Merrill Lynch orders advisors home, offices empty out as pandemic spreads

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The coronavirus has grounded airlines, closed restaurants and spurred the NBA to suspend its season. Now, the outbreak is forcing Merrill Lynch to close doors on both coasts.

The firm has asked advisors in the Bay Area to work from home, a policy shift intended to protect employees and clients from a fast-spreading pandemic. Merrill advisors in New York will transition to similar restrictions, according to a person familiar with the matter. It’s the latest in a series of extreme measures taken by banks and wealth management firms to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Clients can still reach their advisors via email, phone and other means even if they can’t meet face-to-face in a Merrill Lynch office, the person said. “Someone will answer the phone.”

Someone did when a reporter called the firm’s San Francisco branch; the employee answering the phone said the office was “closed” as of March 17. Advisors were available, but working from home, the employee answering the phone said.

The policy could affect hundreds of employees and is a step up from the firm’s previous efforts, which included travel restrictions. For example, Merrill’s SD Market, located in downtown Manhattan, has approximately 150 advisors, plus additional support staff.

The new orders come amid stepped-up efforts by corporations and governments to arrest the rising number of infected individuals. San Francisco and surrounding counties have instituted a shelter-from-home policy, requiring many businesses to close temporarily and residents to refrain from going out. The San Francisco order does not apply to what the city deems “essential” businesses, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, banks and other financial institutions.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that his city may adopt a similar policy. “It is definitely a possibility at this point,” the mayor said at a March 17 news conference.

It’s a strict move for a firm whose advisors are known for a retail approach to client service and acquisition.
March 17

Wealth management firms are escalating their efforts to arrest the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 5,300 people in the U.S. and more than 187,000 worldwide as of March 17, according to a New York Times database.

The virus is highly contagious and can be lethal for some people, giving executives ample reason to take the utmost precautions. A staff member at the BNY Mellon Pershing tested positive for the coronavirus last week, prompting the custodial giant to ask affected employees on a floor of its Jersey City office to work remotely for 10 days. RBC, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo are among some of the other financial services firms to report employees testing positive for the virus.

On March 17, Edward Jones told its 18,000 advisors to “suspend making residential face-to-face contacts” with clients, a company spokesman says. The firm temporarily closed offices and asked advisors to use virtual meetings, phone calls and other means to stay in touch with the firm’s 7 million clients.

It’s one of many ways in which firms and advisors across the country are changing work habits to adapt to conditions imposed by the pandemic. They’ve gotten support from FINRA, which said last week that it would grant companies more flexibility in supervising employees working remotely as well as in relocating staff to temporary locations.

Minneapolis-based Ameriprise said that “[t]he vast majority of our employees are currently working remotely and utilizing the full range of technology and capabilities we have in place to seamlessly operate our business,” a spokeswoman said. That includes the firms’ more than 2,100 employee advisors; Ameriprise gave the same guidance to its roughly 7,700 independent advisors who run their own practices.

In Chicago, Steven Dudash, president of IHT Wealth Management, says he started permitting employees to work remotely. “I can’t ask people to take public transport. One person gets sick and you expose the whole office,” Dudash says.

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