Merrill Lynch does about face on fiduciary-era policy

(Reuters) - Bank of America Corp’s wealth management arm Merrill Lynch said on Thursday it is reintroducing commissions for its retirement accounts, reversing a policy put in place to comply with Obama-era regulation.

FILE PHOTO: The company logo of Bank of America Merrill Lynch is displayed at its office in Hong Kong March 8, 2013. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/File Photo

Merrill Lynch, along with JPMorgan Chase & Co, effectively banned brokerage retirement accounts last June and began moving clients into advisory accounts to prepare for the U.S. Department of Labor’s so-called fiduciary rule meant to curb conflicts of interests for financial advisers.

The fiduciary rule was overturned in March by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. At that time, Merrill executives said the firm would keep the policy in place to serve the best interests of its clients.

The company is now reversing that policy and expects to add a brokerage option back to individual retirement accounts by Oct. 1.

“In response to client feedback, we’re announcing steps today that will provide our clients with greater choice and flexibility, while maintaining our support for a best-interest standard for investment advice across all accounts,” Andy Sieg, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, said in a statement.

Advisers may have also felt limited by the policy, according to Frank LaRosa, chief executive of recruiting firm Elite Consulting Partners.

“The rule that they were implementing had to do with a law that wasn’t even on the book,” he said.

When the policy was implemented Merrill Lynch, which manages $2.3 trillion of client assets, had roughly $150 billion of individual retirement accounts in brokerage format.

Wealth management firms tend to prefer fee-based accounts over commissions because the revenue is more predictable and easier to budget for, LaRosa said. Fees are usually set based on asset levels while commissions swing based on trading volume and market conditions.

Shortly after the Department of Labor’s rule was overturned, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commision proposed a replacement rule that would require brokers to act in the best interest of clients when making investment recommendations for all types of accounts.

Reporting by Imani Moise; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli