Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."
When F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that famous line, he certainly didn't have bank brokerage customers particularly in mind. Nevertheless, the perception is true: Consumers who buy investment products from banks are different from the wealthy investors who use full-service brokerages unaffiliated with banks.
"There is a discernible difference between the investment customer at a bank and the investment customer at a wire house," said John Richter, director of marketing at Invest Financial Corp., a Tampa-based, third-party marketer of investment products to banks.
Sales tickets for bank-affiliated brokerages are lower than at wire houses, he said, attributing the difference to demographic distinctions between the two sets of customers.
The wire house customer is typically well-educated, with a postgraduate degree and a white-collar job. This customer earns more than $100,000 per year and is 45 to 65 years old, Mr. Richter said.
Banks' investment customers are not as affluent - earning less than $100,000 per year. These customers also tend to be older, less financially sophisticated, and less likely to live in urban areas, said Mr. Richter. A large number are drawing retirement income, he said.
Some bankers balk at the description of their brokerage clients as less sophisticated, but they acknowledge that differences exist.
For one thing, "the lion's share are not as active as wire house clients," said Neil Fried, investment manager at Ramapo Bank, Wayne, N.J., an Invest client.
And that's how Mr. Fried likes it. Although a small portion of his customers like to speculate, buying stocks for a few dollars in a practice called "bottom fishing," the $230 million-asset bank doesn't encourage it.
"In a wire house, you try to make that into a client relationship, but in a bank, you're not trying to get that person as a client," Mr. Fried said. "My business is not transaction-oriented; it's based on financial planning."
He added that, while sales tickets for customers buying stocks tend to be lower in a bank than in a brokerage house, tickets for customers buying bonds are probably higher in a bank. Ramapo's bond sales volume in January was four times as great as for stocks.
Studies also reveal that more than three-quarters of bank brokerage customers already have a relationship with the bank. Only 22.5% of their customers come from outside, according to a study by American Brokerage Consultants Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla.
Most bank brokerage customers tend to be risk-averse, choosing safe investments like money market funds, said sources. Some have shown a willingness to invest in aggressive equity funds, while just a few actually buy individual stocks and bonds.
Consultants and vendors say bank brokerages would be more profitable if they could attract the typical wire house customer.
Yet banks can and do make money serving less sophisticated, less affluent customers through their brokerages.
The typical bank brokerage customer "is more likely to be in the branch frequently to visit bank representatives," said Marcia Selz, president of Marketing Matrix Inc., a Los Angeles-based investment consulting firm.
Such customers often come into the branch because they have read articles about investing or have gotten advice at work or from friends, she said.
Banks' investment clientele - mainstream, middle-aged Americans - is in serious trouble, added Invest's Mr. Richter. "The baby boomer has lived a consumer life and has not saved enough," he said.
Most baby boomers, he said, are living longer than they expected but have no financial plan. Unlike previous generations that could rely on pensions, baby boomers have been left to take care of financing their retirements.
That's where the bank can be most useful, he said. As baby boomers age, banks must offer them advice on asset allocation, trust, estate planning, and financial planning.
These customers may start out investing in conservative vehicles, such as certificates of deposit or annuities, but as their wealth and sophistication grow, they may eventually want to buy individual stocks and bonds.
Bank brokerage customers who make stock transactions often buy or sell as the result of an inheritance, said Robert Lewis, formerly a broker at NationsBank Corp. and now with PaineWebber Inc. in Tampa.
Stocks and bonds "are a minor part of the bank brokerage business," Mr. Lewis said. "Someone might come in to the branch looking to buy a couple hundred shares of some utility, and you would direct him to the discount brokerage."
But most consultants suggest the bank do more - perhaps even developing an investment plan custom-tailored for each customer.
"People have to have a plan," said Invest's Mr. Richter. "Their financial future should be based on sound advice, not on products."
Only if a customer fits a certain risk profile, with certain growth goals, should he or she be advised to invest in some individual stocks and bonds to supplement a mutual fund portfolio.
If the bank lacks the resources to develop individual plans, it may find help from its third-party partner, he said.
Invest, for example, is one of the few third-party marketing companies that helps banks sell stocks and bonds - and it says a full 30% of its business is constructing models for the sale of stocks and bonds.
Alton Jones, managing director of Pershing, said the differences between the bank customer and wire house customers may be narrowing. Pershing executes equity and bond trades for broker-dealers.
"Historically, the wire house customer had a larger portfolio of investment as well as a higher degree of stock market savvy," said Mr. Jones. "The person who invested at a brokerage knew he was going in there to buy or sell stock."
Bank customers, by contrast, usually trade in stocks and bonds as an activity ancillary to buying CDs or investing in a mutual fund. Historically, banks didn't manage the stock and bond portfolios and didn't have research arms.
That's begun to change in the past five years, Mr. Jones said. Banks' strategies have shifted, and they've hired more experienced portfolio managers. Customers have changed, as well. As the stock market gets more attention, bank customers have begun to pay more attention to the equities underlying their mutual funds.
"Those people are asking their banks, 'Should I buy this mutual fund or put this money into equities?'" Mr. Jones said. "They have a certain level of trust in their banks, and now they can switch this activity to their bank."
Indeed, a very small number of banks have had measurable success at serving the same wealthy clientele that full-service, nonbank brokerages do. PNC Brokerage is just one.
"I can't stress enough that our demographics are the same as a wire house," said Joel Calvo, president of PNC Brokerage. "Unlike many other bank brokerages, we attract customers who want broad-based investment - the affluent, not the mass market."
But Mr. Calvo declined to give hard data about the demographics of his customer base, calling it proprietary information.
PNC has modeled its unit on nonbank brokerages. The unit manages more than $100 billion of assets and has a securities research arm that follows more than 100 companies.
But where wire houses are notable for handling transactions efficiently, PNC's brokerage is similar to other banks' in that its focus is less on transactions than on customer relationships. Like other banks, PNC helps customers plan their investments based on individual risk profile and goals.
PNC sells fewer stocks and bonds than it does mutual funds, Mr. Calvo said. A customer buying individual stocks must have at least $100,000 to invest.
"They may want to add some individual stocks to a portfolio," Mr. Calvo said. "They may want to buy some shares of Intuit - or anything that's hot right now. But it should be in line with their original investment plan."
Ms. Brokaw is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.