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When you have a lot of money, you don't have to worry about spending a little extra to get what you want. But whether you've got a couple million in the bank or you're just getting started, paying up to use a full-service broker to make your investments just doesn't make sense.
The broker wars
Reuters reported yesterday that Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) is stepping up efforts to lure 150 brokers away from its rivals, enticing them with cash bonuses and recruiting packages if they can pull client assets into the firm. The move comes in the wake of the company's losing thousands of brokers since Citigroup (NYSE: C ) sold its Smith Barney brokerage division to Morgan Stanley.
The move is just the latest in a game of musical chairs on Wall Street targeting ultra-affluent clients. Citigroup has reportedly hired executives and private bankers from Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) U.S. Trust, as well as the private wealth management divisions of Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) and Barclays. In turn, Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) has sought new recruits from outside Wall Street, and Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE: BK ) is also hiring.
Essentially, what it comes down to is this: Wall Street brokers are job-hopping, and their biggest bargaining chip in wooing prospective employers is your money. Is that how you deserve to be treated?
Haves and have-nots
At least now, you have options. In the bad old days before Charles Schwab came around and started the discount-brokerage business, every broker was a full-service broker, with the price tag to go with it. Imagine paying several hundred dollars every time you wanted to buy or sell 100 shares of a blue-chip stock, and you'll understand why so many investors in your parents' or grandparents' generation were die-hard believers in buy-and-hold investing.
Discount brokers gave investors a choice. You could keep paying up and have full-time professional stockbrokers tell you how to invest, or you could do your own work and save a bundle in commissions. For small investors who never could have afforded those high commissions in the first place, the choice was a simple one. But full-service brokers focused on keeping their high-end clientele, who cared more about prestige and excellent customer-focused service than on paying $9.95 or less for a stock trade.
That worked fairly well until the financial crisis hit. Now, Wall Street is broken, and even the wealthy should protect themselves.
Stop paying to be a pawn
Admittedly, the experience you'll have with a discount broker is likely to be far different from what a full-service broker provides. If your primary purpose in having a broker was to have a person to go to lunch with or to be your fourth for Saturday's golf game, discount brokers aren't going to give you what you want.
But as far as your investments are concerned, many discount brokers have what it takes to compete with the big Wall Street players. And it's not just about low commissions on stocks. Depending on which broker you choose, you can get rock-bottom margin borrowing rates, comprehensive research tools, and access to just about every type of investment you can think of, both in the U.S. and around the world.
Now granted, discount brokers are just as happy about bringing in rich clients as Wall Street's finest are. What you may find, however, is that your money goes further with discount brokers than it does on Wall Street. To a broker with a client list filled with the Park Avenue elite, being a mere millionaire isn't going to get you noticed. To E*TRADE Financial (Nasdaq: ETFC ) , which is struggling to make up for its missteps in the mortgage markets, landing a $1 million account is a much bigger deal -- and you should expect to be treated accordingly.
Make the smart move
Of course, if you're lucky and have a full-service broker who's actually delivered market-crushing returns over the past few years, then you can justifiably say your broker's worth the price you pay. But if Wall Street's broker-hopping is making you feel more like an account number than a valued customer, stop feeding the frenzy and take your money where you won't have to pay through the nose.
Need help picking the right discount broker? Check out our broker comparison tool.
Tune in every Monday and Wednesday for Dan's columns on retirement, investing, and personal finance.