Merrill Lynch and security…….

I have had this love hate relationship with Merrill for some years. I went to them after a long and arduous search to find an advisor and money manager who seemed capable, professional and we wanted to work with. We met, and liked Len in the San Francisco office and we gradually built a portfolio that made sense for me, and met every six months or so to check in, chat and see how we were doing against plan.

Of course, it would have been nice if Merrill, as a global player, could manage my UK assets as well as my US ones – but no I had to be treated as a separate client in each country and to meet their minimum asset requirements in each. Now I’m not rich, but a absolutely get Charles Schwab’s advertising that talks to helping people who have “only $100K”. I’m sure that they are targeting Merrill – as I have heard that refrain a number of times over the years.

Back to Len. He was the epitome of an advisor. He cared, he gave advice that was right for me – or at least I always felt so. Then one day I get a letter that as part of a Merrill rationalization I wouldn’t have a personal advisor anymore, I could call an 800 number to transact my business. Inertia is the saviour of many businesses, and that’s true in this case. It has just been too much hassle to move things, but maybe it is time. I haven’t transacted any stock business with Merrill since Len as they didn’t talk to me for a couple of years. Then they woke up, I could have an ‘account review’, by phone of course. I did, and on both occasions it was just a hard sell for Merrill funds – despite (as I pointed out) the poor ratings that they get from most sources. No assessment of the stocks I held – whether they were still relevant, the mix of assets, etc, etc. Just ‘we recommend this fund’.

More recently I got bored with sending checks between accounts and wanted to do electronic transfers. ML’s web has always been hard to traverse and their electronic access been convoluted in my view, so I didn’t use it (one of the very few financial relationships I have that isn’t managed via the web and/or Quicken), but hey the sent me a letter saying that I could do this so I called the guy. I had to fill in paper forms, send a check for the account that I wanted to link to. All of which I did (grudgingly, Paypal can sign me up and verify my account without any of this paper going back and forth). Nothing. I call, and Brian was very good – the duplicate paperwork was shipped overnight with a return, pre-paid, courier envelope. I get an acknowledgement that the paperwork is in place and I STILL have to call to activate the link!

So I do, I have a 10 digit account code that bears no relation to anything else (not my account code, not anything….), I complain that it’s not memorable. Oh your browser will store it, so you don’t need to remember it, I’m told. Very secure! Then the password. Six characters. Not at least six, but exactly six. I’m pretty good at using passwords, not writing them down etc. I use a mechanism that enables me to remember HOW to get to the password, rather than trying to remember the word itself. That’s hard when you are constrained to exactly six characters.

So, the bottom line is, there is a lot of friction in doing business with ML. And it is not friction that makes me feel like the security has a benefit for me. My frustration is increased and I continue to do more business with others – most of my stock trades are through Ameritrade and I use Amex and Paypal more and more. And the more I do, the more I like them.