As coronavirus spreads, firms hit the brakes on advisor travel

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Wealth managers have dealt with hurricanes, the dot-com bubble, a financial crisis, Black Monday and a Flash Crash. Now, they have to contend with a new threat: coronavirus.

To do that, they’re curtailing traveling, asking employees potentially exposed to the virus to work from home and readying more stringent measures, though firms have yet to instruct advisors to postpone or cancel client meetings.

RBC Wealth Management is consulting with its chief medical officer as well as the global health authorities on guidelines for employee wellness and travel, according to a spokesman for the firm, which has more than 2,000 advisors.

“For advisors specifically, the advisor-client relationship is the cornerstone of our business and, as such, there are several avenues for these parties to interact, both in person and remotely, to ensure clients’ needs are fully met. At this time, client meetings and advisor travel within the United States are based on client, advisor and local management preference and discretion,” the firm said in a statement.

Likewise, Edelman Financial Engines is ensuring employees can not only operate outside the office, but are ready to do so.

“We are taking laptops home, testing remote access to ensure responsibilities can be completed from home, etc., in case there needs to be an office closure,” Jason Van de Loo, head of retail and marketing, says in an email.

Edelman does “not want any disruption for our clients,” he says.

The virus is a new respiratory disease that originated in China, and has since leapfrogged to other regions, infecting tens of thousands of people in that country as well as South Korea, Iran, Italy and elsewhere. A top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader died of the virus earlier this week. In Italy, authorities have quarantined entire towns in Lombardy, an important economic region in the country’s north.

The rate of confirmed cases has skyrocketed in the U.S. As of March 3, there were 60 confirmed cases, according to the CDC up from 43 only a few days before. Six individuals have died. New cases have appeared in New York and Seattle.

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person, according to the CDC. Symptoms — including fever, cough and shortness of breath — may appear between two and 14 days after exposure.

Wealth management firms say they are closely watching for additional guidance from health authorities. Meanwhile, some are relying on existing methods for addressing crises.

A spokesman for Edward Jones, which has more than 18,000 financial advisors and $1.3 trillion in assets, says the firm has infrastructure and procedures in place “for very difficult situations like this.”

“Our extensive network is equipped to manage these issues and we have plans in place to ensure our clients are able to access their funds,” the spokesman said, declining to share details about the firm’s plan.

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A number of companies, from wirehouses to independent broker-dealers, have restricted travel to affected countries. Some, including Morgan Stanley and UBS, have asked employees returning from those regions to work remotely for 14 days. In some instances, they’re asking employees to wait even longer before returning to the office.

“Out of an abundance of caution, we are asking personnel to self-quarantine and work from home for up to 20 days when returning from one of those locations or coming into close contact with those that have,” says a spokesman for Stifel Financial, a regional BD with more than 2,000 financial advisors.

The spokesman cautioned that the firm’s policy could “change as we receive additional information.”

St. Louis-based Stifel, like other firms, enables some employees to work remotely and says it is prepared to take further steps.

“If a situation arises where we need to ask select business areas, teams, or groups to work remotely, we will look to their respective managers to coordinate with each other and communicate exact plans and procedures,” Stifel says in a statement. “Likewise, if it becomes necessary, we will be able to enable remote email access and other remote access capabilities to non-exempt associates.”

Wells Fargo is “restricting all non-essential international business travel and requiring executive-level approval for international travel deemed essential until further notice,” a company spokeswoman says.

The firm says modified work arrangements, such as telecommuting, have proved Wells Fargo can run its business while reducing risk to employees.

On March 6, Raymond James said it suspended business travel to “higher risk” countries including China, Iran, Italy and South Korea. The St. Petersburg, Florida-based firm also said it was prepared for further steps. "The vast majority of associates are equipped to work remotely if needed and are prepared to do this on short notice if circumstances require it."

Peter Mallouk, president of Creative Planning, says his employees don’t travel internationally except to Canada and the firm isn’t planning to change its operations currently.

“We aren't restricting travel anywhere domestically and wouldn't unless things got substantially worse,” Mallouk says in an email.

Similarly, Cetera says it is monitoring the situation but had not taken more active steps. “No travel restrictions, office closures, or meeting cancellations have been imposed,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

—Additional reporting by Ann Marsh.

Editor's note: This story was updated March 6 to include measures taken by Raymond James.

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Coronavirus Risk Practice management CDC Wells Fargo Advisors RBC Wealth Management Edward Jones Cetera Advisors Edelman Financial Services Creative Planning