Amid worries and uncertainty surrounding retirement advice, Merrill Lynch is offering an alternative solution with the launch of AdviceAccess, a personalized investment advice product for individuals who invest in retirement plans. Mark Feuer, a first VP with Merrill Lynch Retirement Group, told reporters on a conference call yesterday that this service will "finally answer the question, ‘How should I invest?’"

AdviceAccess seeks to lessen the legwork for individuals by enabling them to tap into advice by their preferred method of contact, whether by phone, the Web or in-person consultations.

After conducting its 2002 Merrill Lynch Retirement Survey, the firm said it found a dearth of this kind of service, although investors desire it. The survey found that 44% of Americans were more likely to seek professional help for their retirement portfolios after the economic downturn began. Merrill also learned that more than half of the working American population mistakenly thinks their 401(k) is guaranteed by the federal government.

Moreover, the survey also found that one in five Americans say they will need an annual retirement income that is at least 100% of what they earn today, and 70% think future retirees will face a personal financial crisis in the future.

James P. Gorman, president of Merrill Lynch U.S. Private Client Group, called the service a "holistic approach for retirement planning." Gorman said the company wants to improve the quality of financial advice. Merrill Lynch is aiming to be "one institution that provides it all," he said. The company will work in conjunction with Ibbotson Associates to ensure "sound analytics" and up-to-date research.

Feuer said the service will utilize all of the company’s channels, giving participants the option of obtaining advice through local financial advisers, advisers from Merrill Lynch Financial Advisory Center or through the company’s Benefits Online site. He also said that he was not certain which channel participants would use the most.

Set to be marketed in a major campaign early next year, Gorman said the company is still working through a few kinks. In regards to payment, he said the service will "leverage a scale of offerings to all participants to ensure that it’s affordable. Who pays for it, whether it’s [the participants] or the plan sponsors, is still being worked out."

Gorman said he does not expect everyone to accept AdviceAccess initially, but he added that it "fills a real need in the marketplace for employers and employees. They deserve and expect the ability of professional help to work for them."

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