The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Merrill Lynch is making plans to raid Morgan Stanley of its top financial advisors. The firm is reportedly arming its regional managers with lists of top Morgan Stanley advisors to target. The offers to those advisors is said to be as high as $1.5 million upfront, not including deferred compensation, for advisors with at least $1 million in production.
The news comes as a new study released by Cerulli Associates this week predicts wirehouse firms losing 7% of their market share in the next three years as more advisors shift to other wealth management channels. That makes it more imperative for firms like Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley to hold onto their top advisors.
Morgan Stanley has recently undergone some significant changes, including cuts to its complexes and non-producing branch managers and a reportedly difficult technology conversion. Recruiters and competing wealth management firms are hoping the new challenges that Morgan Stanley's advisors are facing have dented morale significantly enough to tempt the firm's talent to move.
For recruiter Bill Willis, president and chief executive officer of Willis Consulting, new recruits are more interested in talking to Merrill Lynch now than they were roughly one year ago when that firm was enduring its own growing pains, including a 20% hit to its stock price in one day. For Morgan Stanley, he said, it's a different story.
"We certainly know most of the (Morgan Stanley advisors) and are in conversations with a lot of them" to switch firms, said Willis, whose recruiting firm is based in Palos Verdes Estates, California. "There's a lot of Morgan Stanley people, particularly on the legacy Smith Barney side, that are pretty unhappy right now."
That discontent is coming mostly from one source: a technology conversion that has not lived up to expectations, Willis said of his conversations with advisors.
"It's the overpromise, under deliver -- exactly what a financial advisor should never do with his clients -- that they are receiving from the firm," Willis said. "And there's the daily reminder when it doesn't work well."
Recruiter Danny Sarch, president of Leitner Sarch Consultants in White Plains, New York, said he is not surprised by the reports that Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are vying for top talent.
"I don't think it's anything different than what's been going on forever," Sarch said. "Morgan Stanley targets Merrill, who targets Morgan Stanley, who targets UBS, who targets Wells, and around and around we go."
However, this time around, Sarch said he sees some large producers at Morgan Stanley who are genuinely considering moves. And those Morgan Stanley advisors could reconnect with some former colleagues who were hit by the first round of layoffs at Morgan Stanley in 2008 and 2009 and have now landed at Merrill Lynch.
That does not change the fact that Merrill Lynch has endured its own problems that have prompted some advisors to leave following its own complicated merger of its bank and brokerage business, Sarch said. Last week, the firm reached a $2.43 billion settlement with investors who endured losses during the merger.
"They are both vulnerable to a certain extent," to advisory talent losses, Sarch said of Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch.
Both Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch have been in the headlines as their advisory talent has moved to other firms. Last week, a Morgan Stanley advisor overseeing more than $2 billion in client assets, Jonathan Madrigano, moved to J.P. Morgan Securities in New York. A J.P. Morgan spokesman confirmed that move. Merrill Lynch, meanwhile, has recently seen defections of its advisors to firms including RBC Wealth Management, Concert Wealth Management and HighTower Advisors.
Morgan Stanley maintains that there is no mass exodus from the firm. The firm is also reportedly working to secure its advisor ranks by promising fixes to any technology glitches and by making the firm's senior management more accessible. Any advisor moves prompted now might not be seen for some time, as advisor transitions to a new firm can take at least several months.