Retail brokers

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With luck, you still have a couple of dimes to rub together. But who on earth to trust with investing them? The mega-rich will always have their pick of the exclusive funds, although the Spectrum Group, a consultancy, says US households with over $1m of net assets have lost 30 per cent of wealth during this crisis. Average investors, however, are usually restricted to giving their money to a broker or managing it themselves.

Obviously, banks such as Citi and Morgan Stanley, which this month announced they were merging their broking businesses, still believe the public want advice. But last year’s horrendous returns may prompt retail investors to question what they are paying for. A September survey by Prince & Associates revealed that over half of affluent investors intend to leave their advisers; 80 per cent want at least to take some money away.

There are thoroughbreds running with Merrill’s so-called thundering herd. But, for the most part, the big brokers are full of second-rate bankers pushing mass-market products for excessive fees. Are boutiques any better? One might think these will flourish as the consolidation of the big boys erodes that personal touch. Or the Madoff scandal may highlight the risks with smaller outfits and drive investors towards the big banks.

The biggest winners, though, may be discount brokers. TD Ameritrade of the US, for example, which reported in-line numbers on Tuesday, has seen increased trading over the last quarter and now has over 6m clients. As the discounters grow and technology improves further, DIY trading will become ever cheaper and easier. Of course, many people will always want face-to-face advice, and services such as tax planning are tricky online. But with losses fresh in investors’ minds, they may now feel they have as good a hope as the professionals of managing their money well.

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