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Retirement Planning > Retirement Investing

Wells Fargo, DOL and Election Results

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As the country carefully watches Donald Trump’s presidential team move into action in Washington, D.C., and Hillary Clinton’s supporters look back on their failed campaign, Wells Fargo executives are making the rounds themselves, reflecting on what caused them to get into trouble with both bank clients and regulators.

“We could have moved faster and made some additional changes,” CEO Timothy Sloan told the Des Moines Register two days after the election, regarding the bank’s involvement with up to 2 million possibly fake accounts. “I think that is an important lesson here.”

In early November, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority confirmed that it is looking into regulatory filings tied to at least 207 former employees of Wells Fargo Advisors who were dismissed for issues connected with its fraudulent accounts.

“FINRA takes seriously the integrity and accuracy of all filings made by firms, including Form U-5s. With respect to Wells Fargo, we are reviewing the accuracy of filings made by the firm with regard to individuals involved in the cross-selling activities that are the subject of the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau] action,” the regulatory organization said in a statement.

“We are also reviewing cross-selling activities across the industry as reflected in a sweep letter, which is posted on our website,” it explained.

Earlier, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Ron Wyden and Bob Menendez asked Wells Fargo about its response to unauthorized accounts and its FINRA disclosures of details related to fake accounts; the bank has until Dec. 5 to reply. Wells Fargo has disclosed that some 5,300 employees were fired over their involvement in the scandal.

The apparent incomplete nature of the bank’s U-5 filings may have deprived regulators of details that might have helped them uncover and stop the “illegal activity” sooner, the senators argued. In their letter, the senators say the bank filed close to 18,000 U-5 forms from 2011 to 2015 and that close to 20% — about 3,355 out of roughly 17,750 — were for employees listed as “discharged,” “permitted to resign” or “other” (which includes “failure to perform job duties”).

The senators explained that FINRA told them “slightly more than 600 of those 5,300 [fired] persons were registered at various times with [Wells Fargo Advisors …] between 2011 and early-2016, and … 207 of them were specifically terminated for issues that fall within the scope of the [$185 million CFPB] order.”

They also point out that of the remaining 400 FINRA-registered employees fired by Wells Fargo, it “is not clear if the bank filed U-5s at all.” FINRA staff told the senators that its review of the matter is “in its early stages” as it awaits further information from the bank.

In Iowa, Sloan said he believes only a few dozen Wells Fargo Advisors’ employees were fired over fake accounts. “There’s not a big issue there,” he told the newspaper. “It’s a fishing expedition from my perspective.”

(The executive was in the Midwest to meet with several thousand employees at the opening of a Wells Fargo museum in Des Moines.)

In other news, Wells Fargo has said it sees possible litigation losses reaching up to $1.7 billion versus its earlier estimate of $1 billion. It also has added the SEC to a list of agencies investigating its sales practices disclosures, according to regulatory filings.

The bank’s wealth management unit, which includes about 15,100 Wells Fargo advisors, said its revenue grew 6% from last year to $4.1 billion in the third quarter, while profits jumped 12% to $677 million. Its pretax profit margin was 27%. Client assets were $1.7 trillion, up 9% from the year-ago period.

In the latest quarter, Wells Fargo’s wealth management unit says it has changed the way it reports cross-selling, which it now classifies as “referred investment assets,” according to Reuters. The business had $1 billion in such assets as of Sept. 30.

DOL and The Wirehouses

The election of Trump, according to a variety of industry sources, could lead to the derailment of the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rule. The soon-to-be president supports the Financial CHOICE Act, which seeks to replace both the DOL rule and the Dodd-Frank Act.

However, right before the elections and less than a month after telling its advisors that it would not offer new advised, or commission-based, brokerage retirement accounts starting in April 2017, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch told its FAs that effective immediately purchases of mutual funds in existing IRA accounts are no longer allowed.

Mutual funds can be bought in Merrill Lynch Investment Advisory Program accounts and non-retirement brokerage accounts. For advisors, the shift means that commissions tied to mutual-fund sales in brokerage retirement accounts will no longer be part of their compensation plans.

“Decisions made regarding the DOL fiduciary rule are grounded in our strategy to provide best interest, goals-based advice to our retirement clients while preserving client choice. They also reflect our goal of ensuring that our advisors and our firm are best positioned to comply with the rule,” the wirehouse broker-dealer said in a statement. (It declined to offer a new opinion in light of Trump’s election.)

The move, explained in a memo written by Frank McDonnell, head of Global Mutual Funds, and shared with about 14,500 financial advisors, aimed to get Merrill Lynch’s “Thundering Herd” ahead of the regulatory curve. “We are implementing this decision in advance of the DOL rule’s applicability date, to ensure as seamless and positive [an] experience for our clients and advisors as possible,” the firm explained.

According to Merrill, clients looking for alternatives to commission-based funds in their IRAs can turn to the firm’s Investment Advisory Program (IAP), Merrill Edge Select Portfolios, the Merrill Edge self-directed channel and Merrill Edge Guided Investing (beginning in January). “Each of these offerings will be augmented on an ongoing basis to ensure choice for our clients,” it said.

Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley has let its 15,850 advisors know that it will be giving their clients the option of having fee- or commission-based retirement accounts in 2017, after the fiduciary rule goes into effect.

The official announcement was made one week after CEO James Gorman alluded to this decision during a call with equity analysts. “But I think it’s fair to say our firm view is that optimizing choice for our clients, giving them the choice of how they deal with the firm, services to access, how they pay for those services, is critical to how we operate as a firm,” he explained.

The wirehouse said in a press release that clients who “prefer transaction-based pricing will continue to have access to retirement brokerage accounts and receive advice that complies with the DOL fiduciary rule and Best Interest Contract Exemption (BICE).”

At the same time, investors who prefer fee-based retirement accounts “will continue to have access to the firm’s world-class investment advisory offerings.” Morgan Stanley says it has some $850 billion in retirement and non-retirement assets held in fee-based accounts.

“Client needs vary by their individual situations, and they tell us they want choice in how they pay for services. We believe our advisors can most effectively uphold a fiduciary standard of care and work in clients’ best interests by continuing to offer choice,” explained Shelley O’Connor and Andy Saperstein, co-heads of wealth management, in a statement.

This dual strategy on the DOL rule stands in marked contrast to the approach being taken by Merrill Lynch, which also has explained that “legacy retirement assets” in Merrill IRA brokerage accounts before April 10, 2017, “can remain in that account,” given the grandfather provisions of the DOL rule. However, as of April 10, no new assets can be added to these accounts.

Merrill says that it will not use the Best Interest Contract exemption “to service or support ongoing IRA brokerage account activity.” However, “when appropriate, we will use this exemption to recommend enrollments in our Investment Advisory Program from a retirement client’s IRA brokerage accounts, or rollovers from ERISA 401(k) plans.”

After an account is enrolled in the Investment Advisory Program, or a Merrill Edge self-directed or guided investment advisory account, there is no longer a need to use the BIC exemption, it says. However, UBS equity analysts have told investors that Merrill’s approach “might reduce legal liability … [but] may also create an opportunity for competitors to attract [advisors].”

Other firms with employee advisors that made similar announcements recently include Raymond James Financial and Ameriprise Financial.

Bank of America-Merrill Lynch said that as of the third quarter, its reps have an average annual production level of $983,000. Morgan Stanley reported that its 15,856 advisors have average yearly level of fees and commissions of $977,000 and average assets per rep of $132 million.

Meanwhile, UBS advisors in the Americas have yearly production of $1.1 million and average assets of $156 million. “We continue to be the industry leader,” it said, noting that is has 7,087 advisors in the U.S., Canada and Latin America.

— Read Wells Fargo-SigFig to Roll Out Robo-Advisor in ’17 on ThinkAdvisor. 


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