June 4, 2019 / 7:47 PM / 23 days ago

Bank of America adds human option to enhance robo investment offerings

(Reuters) - Bank of America Corp is rolling out a new wealth management product that combines automated portfolios with human advice, becoming the latest brokerage to seek to boost business by blending digital with personalized financial planning.

It comes as competitors are increasingly offering hybrid advice models, in response to questions about the potential profitability of stand-alone robo-advisers.

The new service underscores how Bank of America is targeting downscale clients even as certain banks like Morgan Stanley have opted to reserve human advice for wealthy customers.

The Bank of America service, Merrill Guided Investing with an Advisor, builds on its robo adviser launched in 2017, adding the ability for clients to call or make an appointment with a bank employee to discuss their financial goals.

Providing online investors access to a human adviser is growing more popular in the wealth management industry as studies have shown many clients prefer a combination of digital and personal advice.

Robo-advisers typically use computer algorithms to create and manage portfolios made up of low-cost exchange-traded-funds for clients with as little as a few hundred dollars to invest.

Merrill Guided Investing, which uses recommendations from the wealth management chief investment office, requires a $20,000 minimum investment for access to a financial adviser who can offer help over the phone, online, or in person at a Bank of America branch.

The tiered offering is meant to attract young families and others in the early stages of wealth accumulation, head of Consumer Banking & Investment Aron Levine told Reuters.

Bank of America estimates that 85 percent of its clients who are eligible for its wealth management products hold investments elsewhere.

“It’s critical for us to have the right wealth management solution to meet the needs of investors at every age, and every stage of their wealth accumulation,” said Andy Sieg, president of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

Research firm Aite Group expects digital wealth management to continue growing quickly over the next few years but said in a May 2019 survey that large incumbents will grow faster than start-ups as they leverage their massive distribution networks.

With a 0.85% annual fee, Merrill Guided Investing with an Advisor is more costly than many competitors’ hybrid financial planning services.

Betterment, a start-up robo-adviser, charges an annual fee of 0.4 percent for its premium service and has a minimum investment of $100,000, while Wells Fargo & Co’s Intuitive Investor charges 0.5% annually with a minimum investment of $10,000.

(This story corrects minimum investment amount for Betterment’s premium service in the final paragraph).

Reporting by Imani Moise; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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