A San Francisco consulting firm has caught banks off-guard with a plan to sell detailed information about their investment sales programs to anyone who can cough up a $72,000 annual fee.
Prophet Market Research, which has specialized in conducting private "mystery shopping" studies for banks that want to check their own compliance, now plans to gather such information on a regular basis.
The firm will market its findings in the form of a daily, on-line service, dubbed ProphetWatch, to banks, brokerages, and regulators.
To get started, Prophet will pay clandestine calls on 15 Northeast banks this month. Among them: Bank of Boston, Chase Manhattan, Chemical, Citibank, Fleet, Mellon, and PNC. By summer's end, the roster will be expanded to 60 banks.
"I'm surprised and disappointed we were not given any earlier information about the program," said Allen Croessmann, director of mutual funds at Bank of Boston. "I hope this isn't haphazard."
Bankers have reason to be concerned. In the past two years, a wave of mystery shopping studies conducted by leading consumer publications have faulted banks for failing to inform investors of the risks associated with mutual funds.
Though these studies have critiqued banks by name, they haven't gone into the detail that Prophet promises to deliver.
Scott Galloway, Prophet's principal, said more than 70 topics will be examined in each bank profile, ranging from disclosure of the lack of Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. coverage to the broker's skill in closing sales. Such issues are high on the lists of regulators' concerns about bank sales programs.
What's more, the mystery shopping studies by consumer publications were, for the most part, one-time events. By probing banks' compliance efforts continuously, Prophet will keep the spotlight on techniques employed by specific banks.
That's a significant shift. While banks frequently contract on an individual basis for these mystery shopping programs, they have generally kept the results to themselves. And the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is currently undertaking a similar probe of banks, plans to release only aggregate findings, not bank-by-bank profiles.
Mr. Galloway, admits his company's open book approach will likely generate controversy.
Some bankers "are very positive about it," he said. "Others think it's the anti-Christ."
Mr. Galloway acknowledged that bankers who oppose the program don't like the idea of a private firm looking so closely at their business and making that information widely available. But he maintained that the only way to create an effective benchmark is by shopping all the large banks, not just a sampling.
"We will shop the biggest banks irrespective of whether they want us to or not," he said.
Some bankers professed themselves to be unconcerned about Prophet's plans.
Salvatore M. Capizzi, vice president overseeing the brokerage program at Chase Manhattan, acknowledged that he and other bankers could not stop the company from its clandestine visits.
But, Mr. Capizzi added, Chase can handle the scrutiny. "Of course we'll stand up well," he said.
Mr. Galloway said Prophet will field a staff of 25 representatives to conduct the studies. All, he said, carry securities licenses or advanced business degrees. Over time, the staff will grow to 250.
ProphetWatch plans to visit each institution 100 times a year, to keep program information current, Mr. Galloway said.
In addition to receiving information about individual institutions, subscribers will be able to build models by cross-referencing data about groups of banks, Mr. Galloway said. "This is the ultimate competitive tool."
A number of banks are interested in accessing the service, but so far no one has signed on, he said.
Cristina Merrill contributed to this article.