New York (Reuters) - Charles Schwab Corp. is once again baring its teeth at large rivals, particularly full-service firms such as Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo & Co’s Wells Fargo Advisors and UBS AG’s UBS Wealth Management Americas.
The San Francisco-based pioneer of low-commission brokerage has been on a campaign in recent years to offer advice and fee-based accounts to clients with more than $250,000, similar to the strategy increasingly used by the four big firms, known as wirehouses.
“The wirehouse model continues to lose favor,” Schwab executive vice president John Clendening said at the Reuters Global Wealth Management Summit on Tuesday. About $750 billion moved out of full-commission firms to independent advisers, discount brokers and other firms last year, because clients want “a straight answer” about what they’re investing in and what they are paying advisers.
In 2002, Schwab raised the enmity of its Wall Street rivals with a television ad showing a brokerage firm executive telling salesmen, “Let’s put some lipstick on this pig.” It coincided with then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer’s accusation that brokers at Merrill and other firms were recommending stocks that their analysts were privately calling “dogs.”
Clendening, an executive vice president who coheads Schwab’s retail brokerage business, said assets moving to the firm from wirehouses have grown in the “upper-single digit” percentage range in the last few years. About 17 percent of its assets are in fee-based accounts, but should rise to 30 percent within 10 years. Morgan Stanley Wealth Management President Gregory Fleming said at the Wealth Summit on Monday that he expects fee-based accounts to rise to more than 40 percent from 37 percent at the end of the first quarter.
Clendening also said there is booming demand from Schwab clients for financial plans to help them meet goals. Schwab created 30,000 such plans in the first quarter, up 30 percent from a year earlier. He contrasted the plain-English plans to the thick binders prepared by wirehouses that often “end up on a shelf, completely useless to most investors.”
Schwab advisers create some complex plans, too, for a fee, but the vast majority of clients get free plans, he said.
He also said that when wealthy prospects come to discuss the possibility of moving assets, Schwab advisers encourage them to ask their current firm for explanations of charges. “The most stunning indictment of our industry is ... folks coming to me who say I thought bond purchases were free,” Clendening said.
The wirehouses, to be sure, say they are embracing more simplicity and clarity in plans and financial statements, and on whether clients are on track in meeting their goals. “The industry has not done a reliable job of telling people what their funding status is,” Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management head John Thiel said at the Reuters Summit on Tuesday. “The biggest issue with trust, our clients tell us, is transparency.”
However, he and other executives said Schwab is exaggerating its success in accumulating assets from wealthy clients to become what Clendening termed “truly the growth story in the industry.”
From 2010 through the end of 2013 total client assets in all parts of Schwab grew by $827 billion, equal to the combined growth at Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, TD Ameritrade Holdings and E*Trade Financial Corp, he said.
A spokesman at Morgan Stanley said the comparison was inappropriate since Schwab included low-margin assets that it holds for independent investment advisers. A TD Ameritrade spokesman said its double-digit growth in net new client assets over the past five years “outpaces that of our competition.”
Merrill’s Thiel response? “I would just say it’s a challenge to do that math, based on how people report,” he said.
(This story corrects 9th paragraph to read “...and on whether clients are on track...” to show that issue is about clients, not the wirehouses; in 10th paragraph, corrects to read “he and other executives” to clarify the speakers)
Reporting by Jed Horowitz