Account aggregation will become as common as checking accounts within 18 months, and financial companies that can deliver the one-two punch of aggregation and financial advice will stand out, Meridien Research Inc. says.

The technology needed for account aggregation is easy to get and use, and financial companies are eager to offer such soup-to-nuts service, according to a new Meridien report. It is likely that aggregation will morph into a commodity service: Three million Americans will be using aggregation within three years, up from 500,000 this year, the Newton, Mass., firm predicts.

The importance of juicing up account aggregation services with personalized advice has not been lost on some financial heavyweights. Citigroup Inc., Chase Manhattan Corp., Merrill Lynch & Co., and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. have all said they intend to use data gathered through account aggregation to analyze clients’ financial scenarios and suggest investments.

The early advantage will probably go to the brokerages. Not only have they built their businesses on dispensing advice, they have thousands of brokers whom they plan to enlist in this process.

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter’s NetWorth aggregation service will be available next month through the Internet and wireless devices. A week after the rollout, Morgan Stanley’s 4.5 million brokerage customers will be able to get “neutral strategic advice” on their complete portfolios, said a company spokeswoman.

The system will work this way: Customers will give their brokers the passwords and access codes to the aggregated information, and brokers will call or e-mail their customers with suggestions and ideas about the portfolios. Customer could also request telephone calls from their financial advisers at specific times.

Merrill Lynch says it plans to set up a similar system that will be available to customers early next year or sooner. “Once you start to aggregate the information, the ability to optimize it will come over time,” said Frank Zammataro, first vice president of e-alliances and e-investments at Merrill Lynch.

“Merrill Lynch does well with online advisory services,” said Randi Purchia, research director for Meridien Research’s e-retail financial services. The firm’s early lead may put it in a better position to offer account aggregation “than others who don’t yet understand,” she said.

Giving advice raises the issue of cross-selling, which would help defray a company’s investment in account aggregation, according to Meridien. Financial companies pay aggregators between $100,000 to $500,000 to set up a service, and $3 to $10 a year per customer, says Meridien’s report, which was issued late last month.

The report also says that all financial companies offering aggregation will face challenges in guaranteeing security and gaining customer trust. Meridien says most consumers are wary of pulling all their accounts together, preferring to meld only two of them at first, and to keep access to the information private.

“The numbers show that consumers are embracing it, but they are not giving away all of their passwords yet,” said Christine Barry, an analyst in Meridien’s e-retail financial services group.

Banks and brokerages are not the only companies vying to offer aggregation. Yodlee does so on its own site, as do some Internet portals, such as Yahoo and America Online. America Online already has 320,000 aggregation users and is predicting 500,000 by yearend.

But financial companies, unlike the portals, can build off their aggregation services by executing financial transactions for consumers, said Rick Sellers, a partner in Arthur Andersen’s business consulting group. “The second generation of aggregation will be quick to follow as institutions begin to do something with the information,” he said.

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