One outcome of recent shakeups in the financial arena was Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch. A direct result of that marriage, Merrill Edge, was launched in mid 2010. While Merrill Edge is a member of the Bank of America family of holdings, access to the benefits of Merrill Edge is not limited to Bank of America account holders. However, as should be expected, there are advantages for current Bank of America account holders who opt to open Merrill Edge accounts as well.
Blending the accounts offers significant benefits to Merrill Edge and Bank of America customers. Current Bank of America clients can easily manage both accounts using universal login information. In addition, contact information is easily shared, account information is updated seamlessly, and transfers between accounts are simplified, minimizing time needed to complete transactions.
While clients are encouraged to blend accounts, it is not required. Any client of Merrill Edge can take advantage of the company’s array of investment services. However, arguably the most attractive benefit of blending accounts is the number of free trades allotted to Bank of America clients who open Merrill Edge accounts.
Commissions and Fees
Merrill Edge, like all full service brokers, does charge fees for typical transactions. Regular stock trades, for example, are assessed a fee of $6.95 per trade. It is important clients note Merrill Edge does not charge additional fees for stocks valued at less than $1.00 per share as many competitors do. Fees for option trades are equally competitive, with fees of $6.95 plus $.75 per contract.
However, clients maintaining a balance of $25,000 or more in one of their linked Bank of America or Merrill Edge accounts qualify for free trades. Linked account holders can make up to 30 commission-free trades per month. Those savings can be significant, especially for account holders who prefer to manage their own portfolios and regularly make numerous trades per month.
For account holders who routinely shuffle money between their Bank of America and Merrill Edge accounts, there is another option where commission-free trades are offered. Account holders who maintain a total combined balance of $50,000 in their accounts qualify for Platinum Privileges.
Like special account privileges from any broker, execution speed may not be guaranteed, but given the substantial savings offered, the long-term net savings should easily offset an occasional momentary delay in completing a trade.
It is important to note Merrill Edge per-transaction commission fees remain low. Investors are invited to compare fees with competitors like Charles Schwab, ETRADE, and TD Ameritrade. An analysis of fees will quickly reveal Merrill Edge’s fees are well below those of competitors.
Quality research options allow investors to fairly compare different investment options. Merrill Edge, in a move to one-up competitors, provides data from both Lipper and Morningstar. While both sources are excellent, seeing a comparison of results from both allows a more balanced view of ETF and mutual fund returns. For investors, the benefit is seen in return bottom lines. Making quality investments dictates a need for exploring quality data before committing investment funds.
Morningstar uses a system based on assigning funds a rating of one to five stars. For example, mutual funds are compared only to similar funds. A fund performing better than ninety percent of competitors receives a five star rating. Conversely, a fund performing in the bottom ten percent of the spectrum will only receive a one star rating.
Lipper Leader ratings, on the other hand, use a complex formula to compare a specific fund to predetermined criteria. Lipper ratings are based on total returns, consistency of returns, preservation of funds, and overall expenses. Funds ranked as Lipper Leaders are generally regarded as high performing in their class.
When Merrill Edge clients use the tools to assist their investment analysis, the odds of obtaining quality results from their ETF or mutual fund holdings are improved. As with all tools, investors are encouraged to use the reports to make investments catering to their specific financial needs. For example, if tax consequences are a primary concern, ratings should indicate a high level of tax efficiency.
One concern with Merrill Edge involves researching equities. Users familiar with data offered by other leading brokers may not feel Merrill Edge equities data is as complete as some competitors. Data is primarily from Merrill Lynch, S&P Capital IQ and Morningstar, and while the information is clearly above average for the entire industry, it may be less complete than some brokerage houses.
For most investors, customer service is a crucial element in determining whether or not a specific broker should be used. Slow or less than helpful service has been the bane of many brokerage houses in the past. Users of Merrill Edge report the company is responsive to typical inquiries. Today’s investors are not tolerant of companies failing to provide quick responses to questions or other inquiries. Support at Merrill Edge is reported to be excellent, with responses normally received within 24 hours.
Cutting edge training of front line personnel is obvious, as inquiries are accurate and complete, often providing even more information than expected. Some recipients report the responses are so thorough they appear to be automated, yet the content is specific to the queries. High quality responses indicate a level of training not common in most industries.
StockBrokers.com rated Merrill Edge phone support number one in their 2014 ratings of all brokerages. When an immediate response is essential, phone support is still a necessary tool. Users reported no difficulties in having issues resolved quickly, suggesting again that Merrill Edge understands the need for quality customer service at all levels.
Mobile Trading Capability
Society is rapidly evolving. Mobile device usage, as an example, has increased dramatically in recent years, and that trend is expected to expand in the future. That change in how people communicate and conduct business means all companies must analyze their product offerings with an eye toward acknowledging changing business environments.
Merrill Edge currently offers apps for Apple iPhones and iPads as well as Android products, allowing clients to conduct business even when away from their computers. The apps are adequate, but not as good as they could be. Clients can perform basic chores like getting real-time quotes, viewing a variety of charts, access watchlists, and even perform basic trades, but more sophisticated features are absent.
Users, although viewing the site as adequate, would like to see advancements in functionality. Current suggestions focus on improving the dashboard and making it possible to more easily obtain quotes. These issues are typical and, as more users migrate to mobile devices, it is likely Merrill Edge will recognize the demand for improved interfaces.
Platforms & Tools
While Merrill Edge offers investors an active trading platform, there are limitations to its services. Merrill Edge Market Pro is, indeed, a quality trading platform, but current ordering options need improvement before investors are likely to be completely satisfied. The biggest drawbacks currently experienced are an inability to place some types of orders or to access direct market routing.
However, after-hours trading is now supported. While the company was late entering the after-hours market, it is attempting to make users aware of the service and encourages them to incorporate the service as part of an overall investment strategy.
Tools to keep investors informed include an IRA selector, a screener to eliminate less compatible investment options, and market research sources previously mentioned. Making use of available tools like Lipper and Morningstar to steer buying and selling decisions remains a key tool for anyone seeking maximum returns from their investment portfolios.
The net result is Merrill Edge is worth considering as an investment partner. While not ideal, the combination of benefits makes the broker an obvious choice for a wide variety of investors.
The low cost per trade, when coupled with free trades available to Bank of America customers enjoying blended accounts, keeps profits in the hands of investors, where they rightfully belong. The free trade option alone makes Merrill Edge a strong investment option for Bank of America’s current or future clients.
While there are disadvantages to working with Merrill Edge, those considerations are minimal for the majority of clients. Casual clients, as an example, are rarely put off by limited drawbacks experienced by more active traders.
Customer service is, without a doubt, of paramount importance to Merrill Edge clients. All clients, but especially those with limited trading experience, need an effective means of communication with the company. Merrill Edge obviously takes pride in their ability to respond professionally to all client inquiries. That alone pushes the company to the top of the pile for investors.
Because Merrill Edge is part of the Bank of America family, there are decided advantages to having accounts with both. The ease of managing blended accounts has value for time-conscious clients who would rather devote time to other daily activities.
While it is always important to balance all pros and cons before establishing a business relationship, Merrill Edge makes the choices easy for a wide variety of investors. When value is important, the broker is ahead of virtually any competitor.