Bank of America Corp. said it expects significant growth in 401(k) assets this year, but where and how it will generate new business is unclear.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch Retirement & Benefit Plan Services reported that its 401(k) assets increased 15.6% in 2009, to $81.5 billion. Analysts, however, say it could be difficult to generate additional 401(k) business in 2010.

"Right now, employers are focused on running their business and don't want to take the time to switch 401(k) administrators," said Geoffrey Bobroff of Bobroff Consulting in East Greenwich, R.I. "This is a good initiative for Bank of America, but meaningful growth is a question mark."

Bank of America Merrill Lynch had promising retirement "saving trends" last year, said Kevin Crain, the head of institutional client relationships for Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

For instance, 80% of its 1.5 million 401(k) participants who changed their savings rate in the fourth quarter chose to increase savings, versus 64% in the previous quarter, the company said.

More than 402,000 employees took a "positive savings action" — starting or increasing savings in their 401(k) — in the fourth quarter. During the first nine months of last year, 318,884 employees took a positive savings action.

Crain said automatic enrollment and an increase in employers tying 401(k) enrollment to health-care enrollment helped B of A's 401(k) assets grow last year.

"It is all about making these programs as easy as possible to get into," he said in an interview.

The company has posted double-digit growth in automatic enrollment, and "we are seeing that when employees auto-enroll, they stick to it," Crain said.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch also likes how Advisor Access Solution, launched in 2008, is performing. Advisor Access specifically recommends savings options to employees. A quarter of B of A's 401(k) clients are using the platform and 60% of its 40 largest clients are using it.

"Year over year … we have seen strong growth in clients using our Advisor Access," Crain said. "Certainly there is a lot of interest from our upper market."

Crain said the best way to grow from here is to tie an individual's 401(k) account more closely to health-care enrollment. He said Bank of America has developed a tool, set to launch next week, that will allow plan sponsors to measure their employees' "financial wellness" based on a variety of factors. "By having a more unified offering, it really makes it easier to engage employees," he said.

Bobroff said he is skeptical that the company will bring in more assets, despite its wide menu of products and services.

"The various bells and whistles are impressive, but I don't think there will be a lot of documented success," he said. "I guess in a world where they don't have a lot of positives to talk about, this is something they can put their finger on."

Adding retirement assets has been a major initiative at the $2.39 trillion-asset B of A since it hired former Citigroup Inc. Chief Financial Officer Sallie Krawcheck in August as head of wealth management and brokerage operations.

In October B of A rolled out My Retirement Income, a group of products that let customers nearing or in retirement automatically transfer funds from a Merrill Lynch cash management account into a B of A deposit account monthly or quarterly.

Krawcheck hired Andy Sieg from Citigroup to lead Bank of America's retirement growth initiative.

B of A, which had $450 billion of retirement assets under management on Dec. 31, is looking for ways to cross-sell Merrill Lynch's products and services to its corporate and middle-market customers. In January it kicked off a marketing campaign to support the cross-selling push.

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