Unwilling to cede ground to discount brokerages offering Internet trading, some bank brokers are arming themselves with technology that capitalizes on the face-to-face interactions they have with customers.
Using interactive software from MoneyStar, an Austin, Tex.-based company, bank brokers say they are boosting sales while offering clients a clearer picture of their financial situations.
Such tools may help banks, which have the advantage of multiple points of customer contact, to compete more effectively with the onslaught of do- it-yourself discount brokerages.
"Bank brokers have got to feel terribly threatened" about the proliferation of Internet trading firms, some with fees as low as $10 a trade, said MoneyStar founder and chairman Marc Ferguson. "The threat is real."
He said that his company's graphical planning software, called Lifescript, gives financial institutions a presentation tool they will need to battle over-the-counter and direct-to-consumer competitors.
"A customer that comes in and sits down with Lifescript cannot find that at Charles Schwab or Fidelity Investments," Mr. Ferguson said.
Guiding clients through a series of questions, the software package translates customers' answers into visual displays about their investment options.
A companion product, MoneyStar Financial Network, electronically retrieves information from mutual fund and insurance providers. Brokers and financial advisers who subscribe to the software pay $475 per seat annually to receive up-to-date investment information through an Internet connection that links to Lifescript.
MoneyStar recently announced that New England Financial in Boston will distribute annuities through the network, joining Franklin Templeton Funds, which sells mutual funds through MoneyStar. Glenbrook Life and Annuity Co., a subsidiary of Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co., and a half- dozen other financial service providers are expected to join the network, Mr. Ferguson said.
A recent startup, MoneyStar received $9.75 million in venture capital funding from a series of investors led by GE Financial Assurance.
Lifescript competes with brokerage software makers including Sterling Wentworth Corp., Salt Lake City. In distributing information directly to bank brokers, it also competes with First Data Investor Service's Brokerdirect, which disperses mutual fund information only.
"MoneyStar has made it easier to sell our products through banks," said Bruce Long, president of New England Financial's annuities division. "We are all going to have to go into an electronic mode."
Though insurers and mutual fund providers are moving to electronic distribution of their product information, MoneyStar is banking that face- to-face contact with customers will remain a viable way to sell investment products.
"The full-service broker is not a dying breed," said Larry Tabb, group director of securities and investments at Tower Group in Newton, Mass. Although on-line trading has seen a remarkable surge, he said that many are investing only a small portion of their assets over the Internet.
"In the future, a broker will be less of a transactor and more of an adviser and consultant looking at the whole investment strategy," Mr. Tabb said.
Mike Gazala of Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., envisions "mid- tier brokers" offering service somewhere between full- and self-service models.
In going after this market, banks start with advantages ranging from high profits to numerous "touch points" with customers.
"What they don't have is the ability to offer great investing advice. MoneyStar enables banks to begin to offer that," Mr. Gazala said.
Brokers at California Federal Bank, a subsidiary of San Francisco-based First Nationwide Holdings Inc., said sales have increased 25% since January, when they started using Lifescript.
"It creates a situation where the brokers are asking the right questions and helping the clients to examine things that will happen later in life," said Deborah C. Bernot, president of California Federal's FN Investment Center.
MoneyStar "is another arrow in my quiver," said Victor Whang of Comerica Inc. It "allows me to do a better job of client contact, asset allocation, and data gathering," said Mr. Whang, vice president of investments at the Detroit-based bank's securities unit.
Establishing customer relations may prove to be helpful should the stock market's lofty valuation suddenly turn sour.
"The majority of people don't have the time or inclination to ferret out investment strategies on their own," said Mr. Whang. "In good times and in bad times, there is a live person that our customers can turn to."