Bank of America Corp. is exploring the idea of boosting its trust business by selling trust services through the independent registered investment advisers who sell its mutual funds.
David W. Fisher, president of trusts, investments, and banking for Bank of America's private bank, said the Charlotte, N.C., banking company already sells its mutual funds through independent financial planners and advisers nationwide. The company wants to offer those advisers a trust vehicle and technology which they, in turn, could use as a platform to provide trust services to their clients who need estate planning, he said.
"We think trust is one of the premier markets to be in," because the intergenerational wealth transfer is expected to grow from $6 trillion to $10 trillion in the next 10 years, Mr. Fisher said.
The banking company expects to hold a focus group with advisers in February to discuss issues such as cost, and will likely introduce the service later next year, he said.
Bank of America has already made efforts to broaden its trust services. The centerpiece of that effort has been a proprietary technology platform that allows the bank to serve smaller trust accounts through service centers. About 30,000 of the bank's 100,000 trust customers are served through the centers, which are less expensive for the bank and for the customer, Mr. Fisher said.
The banking company would allow interested registered investment advisers to refer their clients to Bank of America's trust call centers, which serve accounts with as little as $200,000 of assets, he said.
The trust assets would be held on Bank of America's books, while the advisers would be responsible for the assets' day-to-day management, Mr. Fisher said.
Bank of America would not be the first banking company to turn to outside help for selling trust services. Comerica Inc. of Detroit provides trust services to customers of brokerages PaineWebber Inc. and Dain Rauscher Corp., and Charles Schwab & Co.'s acquisition this year of U.S. Trust was driven in part by a desire to provide trust services through the network of independent advisers with which Schwab works.
Observers said that selling trust services through the advisers would be an unusual step for a banking company. For the most part, observers said, these companies have tended to market their trust services mainly to existing customers.
William D. Whitt, a project manager at VIP Forum, a Washington consulting firm, said that is a mistake. "Banks haven't been as successful selling trust services as one would expect, given the potential."
The need for trust services in the United States is growing by 5% to 10% every year, based on an estimated 7% annual growth in the number of U.S. households with $1 million or more of liquid assets, according to VIP Forum.
Yet the number of personal trust accounts decreased slightly from 871,600 in 1990 to 860,200 in 1998. Assets in personal trust accounts grew 8.7% a year on average from 1990 to 1998. If asset appreciation is excluded, personal trust accounts show a net outflow in assets of 5.2% during that period.
That suggests that "the way they're distributing those services is flawed," Mr. Whitt said.
Registered investment advisers appear to be a relatively untapped market for trust services, he said. Independent advisers have worked with lawyers to provide trust services, but the aging of baby boomers and accompanying transfer of wealth means that the demand for those services has recently become much greater.
Banks also have missed out on a lot of the growth in the high-net-worth market, especially the newly affluent, who have taken their business to brokerages, Mr. Whitt said. While many brokerages have cultivated trust powers, trust is an area in which banks have a clear edge in expertise and experience, he said.
Richard G. Scheide, a principal of LoBue Associates, a Northbrook, Ill., bank consulting firm, said that by selling trust services through registered investment advisers, Bank of America would be effectively adding to its sales force.
Banks are pushing trust services to only a small sector of their potential trust customers.
Selling trust services through these advisers "is one way to cover the market," he said."