged him to join a small advisory firm that works with TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., a discount brokerage. Although it meant Hopkins would have to return a retention bonus from Morgan Stanley worth a year’s earnings, he decided to depart for Beacon Pointe Advisors LLC in Newport Beach, California, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its December issue.
“Smith Barney had a very hands-off environment, like you knew what was best for your clients,” Hopkins says. “With Morgan Stanley, it just became an unfriendly place. Smith Barney is dying a slow death. It’s all about Morgan Stanley.”
More than 7,300 brokers have left the four biggest full-service brokerages -- Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo Advisors and UBS Wealth Management Americas - - from the beginning of 2009 through June, according to financial services research firm Aite Group LLC in Boston and company filings.
Some brokers have fled internal clashes from mergers during the financial crisis: Bank of America Corp. rescued Merrill Lynch four months before the Smith Barney deal. Others have been recruited by discounters such as Charles Schwab Corp. to join their networks of independent firms.
The big banks, which count on their brokerages to generate a steady stream of fees, are losing assets as well as brokers. Assets under management at the four top brokerages dropped 16 percent to $4.75 trillion from 2007 through 2009, Aite Group says. During the same period, assets jumped almost 14 percent to $1.54 trillion at independent firms.
“It’s hurting the big brokerages,” says Alois Pirker, an Aite Group research director. “They have lost assets, advisers and clients.”
Morgan Stanley says the loss of brokers and assets has been inconsequential. Spokesman Jim Wiggins says the bank is sorry to see employees depart who are frustrated by a lack of success at Morgan Stanley, which doesn’t compete on price for clients with low-cost brokerages.
“Our business model is not for everyone,” he says. “We’re geared to those advisers and clients who can best benefit from the breadth and resources of a leading global investment bank.”
While lacking the clout of big brokerages, independent firms boast of one advantage with clients: no conflicts of interest. Brokers at Merrill Lynch, for instance, are pressured to sell funds managed or approved by the firm because they pay a higher commission than those run by other companies, says Paul De Rosa, who worked at the brokerage for 26 years before co-founding his own firm, Gateway Advisory LLC, in Westfield, New Jersey, in January.
De Rosa set up Gateway Advisory as a registered investment adviser, which has a fiduciary duty to put its clients’ financial interest first when giving advice, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules. RIA firms must also disclose conflicts. To avoid them, RIAs like Gateway typically shun commissions and charge a flat fee of less than 1 percent of assets under management regardless of the funds they recommend.
“Our clients know that when we make a recommendation, we’re not getting compensated for that recommendation,” says De Rosa, 61, whose firm manages more than $250 million.
Lyle LaMothe, who oversees Merrill Lynch’s U.S. wealth management unit, says brokers don’t push particular investments that pay more than others. The firm leaves it to the customer to decide whether to purchase a product sold on commission, or pay a fee for investment advice.
“That we have both methods is testimony to the fact that we are independent,” LaMothe says.
Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade are capitalizing on the flight of brokers. The discounters are providing independent firms with a host of fee-based services, from recruiting advisers to supplying clients and trading and custodial assistance. Omaha, Nebraska-based TD Ameritrade announced in July that its recruiters helped bring 212 advisers from big brokerages to independent firms in the first seven months of 2010, a 44 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
Schwab’s unit that offers services to independent advisers and other institutional businesses is the most profitable part of the company. San Francisco-based Schwab has about 6,000 independent advisers in its network.
“There has been a bit of a pack mentality with advisers,” says Bernie Clark, head of Schwab Advisor Services. “When people started coming out and fostering growth in this industry, others saw it was possible and followed them.”
Independent firms depend on their partnerships with Schwab and TD Ameritrade to succeed. Dorie Rosenband says she quit Smith Barney last year because she grew tired of its high- pressure sales culture and preferred to use her training as a certified financial planner to give advice. So she started a business in New York and Baltimore in 2009.
Trudge to Bathroom
Schwab helped Rosenband, 37, find office space and legal advisers and then hooked her up with Raylor Investments LLC, a Greenwich, Connecticut, consulting firm that screens investments for her clients. In exchange, Rosenband pays Schwab a fee for safekeeping her investors’ money, executing trades and other transactions.
“You cannot underestimate the magnitude of setting up a new business,” says Rosenband, whose firm oversees $50 million. “You’re leaving a turnkey environment where you don’t even realize what’s being done for you.”
Beacon Pointe, which manages $4 billion in assets, owes much of its recent expansion to TD Ameritrade. Beacon Pointe’s 30 employees work in a ground-floor office decorated with undistinguished paintings by anonymous artists. To get to a bathroom, advisers have to either trudge down to the basement or take an elevator to the fourth floor. Beacon Pointe and TD Ameritrade formed an alliance in 2007: Beacon pays a fee for client trades through TD Ameritrade, and the discount brokerage funnels customers looking for advice to the small firm.
This year, the number of TD Ameritrade referrals is soaring, comprising 25 percent of Beacon’s new clients through October. And Beacon is planning on acquiring an independent adviser with $120 million in assets in Scottsdale, Arizona, a first step in an expansion to get more business from TD Ameritrade branches across the country, says Matthew Cooper, Beacon’s managing director.
Hopkins, the Beacon Pointe adviser, works a region between Orange County and Santa Barbara, talking with TD Ameritrade branch workers to find customers who need advice.
“They went to Ameritrade and thought they could do a self-directed approach but don’t have the time or talent to do it,” Hopkins says. “So Ameritrade recommends us.”
Some advisers return to the comforts of big brokerages after struggling to survive on their own. James Stoker II left Smith Barney in 2004 and co-founded a firm with six of his brokerage colleagues. He wanted the freedom to place clients in more-exotic investments such as hedge funds. But Stoker had little time to develop those strategies. Because his firm in Austin, Texas, could only afford an additional handful of people for investment management and research, he spent most of his time on day-to-day duties, such as flying to meet fund executives and plowing through their documents.
After the Bernard Madoff fraud scandal in 2008, investors demanded that Stoker’s small staff increase the scrutiny of its investments. During a meeting in early 2009, an institutional client asked how Stoker could verify that outside auditors of managers were doing their job.
“We couldn’t answer that question other than to say we couldn’t do that,” Stoker says. “We were just too thin. We came back from the meeting and said we have to re-affiliate with Morgan Stanley.”
Stoker, 54, wound down his company in May and took six of his people back to Smith Barney. Now, at the brokerage’s Graystone Consulting unit, which advises institutional investors, Stoker says he can tap into a small army of hundreds of research analysts who handle much of the groundwork of evaluating money managers.
“A lot of the big independents don’t have 200-some people in research and sophisticated risk systems,” Stoker says. “Independents can’t outspend Morgan Stanley in these markets.”
Independent brokers, with fewer layers of oversight and compliance officers than the big firms, are also the subject of complaints, according to records maintained by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the securities industry watchdog. Stoker received a June 2009 complaint from a client that accused him of misrepresenting and failing to disclose the risks involved in an investment that resulted in a $1.7 million loss, according to his Finra BrokerCheck report. Stoker settled the complaint for $500,000, the report said. The report doesn’t say whether Stoker admitted or denied the allegations, and Morgan Stanley didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Major brokerages and independent firms are also tussling over regulation. The SEC will send a report on protecting investors to Congress in January before possibly issuing new rules as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act signed into law in July.
Registered investment advisers are urging the SEC to adopt the tough fiduciary standard under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 that governs their profession. If advisers receive additional payments for recommending a particular fund over another, they must fully disclose the arrangement and obtain informed consent from investors every time they sell such a product, says Falls Church, Virginia-based Knut Rostad, chairman of the Committee for the Fiduciary Standard, a group of financial professionals. Advisers must also manage conflicts by, for instance, crediting that additional payment to their client’s account rather than accepting it themselves, Rostad says.
The Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, a lobbying and trade group based in New York, says the stringent fiduciary rules of the 1940 act are unnecessary to safeguard investors and would restrict their options. SIFMA does support the idea of more disclosure.
“We believe in a robust disclosure regime where the client can make the decision to consent to conflicts,” says Andrew DeSouza, a SIFMA spokesman.
No matter what the SEC does, for Hopkins, there’s no going back to a big brokerage. He likes the potential payoff of being an entrepreneur.
“I’m working 10 times as hard, but the opportunity is 100 times greater,” he says on his cell phone, slogging through Los Angeles traffic -- hoping to find clients who value his independence as much as he does.