Trying to move beyond the lawsuits and congressional hearings, Bank of America will finally start using Merrill Lynch & Co. for what it intended when the Charlotte company bought the beleaguered investment bank in January — to develop wealth management products.
Bank of America on Monday introduced the first product that uses Merrill Lynch's investment management capabilities and the overall firm's banking capabilities. The "My Retirement Income" offering lets customers nearing, or in, retirement automatically transfer, monthly or quarterly, funds from a Merrill Lynch cash management account into a Bank of America deposit account.
The product is not unique, but it adds competition to the retirement planning market and is a tangible advance in the much-maligned integration of the two companies.
"This is a very important step as we tie two parts of this organization together," said Andy Sieg, the head of retirement and philanthropic services in the Merrill Lynch unit, who was hired recently from Citigroup Inc. "We are really bringing out what was the vision of the merger from the beginning."
Many companies, specifically insurance providers, have been introducing products in recent years that offer withdrawal benefits during retirement. Investment companies, including Fidelity Investments, began to introduce retirement income products as many as five years ago to retain customers — and their assets — after retirement.
Sallie Krawcheck, hired in August as the $2.39 trillion-asset Charlotte company's head of wealth management and brokerage operations, has identified retirement products as an area of growth. During an Oct. 5 press conference, she called the business "a hidden gem" for BoA. "You don't hear much about it, but you will be hearing more about it," she promised.
Sieg agreed, saying that developing a stronger array of retirement income products has been a "central element" of Krawcheck's strategy.
"Customers are very interested in a product that offers them a paycheck into the retirement years," he said. "This is really banking and wealth management working in concert together. We are not just blending them into the same account, which we know from experience can just be confusing for customers."
The new product "harnesses the full capabilities of the entire company," Sieg said.
My Retirement Income works with existing Merrill Lynch retirement income products that the company has been developing for about two years, said Aimee DeCamillo, the head of personal retirement solutions for Merrill Lynch's global wealth management division.
Merrill Lynch also was set to introduce Monday a proprietary retirement income planning and investment platform, the Merrill Lynch Retirement Income Framework. It would let Merrill Lynch advisers work with clients on retirement income strategies, taking into account a client's individual risk tolerance, retirement consumption needs and appropriate asset allocation.
Burton Greenwald of Philadelphia's BJ Greenwald Associates said retirement income planning is a "no-brainer" for a company "looking for ways to cross-sell."
Sieg said he would not characterize BoA's new product as part of a cross-selling initiative. In most cases, he said, customers have an existing Merrill Lynch investment account and a BoA checking account. "We are trying to connect the components," he said. "We are looking for ways to deliver a new level of value to our customers."
Separately, BoA is starting a marketing campaign to tout products offered by its core retail banking operation, such as helping people spend wisely and gain control of their finances.
"We know trust in financial services is down significantly, and we've seen that in our own metrics," Jim Buchanan, a consumer marketing executive, said in an interview. Another key objective is to "increase and maintain the company's share of media voice" compared to other banking companies, he said. BoA expects to invest $40 million in the campaign, mostly in this quarter.
The company has been fighting difficult public relations battles over claims that it withheld pertinent information from shareholders on Merrill Lynch losses and bonuses.