Merrill Lynch Gets With the Program

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After two years on the sidelines watching their own customers dabble in online trading with other houses, Merrill Lynch is finally getting into the Internet trading game. "There's no question that online trading is here to stay, and in five years, it will be the conventional way for ordinary people to invest," says TIME senior economics reporter Bernard Baumohl. "Merrill was founded on the idea of investing for the little guy -- they finally decided that they couldn't be left behind."

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It's a serious catch-up bid. America's largest stock brokerage is matching leader Charles Schwab's $29.95-per-trade rate (that's sans advice), and offering another plan of their own: $1,500 a year for unlimited trades and unlimited advice. Merrill's bigwigs are touting that plan as the best way to go, pointing out that you'll get more unbiased advice from a broker who doesn't work on a per-trade commission (and like most flat-fee programs, it's on average a good moneymaker for Merrill). But the $1,500 plan also goes right to the heart of Merrill's reluctance to get into the online business in the first place: their brokers. "Merrill is known for its brokers -- it's got a whole army of 15,000 of them that are very sensitive about getting cut out of the process," says Baumohl. "It's a huge political problem within the company." But chairman David H. Komansky didn't sound that worried -- or sympathetic. The brokers "will still do very well," he said, "so long as they are willing to provide value-added service to their client." In the age of the Internet, it's no fun to be the middleman.