As firms try to figure out how to retain and recruit new clients, MetLife is looking at the once-ignored "emerging investor."

About 80 million households have $25,000 of investable assets, according to MetLife, yet until now account minimums of $100,000 and above prevented this rapidly growing group of up-and-coming investors from getting investment advice.

Enter Jeffrey Wilk and Rebecca Kovatch, vice presidents of the MetLife broker-dealer group, who are focusing on this burgeoning segment of the market. "You have the do-it-yourself investor who may have been putting $10,000 or $35,000 in an individual retirement account over at Fidelity or any mutual fund company, but what was happening was they weren't working on an ongoing basis getting advice and rebalancing," Wilk said. "Our focus is, how do you take the wealth management platform that is traditionally available to a client with $250,000 or more to invest and provide those same services down to the mass market?"

Many say it cannot be done profitably.

At the American Bankers Association conference in Phoenix earlier this month, advisers spoke about how hard it was to cater to the lower end of the market, where clients can rarely afford investment advice and ongoing guidance, and also make money. Yet MetLife's new "fund management services," which offer automated investment advice to the $10,000-and-up investor, allow advisers to access what Wilk called the $2 trillion mass-market segment.

To capture those investors, MetLife is taking its 10 mutual fund portfolios and working with each asset manager to bring the fund minimums down. The investor gets to choose among 98 asset managers. The average account size is $30,000, which is held in a standard brokerage account.

The portfolio management roles are then overlaid so MetLife can monitor the client's assets against his or her risk profile, so the account can be automatically rebalanced.

In November, MetLife expanded its fund management services to all its registered reps.

Kovatch said solutions such as MetLife's fund management services offer investors more adviser attention and advisers more money.

MetLife's fund management services come with a 1% fee, which may not exist at all by the end of 2010 if Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Mary Schapiro has her way.

"Once 12b-1 fees go away, advisers won't get compensated at all," Kovatch said. "The question is how do you create a solution and get fairly compensated at that level?"

Kovatch points out that though many advisers see the baby boomers as their sweet spot, five, 10 or 15 years from now another affluent generation will be coming up.

"Today you're talking to the mothers and fathers, but they have kids, and eventually they will want their needs to be met," she said. "The hardest thing to acquire is the relationship."

Wilk said emerging investors may have small account balances now, but the idea is that these are the clients with whom advisers should be gaining traction to build their future client pool.

Kovatch emphasized that although MetLife always puts the client first, it would like its 10,000 advisers in the field to use their time well.

"We don't want our advisers to spend half a day managing a $10,000 account. We want to make sure what we create provides a better solution for the adviser and the client at that dollar level. We want it to be a win-win."

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