Bank of America’s Changes to Broker Pay Threaten Stability — But It’s No Reason to Sell BAC Stock

BAC stock - Bank of America’s Changes to Broker Pay Threaten Stability — But It’s No Reason to Sell BAC Stock

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[Editor’s note: This story has been edited since its original publication.]

Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) may have broken the cardinal rule of running a consumer-facing business: if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. That is, despite things going swimmingly for its brokerage arm Merrill Lynch, the company just imposed some heavy-handed changes in the way its advisors are paid.

To an outside observer looking in, the grumbling may be understandable, but the tweaks are hardly horrifying. And, it’s unlikely that owners of BAC stock will even notice any impact on the company’s total bottom line … at least not initially.

The relationship between brokers and their employers can be a tenuous one though, and if for some reason the economy falters and stocks stop performing, dissension in the broker ranks could end up doing more damage to the value of Bank of America stock than most investors suspect.

Heavy-Handed Changes

If you’re a Merrill Lynch client and things have seemed increasingly ‘off’ the past few months, you’re not crazy. Your advisor has been asked to focus on some different areas. This summer, for instance, your financial representative likely started to point out all the other non-brokerage services and features from the banking side of the business you could plug into.

His/her paycheck depended on doing it.

The real changes, however, have only just begun to take shape. One of them is incentivizing the recruitment of new high-net-worth clients into the fold.

Brokers are forever seeking new accounts, to be clear; compensation is largely a function of the amount of assets being overseen by an advisor. It’s just the nature of the business. The looming changes for Merrill’s brokers, however, prompt sweeping shifts in the so-called Thundering Herd’s minimum expectations.

The number of new households being converted into Merrill clients that are required to achieve a higher payout on the compensation grid was increased to six from four, while the number of households for advisors to avoid moving down on the payment grid went from three to four. Household accounts worth $25 million or more count as four households, or “credits,” while household accounts worth less than $2.5 million only count as one credit. Two credits are awarded for new household accounts up to $10 million, and accounts worth up to $25 million earn three credits.

The payout structure still rewards quantity over total size. But, smaller accounts are not as lucrative for the broker or the firm, arguably forcing advisors to use their limited time differently than they might prefer to qualify for their maximum potential pay.

The average advisor has added five households this year. And, so far this year, two-thirds of Merrill Lynch advisors are on track to receive a household bonus or at least keep their compensation flat on the growth grid, while only one-third are facing a reduction in their compensation.

Simultaneously, Bank of America has introduced a pay plan that actually reduces advisors’ base pay by as much as $48,000 per year for failing to bring six new client households to the wirehouse. Retention of existing customers doesn’t factor into the matter.

Specifically, BofA’s new payout plan for its fee-based investment advisory business lowers compensation to only 97% of what was previously 100% of scheduled fee-based or commission-based earnings. The new compensation structure potentially means a base-pay reduction of $4,000 per month for its highest-earnings brokers. In most plausible scenarios, the pay reduction wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic. Moreover, advisors can more than offset that pay setback by qualifying for a new-household/account bonus. Still, some advisors have complained the new plan limits the number of ways they can maintain or improve their earnings.

Merrill Lynch clients can also expect to hear more about the company’s online banking options. Advisors are being compensated to push customers in that direction as well, mirroring a similar push being made by rival Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS).

Perhaps the most alarming change in the queue, though, is the firm’s effort to steer Merrill’s brokerage clients into more debt against a backdrop of rising interest rates. It’s a move that, according to the company’s own advisors, potentially puts BofA’s and the advisor’s interests before the clients, crossing a line most brokers don’t want to cross. Many of Merrill Lynch’s advisors said as much to Merrill Lynch Wealth Management head Andy Sieg.

The company argues that it’s not encouraging unnecessary use of debt-based products, and points out that LMA (loan management account) balances are actually down year-over-year.

Potential Disruption

As maddening as constant compensation changes may be to most employees of most companies, it’s not terribly uncommon with the world of brokerage houses. Just ask the advisors who work for Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) and UBS Group (NYSE:UBS), who have seen the basis for their paychecks change in recent months … some for the better, and some for the worse. Most were modest.

The changes put in place by Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch, however, were significant in terms of quantity and quality. And, such changes generally don’t digest well with top-producing advisors who face the enormous risk of working in a highly cyclical business earning nothing but commissions produced by their own efforts.

The good news for BAC shareholders is, the company’s investment brokerage arm — part of its Global Wealth and Investment Management arm — only accounts for about 13% of Bank of America’s total revenue. Even if some advisors feel the call to seek out opportunities with other wirehouses, there’s some cushion to dampen the potential fallout.

Still, seemingly small things can often end up turning into big things. If Andy Sieg doesn’t realize soon enough that the mere habit of changing pay plans is risky in and of itself, the big bank’s brokerage arm could turn into a liability faster than one might suspect. When advisors leave, they’re often able to take their clients with them.

Bottom Line for BAC Stock

It’s not a reason to dump your BAC stock, if you own it. Indeed, Bank of America stock remains one of the top picks in the banking sector despite its recent decisions that ultimately alienate its brokers.

To the extent Bank of America needs every division firing on all cylinders to keep the price of BAC stock propped up, this is yet another potential pitfall to worry about. It joins BofA’s investment banking unit as an area of concern.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.

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