December brought an unexpected uptick in adviser movement after months of little action.

According to Discovery Database, 425 wire house advisers changed firms in December, up from 177 in November and 361 in October. December had the biggest wire house adviser movement since August 2009, when 434 advisors changed firms.

Industry recruiters expressed surprise. "I don't think these are big [producing] brokers. They're mostly smaller guys in the $400,000 to $700,000 [trailing-12 production] range going to regionals, independents and boutiques," Rick Peterson, a recruiter in Houston, said.

Indeed, only 38% of wire house advisers who changed firms in December stayed within the wire house channel. "The big firms are getting rid of the smaller guys that drag down their average [production per adviser]," Peterson said.

The Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch deals, however, may soon encourage firm-switching among big producers. "Advisers wait for year-end statements to be finalized and also take advantage of the Martin Luther King three-day weekend to make a move," Bill Willis, a recruiter in California, said.

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