While Merrill Lynch has restricted free meals that vendors can give financial advisors to just those offered for online educational events, Wells Fargo says its registered representatives do not have these limits.

“Wells Fargo Advisors allow meals as part of the business entertainment policy. The meal does not have to be tied to an educational meeting,” it said in a statement.

The food and drink, though, must be consumed during a Zoom-based or other virtual meeting with a vendor, according to the wirehouse. This policy conforms with recent guidance from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority tied to virtual events. 

According to FINRA Rule 3220, “The provisions permitting business entertainment do not specify whether the entertainment must be in-person.”

The regulator explains that when “a member firm’s associated persons personally host an interactive virtual business entertainment event or meeting, FINRA would view the associated persons’ provision of reasonable amounts of food and beverage designed to be consumed by the recipient employees and their guests during that virtual business entertainment or meeting as not being subject to the $100 gift limit, provided that the cost of the food and beverage as well as the frequency with which it is provided do not raise questions of propriety.”

It adds: “The provision of food and beverage must not be preconditioned on achieving a sales target.”

Wells Fargo also permits its advisors to send fresh meals to their retail investor clients to be consumed during scheduled online meetings at lunch or dinner.

This gifting of food and beverage is not regulated by FINRA Rule 3220. The regulator generally keeps its eyes on free meals given to clients, though, when they’re closely tied to sales of investments and products deemed to be unsuitable or related to misleading claims about their performance.

In the second quarter of 2020, Wells Fargo’s employee advisor headcount dropped to 13,298 from 13,450 as of March 31 and from 13,723 a year ago. (The bank had 15,086 registered reps on Sept. 30, 2016, when it began making headlines for its fake-accounts scandal.)

The wealth unit’s net income plunged 70% to $180 million in Q2’20 from Q2’19.

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