Some members of the thundering herd are complaining that Merrill Lynch’s compensation plan incentivizes them to steer clients to take on more debt, according to a news report.

Prior to 2018, Merrill Lynch brokers didn’t face penalties connected to clients’ liabilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. The wirehouse’s 2018 compensation plan, meanwhile, cuts payouts for brokers who don’t meet certain sales goals, the paper wrote earlier this year.

Several Merrill Lynch advisors have complained to management, saying the payment plan encourages them to have clients take on more debt while interest rates rise, brokers and managers now tell the Journal. Essentially, rather than attracting new assets, it can be easier for advisors to grow their clients’ portfolios of products by pushing them to take on debt, some brokers say, according to the paper.

Some advisors have also written over the past year directly to Andy Sieg, head of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, complaining that the plan potentially makes them put their own interests ahead of those of their clients, the Journal writes.

Merrill Lynch’s advisors get to keep a portion of the 0.7% clients pay on securities-backed loans, in addition to a percentage of the roughly 1% clients pay on assets under management, according to the paper. So when a client sells an investment to pay back a loan, advisors essentially lose twice — once because of a cut to commissions from the liabilities, and again because of the client’s reduction in assets, the Journal writes.

Sieg tells the paper the compensation plan was designed with considerations of potential conflicts of interest and therefore doesn’t favor certain products over others.

Sieg also tells the Journal that brokers are always expected to act in the clients’ best interest — even if it hurts their compensation.

Additionally, despite the changes to Merrill Lynch’s compensation plan, securities-backed debt by its clients stood at $37.4 billion in the third quarter, which is the lowest level since the beginning of 2015, the paper writes.


Merrill Lynch’s new compensation plan, meanwhile, sets certain targets that brokers have to meet to keep their pay from getting reduced, the Journal writes. Among them is a requirement to grow their clients’ net new assets as well as liabilities, including debt, by a minimum of 2.5% annually, according to the paper.