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Banks Up Profit Bets on the Rich

It's a good time for banks to start serving investors who were shell-shocked by sharp declines in their net worth during the crisis but have finally begun to wade back into the market. Investors pulled $281 billion out of equity mutual funds from the start of 2008 to the end of 2010, but have put $36 billion back in since the start of the year, according to the Investment Company Institute. Those investors have started once again to seek advice on retirement planning and wealth management.

Meanwhile, big changes in the financial industry have given high-net-worth customers the confidence to break away from longtime advisers - a move they might not have made in better times. Schug, of SEI, says industry consolidation and weak performance has "put a lot of assets in play" and created "opportunity for change."

"This is an industry where clients don't like to move and typically don't move if the markets are going up," says Schug. "But now you've got forced change. You see clients that have to make a change because a new firm has acquired their firm or their firm's gone under. Then you have proactive change where the market downturn has led to client unrest and increased demand on a service model. Banks are seeing an opportunity to capture some assets and this is a business that's valuable to them."

But Herb Kaufman, an economist, consultant and professor emeritus at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, is skeptical that wealth management and high-net worth clients can make up for the oodles of revenue lost from financial reform.

Kaufman agrees that wealth management can be a "fairly lucrative" business for banks that hire the right people and build strong relationships with customers - particularly as more baby boomers retire. But he notes that it's an also area that requires a greater investment of capital and time than the businesses banks are now exiting.

Additionally, he notes, while a wealthy client can provide more fee income than the average depositor, there are far fewer of them. Collecting $10 or $30 monthly fees from millions of low-income consumers is far more profitable than collecting $1,000 or $3,000 fees from the top 1% - otherwise banks would have been following their current strategy all along.

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