(Dow Jones) The steady, if sometimes exaggerated, trend of wirehouse advisors shifting to independent brokerages is proving to be more than just a passing fad.

The independent channel took in about 90 advisors from the four major wirehouses last month, while those wirehouses only hired 25 brokers from independents, according to research firm Discovery's report on registered representative movement for January. ?

The four wirehouses are Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, Bank of America Corp.'s Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo Advisors, and UBS Wealth Management U.S. Their biggest indie competitors lately: LPL Financial Corp., Ameriprise Financial Services and Raymond James Financial Services.

"The shift from the wirehouses to the independent model has been overstated, but the trend is definitely there," said Bing Waldert, research director covering brokerages at Cerulli Associates. ?

The market environment and changing cultures of the wirehouses make it easier than ever for advisors, especially lower producers, to become independent. Letting the low producers go can also allow the wirehouses to focus more on recruiting top talent and training rookies.

"Smaller advisors are more likely to go independent because they are being forced out of the wirehouses," Waldert said. "It is mostly planned attrition for the wirehouses, but it is still bringing up the quality of the independent channel."

A small wirehouse advisor, with about $23 million in client assets, is much larger than the average independent advisor. ??The regional competitors are also taking their fair share from the wirehouses. About 50 brokers moved from wirehouses to regionals in January, whereas roughly 10 moved in the other direction, according to Discovery. ?

"We've seen a resurgence in recruiting from the regional firms," Waldert said. "They are a good alternative to lower producers, because they offer similar service as the wirehouses." ?

Many regionals are benefiting from the financial crisis and the turmoil at the wirehouses. Some who did a lot of hiring last month include Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., Edward D. Jones & Co., and Oppenheimer & Co. ?

Not everyone who leaves a big brokerage is looking for a different model. Over the past six months, Discovery reported, a third of the wirehouse brokers who left their firm settled into another wirehouse. ?

In January, roughly 355 wirehouse brokers moved to a new firm overall, be it another wirehouse, regional, indie or bank. This was down 15% from December. ??January is typically a popular time for advisers to move, but the decline this year wasn't entirely unexpected.

Many wirehouse brokers already moved firms at the beginning of the financial crisis, and the wirehouses aren't recruiting as much as they did in better times. ??Merrill Lynch came out with the best net headcount change last month, losing about 65 brokers and bringing in 55.

On the other end of the spectrum, UBS saw about 90 departures and only 15 hires, according to Discovery. ?

Waldert says the net loss is all a part of the wirehouses' plan. "That's what we're going to see this year. The wirehouses will recruit top producers for a lot of money, and let the low producers leave," he said. "They all want to have fewer, but more productive, advisers." ?

A UBS spokesman said the firm recorded 71 adviser departures and six hires for January. A Morgan Stanley spokeswoman declined to comment, and spokespersons for Wells Fargo and Merrill Lynch didn't return requests for comment. ?

Discovery's numbers aren't exact because the data are collected from a variety of sources and firms themselves don't routinely make the information public. The reports sometimes include other registered representatives who aren't financial advisers, as well as moves from the previous month because of lag time in gathering the information.

Wirehouse Adviser Movement In January
Firm Name                             Number of Hires   Departures
UBS Wealth Mgmt U.S.                 15                     90
Morgan Stanley Smith Barney       70                     100
Wells Fargo Advisors                     75                     100
Merrill Lynch                                   55                     65

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