Saturday, July 03, 2010

Merrill Plays Defense Online

The big brokerage firm upgrades Bank of America system and tries to hold on to electronic trading clients.

MERRILL LYNCH WHICH WAS ACQUIRED by Bank of America in early 2009, is putting its stamp on the banking giant’s online brokerage. 

Merrill Edge (http://www.merrilledge.com) opened its virtual doors on June 21, and essentially replaces BofA’s existing online offering. The plan to convert the bank’s online brokerage to Merrill Edge was announced in late February. (If you try going into BofA’s brokerage via http://www.bankofamerica.com/investing, you’re now redirected to the Merrill Edge site.)

During the site’s introduction in February, Sally Krawcheck BofA’s head of wealth management, said that it would be aimed at “those clients who today have ‘play money’ at one of the online brokers.” The “play-money” concept was certainly true in the late 1990s, but today, online brokers such as Fidelity and Charles Schwab, can snatch entire accounts from full-service brokers. That trend accelerated in late 2008, amid the credit crisis.

Merrill Edge appears to be an attempt to hang on to those full-service clients, who may trade online elsewhere. However, the service will only be extended to Merrill customers on request. BofA brokerage clients have been automatically converted to Merrill Edge.

The main benefit for BofA (ticker: BAC) clients is online access to some Merrill research. Otherwise, the site doesn’t offer much that’s new beyond the rebranding and a fresh coat of paint. Merrill Edge boasts on the site that it already has 1.16 million customers with $48 billion in assets, which averages out to $41,400 per customer. That’s less than the December 2009 average that E*Trade and Schwab reported for our annual online broker review; it’s slightly more than TDAmeritrade.

Merrill Edge extends BofA’s “free” trades (30 per month) for customers with more than $25,000 in assets. Those who don’t qualify, or who trade more than 30 times per month, will be subject to fees that vary with account size. The price breaks start with accounts of $250,000 and up. Commissions for online trading range from $4.95 to $8.95 per stock trade. Broker-assisted trades are $50 to $75 for stocks and exchange-traded funds. Margin rates are currently 7.5% for a $50,000 debit balance.

COST-BASIS REPORTING BEGINS
soon. Starting with stock purchased in 2011, your broker will be required to report the cost basis—as well as the proceeds—of your closed positions to the Internal Revenue Service. The main purpose is to cut down on underpayment of capital-gains taxes. While the IRS will, presumably, collect more from taxpayers who are forced to be honest, financial-services firms are investing large amounts of money to try to provide accurate reports.

Cameron Routh, senior vice president of Scivantage, the publisher of performance-reporting system Maxit, says the main problem for retail investors will be collating transactions made at several different brokers. Routh says that the average number of online-brokerage accounts per trader is 2½, which means that most investors will be dealing with reports from several brokers.

One related trouble spot is wash sales. A wash sale occurs when shares of a particular security are sold at a loss and a substantially identical security is purchased within 30 days. It doesn’t matter whether the sale or purchase happens first, so long as there’s a 61-day window.

Let’s say you sell a stock from your E*Trade account on June 1, then buy a “substantially identical” one in your TD Ameritrade account on June 10. The IRS doesn’t care where the transactions took place. Under the law, you must report the wash sale accurately when you prepare your Schedule D. We’ll be checking tax programs to make sure they can handle transactions done in different venues.

NEW TOOLS: ZECCO (http://www.zecco.com) recently rolled out its Zap Trade tool, which lets you have an open Zecco order ticket while you peruse other financial sites. Zap Trade is a browser plug-in. It currently works only with Firefox, although Zecco plans to introduce versions for other popular browsers.

Zap Trade scans and prefills an order ticket, while you browse compatible financial and investing Websites. It works with Bloomberg, CNN Money, Google Finance, Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money, Reuters, MarketWatch, the Motley Fool, and The Street. It’s also active in the public-research areas of E*Trade, Scottrade, and TD Ameritrade.

You can trade stocks and ETFs with Zap Trade. Trades of mutual funds, options, and other products haven’t yet been enabled. Zecco’s usual commissions apply, although use of the plug-in is free. 

Published in Barron’s, June 28, 2010. 

Posted by twcarey on 07/03 at 05:00 PM
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