Bank of America Is Shifting Into Low Gear


"When it comes to their own estate and business planning ... many business owners are missing important steps that could unintentionally jeopardize their [business', employees', and family's] financial security."

So says U.S. Trust in its just-released Insights on Wealth and Worth survey. Considering that U.S. Trust is the private wealth-management unit of Bank of America (NYS: BAC) , these results perhaps aren't so shocking.

The real story here is not that B of A thinks the wealthy need more wealth-management services (it does think that, and preferably its own services), but the mere fact that B of A is making a push for this end of its business at all. It's yet another sign that the U.S. banking system is slowly beginning to turn its moneymaking gaze from highly profitable yet highly flammable lines of business like proprietary trading, to less profitable but more stable lines of business like wealth management. For this, investors and non-investors alike can be grateful.

Why dead bosses are bad for business
Insights on Wealth and Worth surveyed 642 high net-worth individuals with at least $3 million in investable assets (excluding their homes), though some of the respondents had a net worth in excess of $10 million. The survey was conducted online in March 2012 by an independent research firm. Though asset worth was self-reported, the research firm claims a 95% confidence level in its findings.

Not being a polling or survey expert, I can't speak directly to the methodology used here, but assuming this survey was properly conducted, there are some potentially interesting takeaways:

  • Fifty-five percent of all business owners polled have not established a formal succession plan for their business, including 43% of those over the age of 67.

  • Six in 10 business owners polled don't have a comprehensive estate plan.

  • Forty-eight percent don't have a trust or any other similar mechanism to protect or transfer their financial assets to heirs, their business, or to charity.

But the most interesting takeaway might have been this: "Many business owners are so caught up in what they are doing that they often don't envision a world without them in it." No one likes dwelling on his or her own mortality, but for business owners who might all of sudden up and die and leave employees without jobs, this survey could possibly point to a potentially serious problem brewing in the American economy.

Queuing up to help
Luckily for us, there's B of A, and its wealth-management division, U.S. trust. And B of A isn't the only bank pushing this kind of back-to-basics service:

  • In September, Morgan Stanley (NYS: MS) began its buyout of Morgan Stanley Smith Barney from Citigroup (NYS: C) , which the two banks ran as a joint brokerage venture. Morgan must complete the buyout by 2015 but is excited enough about the deal to have already changed the unit's name from Morgan Stanley Smith Barney to Morgan Stanley Wealth Management.

  • Goldman Sachs (NYS: GS) has gotten in on the private-wealth management movement as well, opening a bank-within-a-bank this year to cater to its wealthiest clients.

Why low gear is a good gear
As for Insights on Wealth and Worth, while it is, at least in part, a cleverly designed sales pitch for B of A's wealth-management services, it also contains some potentially useful revelations as to the sorry state of wealth and estate planning by an important segment of the population: the high-net-worth business owners that keep America employed and, hence, keep the economy running. So in this sense, sure, maybe there's a need out there for more wealth and estate planning, and it looks like America's big banks are queuing up to provide it. But there's more to the big banks' move in this direction than just that.

After the crash of '08, and the wave of regulation that followed, all of them had to face the fact that the old days were gone, that the old profit models were extinct, and that new ways to make money had to be found. The Volcker Rule in particular, which bans banks from trading for their own profit, has been enormously influential in the shift from the old high-profit, high-danger banking models to the new lower-profit, safer models we see emerging, as evidenced above.

As mentioned earlier, this development is good for everyone. Banks with more traditional profit models are easier for investors to get their heads around. As such, they are infinitely safer investments. And safer banks mean a safer economy, one less likely to be blown up by giant, risk-filled banks.

Thanks for reading and for thinking. Have big banks on the brain? Check out The Motley Fool's new in-depth report on Bank of America. While I can't promise you fascinating survey stats, I can promise you a thorough detailing B of A's prospects, along with three reasons to buy and three reasons to sell. Just click here for immediate access.

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Fool contributor John Grgurich owns no shares of any of the companies mentioned in this column. Follow John's dispatches from the bleeding edge of capitalism on Twitter, @TMFGrgurich. The Motley Fool owns shares of Bank of America and Citigroup. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a delightful disclosure policy.

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