BofA wealth unit struggles

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Bank of America's wealth management unit, which includes Merrill Lynch, turned in a mixed performance for the fourth quarter.

Wealth management profits, at $634 million for the quarter, were up 1.8% year-over-year, but down 9% from the previous quarter. It's also the third consecutive quarter in which wealth management profits have slipped.

And even though expenses have dropped, revenues have also fallen.

The bank reported on Friday that costs fell to $3.4 billion from $3.5 billion from the year ago period, a roughly 3% decline. Revenues, meanwhile, dropped 2%, falling to $4.4 billion from $4.5 billion.

On a brighter note, Bank of America says that referrals to and from its wealth management business to its other units increased 8% in 2016 when compared to 2015.

The bank has tweaked adviser compensation in recent years to incentivize employees to make more referrals. Under the 2017 comp plan, Merrill Lynch advisers are required to refer two clients to other parts of the bank, such as for a mortgage or commercial loan. The changes are intended to serve more client needs. The referral doesn't have to result in business.

Read more: Merrill, Morgan unveil comp plans, but advisers should expect changes

This year will be a particularly busy one for Bank of America's wealth management business; the bank plans to roll out its robo adviser platform soon and it's also preparing to implement the Department of Labor's fiduciary rule.

Merrill Lynch said last year that it will not offer commission-based retirement accounts to clients under the rule, which stands in contrast to rival firms, such as Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo, which will.

Merrill's choice is significant for the industry, because of the size of its adviser force and the large amount of client assets the firm oversees.

The wirehouse's revenue fell to $3.6 billion from $3.69 billion for the year ago period, a roughly 2.4% decline. Client balances, however, were up, rising 6% to $2.1 trillion. In addition, long-term AUM flows, at $18.9 billion for the quarter, were up $12.2 billion from the prior year. The bank said this shift was driven in part by IRA brokerage account assets transitioning into managed relationships.

"Looking ahead, we are excited about the opportunities for growth. With Americans living longer and more complex lives, and 10,000 baby boomers reaching retirement age every day, we’re at the dawn of a new bull market for advice," the bank said in a statement.

The wirehouse's adviser headcount rose 76 FAs to reach 14,629. Merrill says most of those advisers, 64%, have half or more of their client assets under a fee-based relationship.

Revenues for U.S. Trust, which is also part of Bank of America's wealth management business, rose 1.7% year-over-year, reaching $776 million. The firm's client balances increased 4.6% to $406 billion.

Companywide, Bank of America's net income rose to $4.7 billion from $3.2 billion for the year-ago period. The bank reported earnings per share of 40 cents.

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Earnings Wirehouses Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. Trust