In an effort to attract assets and customers, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has introduced a tool to help employers score how well employees are doing at saving for retirement.
The new tool, Financial Wellness Monitor, which was introduced Thursday, is being offered free to employers. It calculates an overall “financial wellness score” indicating to employers whether employees are exhibiting behaviors within their 401(k) plan that may lead to successful long-term savings.
The metrics are based on how much employees are saving, if they are well-diversified, if they are using target date funds appropriately, and how they are using the company match.
Kevin Crain, the head of institutional client relationships for BofA Merrill Lynch [BAC], said that the company began to examine its 401(k) business 12 to 18 months ago and wanted to find a way to “quantify retirement wellness.”
“We found that we could offer a lot of nice summaries, but we needed a way to really score things,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “We wanted to create something that wasn’t hard for plan sponsors to understand and that focused on key metrics.”
Bank of America Merrill Lynch began beta testing the service last year with 300 clients that use the banking company’s advice tool, Advisor Access Solution, which specifically recommends savings options to employees.
Financial Wellness Monitor scores employers plans on a scale of one to 10. Crain said the beta-testing illustrated a wide range of scores. He said twice as many plans that scored “well” use a combination of auto enrollment and automatic increase features, but plans that didn’t score as highly have higher opt-out rates when it comes to automatic enrollment.
Employees that score high are using the advice tools, Crain said. The average score for employees that used advice tools to make retirement planning decisions was an 8.5, but the average score for those that didn’t was a 6.2.
“I think that the results definitely highlighted the story that we theorized: advice is critical,” he said.
Financial Wellness Monitor can be run on a quarterly basis, Crain said, and will provide trend data to illustrate how employees and employers are improving – or not improving – their retirement savings.
Crain said he is interested in measuring a broader group of employers. “I think we are going to find that some are well and healthy and others that don’t do as well aren’t using the advice,” he said. “I think this tool is a good way to show the value of the defined contribution system. It can be a successful system.”
These results could enable BofA Merrill Lynch to cross-sell additional services to employers, Crain said, and hopefully make it attractive for new customers.
“As we carefully look at the issue of client retention and increasing client relationships, we have done studies that show that clients longer when they are satisfied with the services and products they are getting,” he said. “This tool will help us target plans that are not as healthy and if we get more people involved that will lead to more growth as well. I think this is going to provide opportunities to develop our existing client base in a meaningful way and I hope if we get strong, healthy clients they will help us draw more employers and more clients.”
Bank of America expects "significant" growth in 401(k) assets this year. The company reported that 401(k) assets increased 15.6% last year to $81.5 billion from a year earlier. Crain said that the company is projecting significant growth in new clients and new assets this year.
Analysts remain skeptical because employers are reticent to change providers. "Right now, employers are focused on running their businesses and don't want to take the time to switch 401(k) administrators," says Geoffrey Bobroff of Bobroff Consulting in East Greenwich, R.I. "This is a good initiative for BofA, but significant growth is a question mark."
Crain says BofA had an increase in 401(k) assets last year because of an increased use of automatic enrollment and more employers tying 401(k) enrollment to healthcare enrollment. "It is all about making these programs as easy as possible to get into," he says, adding that the company has seen "double-digit" growth in automatic enrollment.
Bobroff said “the various bells and whistles are impressive, but I don't think there will be a lot of documented success," he says. "I guess in a world where they don't have a lot of positives, this is something they can put their finger on."
The company, which had $450 billion in retirement assets under management at the end of last year, is looking to cross-sell Merrill Lynch's products and services to BofA's corporate and middle-market customers.In January it launched a new marketing campaign as part of this cross-selling effort.
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