Bank of America is embarking on a major expansion of its self-directed and robo platforms at a moment when digital operations are coming to occupy a bigger part of the wealth management marketplace.

The bank's plans include opening 600 new investment centers by 2020 and hiring an additional 300 financial advisors by year-end, increasing the reach of Merrill Edge, which is a mashup of robo advisory and human help. Bank of America is also adding more features to its robo advisor, Merrill Edge Guided Investing, which was introduced a year ago.

The bank has added automated research to the software, and a new feature, Stock Story provides data and digests of investment analyst reports to help clients research individual companies.

“It takes what has historically been a lot of investment language and jargon and makes it into a much simpler, almost storybook way for an investor to dig into and research a company,” said Aron Levine, head of Merrill Edge at Bank of America.

The bank has also rolled out something called Portfolio Story, which provides similar data about a client’s portfolio.

“We’re helping to provide education, transparency and an ESG score, so clients get a feel for the environmental, social and governance score of their companies,” Levine said. “It gets to the heart of us making sure our self-directed clients are armed with everything they need to make good decisions.”

At the same time that it is upgrading its robo, the bank is beefing up the human ranks at Merrill Edge. The firm's planned hiring initiative will raise its advisor headcount to 4,000 representatives.

And the plans to add new investment centers will raise the total of such offices to 2,800 by 2020. The centers will be placed within new and existing bank branches. Bank of America currently has 4,500 existing branches and intends to open 500 more in over the next several years in new markets such as Indianapolis, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City and Lexington, Kentucky. There will be some branch closings, too.

Roughly half of the branches (2,200) have dedicated, on-site Merrill Edge Financial Solutions Advisors and another 770 provide access to them through video conferencing.

Customer mix
“There are some segments of the market who are truly self-directed and choose to be on their own," says Aron Levine, head of Merrill Edge at Bank of America. "Then there’s a segment of folks who want full-service, advised relationship. "

Does all this staffing up mean the robo advisor model does not really work?

Levine says no, that what this really says about the world of robo advice is that clients want in-person and digital service and like to work with advisers in a variety of ways.

“We’ve been pleased with the success of our digital advisor,” Levine said. “The reality is there’s a huge need and demand for advice around key life priorities. Clients want to be able to do that in different ways. They still want to come in and talk to someone, especially around the different challenges of competing priorities. At the same time, a lot of folks feel comfortable using a digital model."

The bank's Merrill Edge program currently has 2.4 million accounts and $184.5 billion in assets.

Levine did not have stats on the number of Merrill clients that use the robo versus human investment advice but said many clients use both.

“There are some segments of the market who are truly self-directed and choose to be on their own," he said. "Then there’s a segment of folks who want full-service, advised relationship. Increasingly, you’re starting to see it come together, where someone may have help for 80% of their holdings but do the rest in self-directed accounts."

The bank provides a communal dashboard for self-directed and guided investments alongside any other bank or Merrill products the customer has — such as checking, savings, mortgage or credit card — so clients can see their whole financial picture in one place.