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Merrill Lynch formally announced a brand new workstation for advisors that have already been rolled out to 5,500 of the thundering herd so far this year. The other 10,000 or so ‘advisors’ (let’s not have the conversation today about Merrill’s actual broker headcount please) underneath the BofA umbrella will have the new system installed over the coming months. While the new workstation has all sorts of bells and whistles and cost BofA nearly $100M in development cash, advisors are worried about one thing and one thing only – the AI inherent in the system and its ability to hear, see, interpret, and control every keystroke, word spoken, and client interaction.

While Merrill was quick to trot out several promotional quotes from their corporate PR arm, advisors are acutely aware of what this new system is: a modified system to serve as a legal control mechanism that expertly flags any advisor with an eye towards leaving the firm. Here are some of the quotes from Merrill on the corporate side of things:

“The advisor of the future needs to be able to offer highly personalized service, enhanced by a digital experience,” Merrill spokesman Matthew Card said yesterday. “Technology allows advisors to serve clients at greater scale, recapturing for them the capacity they need to spend more of their productive time on client engagement.”

And this particular gem: “What we are able to do is mine activity across the entirety of the banking and wealth relationship. That gives you insight into anything that is important to the client.” – from Kabir Sethi, head of digital wealth management for Merrill Lynch and Bank of America Private Bank.

A clear admission that Merrill Lynch is using advisor input, both active and passive (read that again), to gather data about what is going on in and at the desks of financial advisors at the firm. A frightening specter that two advisors spoke to us about overnight.

An advisor on the west coast had this to say:

“From what I’ve heard there have been some really creepy stuff come from the ‘suggestions’ that this thing will make connected to both client activities and feedback that it is picking up. Two guys I know that were in the pilot program said that there are strange similarities to Facebook and Alexa in that they can be talking about a client before they ever pull up the account in the system, and a few minutes later they will get an alert about that specific client. The system was listening to their conversations. Now imagine if you are having a conversation with your wife or significant other in the privacy of your office?? I guess none of us should assume any semblance of privacy anymore.”

An advisor who was in the pilot program was even more explicit about what he thinks is going on and how he dealt with the spying aspect of the new system:

“It was obvious to me that the system was listening to every word I was saying and every single keystroke. After one week I didn’t take any personal calls from my office or make any. I would leave the office and nearly the building altogether. I would either wait until I was out to lunch or out of the office altogether. It is really fucked what they are doing. I’m sure there is legal language somewhere in Merrill’s policies that allows for this and removes any assumption of privacy. They may not have opted out of the protocol, but this may actually be worse.”

This isn’t necessarily new to the industry. Just last year UBS’s new leadership touted the ability of the platform to pick up all manner of communication that advisors are having with clients under the guise of ‘better serving clients’ by monitoring the activities of advisors via the firm’s CRM. Creepy as fuck.

Prediction – two of them actually; this will drive more big producers away from BofA/Merrill and into the arms of rival firms, but this isn’t the end of spying systems within the world of wealth management. They will become more prevalent and ubiquitous under the guise of client service. We’d recommend being careful and retaining your own personal counsel.

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