Business is booming for discount brokerages. But this time the players driving the boom aren’t day traders chasing dot-com riches. They are independent financial professionals known as registered investment advisers who manage rosters of typically affluent clients and trade on their behalf with the assets held at the brokerage firms.
By 2020, research firm Cerulli Associates predicts that independent advisers will control more assets than Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, UBS Group AG and other major brokerages combined, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
The boom underscores two trends that have been upending the wealth-management sector in recent years: The first is a wave of traditional brokers leaving firms like Bank of America Corp.’s Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley as they seek to keep more of the fees and commissions they generate, and to maintain greater control over their business and less pressure to market certain types of products, from proprietary funds to credit cards to mortgages. The second is a new federal retirement-saving regulation, known as the fiduciary rule, aimed at curbing conflicted investment advice that has forced traditional brokers to retool their business models.
Executives and analysts say the trends are poised to continue, thanks in part to an increase in consumer awareness about the impact of investment fees and the differences between brokers and advisers. Registered investment advisers have for decades been required to put clients’ interests first and typically charge fees, while brokers have operated under a standard in which they could recommend products that would pay them the most in commissions as long as the investment was deemed suitable.