RPT-Merrill raises bid for rivals' top brokers-sources

Wed Feb 22, 2012 10:40am EST

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By Joseph A. Giannone

NEW YORK Feb 21 (Reuters) - Bank of America's Merrill Lynch has launched a more aggressive recruiting campaign for top-tier brokers, including a bonus paid for transferring client assets after six months at the firm, two sources familiar with the new plan said Tuesday.

Merrill Lynch last week told managers that it was offering brokers from UBS, Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Wells Fargo and other firms an upfront cash payment equal to 150 percent of the fees and commissions they generated during the prior 12 months. The offer is limited to advisers whose performance put them in the top 40 percent of their peers, the two sources said.

Merrill previously offered brokers 140 percent up front, according to one recruiter who was briefed on the changes. The higher offer lets Merrill catch up with bonuses offered at rivals UBS and Morgan Stanley, the recruiter said, in a market environment where it difficult to generate growth organically.

More significantly, Merrill also will pay an additional 25 percent bonus after six months if brokers transfer 65 percent of the assets they oversaw at their former employer. These brokers also can receive a 50 percent bonus -- half cash, half stock -- after the first year of the deal if they attract 75 percent of their client assets.

These payments combined mean some brokers can take home two times their trailing-year revenue in cash after just one year, one of the most aggressive packages offered by Merrill, a veteran recruiter said.

The offer is part of a nine-year commitment, which lets brokers earn additional "back end" payments based on meeting revenue and asset-growth goals.

A Bank of America spokeswoman said the company does not comment on its compensation practices, but noted the firm continues to focus on hiring and training. "We have and continue to be a competitive but highly selective recruiter of top industry talent," she said.

Merrill, the No. 2 U.S. brokerage with about 17,300 financial advisers, has suffered some defections in recent weeks as rivals like UBS increased their up-front bonuses to 180 percent of trailing twelve-month revenue -- for those who signed by the end of last year. That was up from about 130 to 140 percent in previous months.

UBS last month announced it had hired at least 14 veteran Merrill brokers who in total managed more than $2 billion in client assets.

The competition for the relatively few top advisers, not already tied down by previous recruiting and retention packages, has been heating up in recent months, recruiters said. UBS for example was offering 210 percent deals with an eye toward luring Merrill brokers.

One recruiter said the new Merrill program, offered even as the bank parent scrambles to slash spending and repair a battered balance sheet, shows the firm is showing renewed signs of confidence.

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