The bulls may be less thunderous in their stampede down Wall Street now than they were two years ago. Some of the big brokerage houses have cut back staff, and there have been nasty rumors of brokers ''churning'' their accounts - urging unnecessary sales and purchases of stock just to generate commissions.
The brokerages themselves seem to be growing both larger and fewer through a process not so much of merger as of agglutination. It may be hard to imagine getting personalized advice from such a place. It feels like visiting McBroker.
But the financial revolution that has turned us all into investors is still going strong. There are still good reasons to be investing in stocks and bonds, plus the other financial products that brokerages provide.
So what's an investor, particularly a beginning one, to do? Will a regional brokerage give you a fairer shake than a big national firm? Or at least hassle you less?
Observers on both sides sportingly admit that quality comes in many sizes, and the accepted wisdom from both nationals and regionals is, ''It's not the firm, it's the broker.''
But still, there are some differences from one house to another, and even in a relatively small community you may have more choices than you might think.
However, says Stephen Leightman, vice-president and national sales manager of Prudential-Bache Securities Inc., ''The argument that the bull market has cooled off is really neutral'' in its effects on brokerages. ''If the national houses are pressuring their brokers to produce, well, the regionals will be, too.''
He dismisses ''bucket shops,'' whose brokers churn accounts, as a ''distinct minority.''
Jon M. Burnham, executive vice-president of Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., declines to comment on the advantages of a regional firm over a national one, but suggests that ''the big national brokers have more serious training programs.''
Mr. Leightman says, ''In a larger firm a larger range of products are more readily available.
''Regional firms might have slightly better access to select regional companies - but a national firm has a greater breadth of vision.
''And even a beginning investor, if it's someone with a lot of money, may be needing a tax shelter - oil and gas, leasing, real estate. A larger firm will have a better mix of products.''
But Lawrence A. Silver, vice-president for marketing and sales at Raymond, James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla., counters: ''We do not trade in commodities on the grounds that they're too risky for our clients. But except for that, I don't believe there is a service available from a national firm that you can't get from Raymond, James.''
Raymond, James does its own syndications and originates some limited partnerships. The firm has a support staff of 500, including its own research crew, and concentrates on Sunbelt companies. But it also deals in ''special situations,'' or turnaround companies.
Mr. Silver goes on to say that Raymond, James brokers - or account executives , as the firm prefers to call them - are paid ''more for a sale than brokers at national firms; that takes the stress off them and encourages them to meet the client's needs.
''And our account executives, unlike those at national firms, have no requirement to sell a product. When we do a syndication, we don't call our offices and say, you have to sell this.
''When we talk with account executives, we talk generically. When I do my regular marketing meetings, with all our offices over an open squawk box, I say, this is a good time of year to do private placements (private limited partnerships). I don't say, sell XYZ Company.''
Not all regional brokerages have such a full range of services as Raymond, James. Some try to be ''Junior Merrill Lynches,'' with some of everything, as an industry observer puts it. But some specialize, in local companies, perhaps, or municipal bonds. And some of the products they offer - mutual funds, for example , - are originated by national houses. The regional firms are middlemen.
Some observers suggest that it doesn't matter whether you buy shares in a Merrill Lynch mutual fund from Merrill Lynch or from a smaller brokerage; others say that some houses pay brokers a higher commission for selling the firm's own product than a competitor's.
Bruce Madsen, president of D. A. Davidson & Co., with headquarters in Great Falls, Mont., cites continuity as a plus in dealing with regional brokers. ''We have 70 brokers here, and they've been with us an average of 10 years.... In a rural area, people have their reputations to protect,'' he adds, suggesting that a broker would have less temptation to make a quick buck at a client's expense in an area where everyone knows everyone else.
Davidson brokers, serving clients in Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota, and competing against local offices of Merrill Lynch, Shearson, and E. F. Hutton among others, can't rely on ''cold calls'' by telephone to earn their keep. ''Our brokers go out to meet people on the farms, on the ranches; they have to build a long-lasting relationship with people. It may take three or four visits like that before someone even becomes a client,'' says Mr. Madsen.
Davidson has a ''research relationship'' with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and executes trades through its Pershing subsidiary, Mr. Madsen adds.
Davidson also reflects the tendency of a regional brokerage to mirror its community. With only a small number of industrial companies based in its part of the country and considering the conservative bent of investors there, Davidson is heavily involved in municipal issues. In fact, it underwrites 80 percent of the municipal issues in Montana. The firm stays away from ''exotic tax shelters'' and commodities.
Ironically, Davidson started 50 years ago as a commodity house, but got out of that business 10 years ago on the grounds that it was too speculative for its clients. ''Our clients, being farmers and ranchers, were close to the products, but they weren't close to the markets. Some of them lost their shirts,'' Mr. Madsen says.
And what about dealing with the remote office of a national firm? The wonders of electronics have brought Wall Street to Main Street.
''Geography has less and less to do with it,'' says Mr. Leightman. ''It doesn't matter whether the broker is on Madison Avenue or in Podunk. They all get the same information over the speaker box. They're as abreast in Podunk as anywhere.''
In the case of beginning investors, Mr. Leightman says he is less concerned with whether a client goes to a regional broker or a national one than with why and how the investor goes in the first place.
''They'll see a product in an ad, a CD, for example, and come in and want to buy it. That's the wrong way to do business.''
The right way, he suggests, is for clients to have an overall investment plan , considering how much money they have, what kind of portfolio has already been established, ''and melding it into a consistent program - not that it can't be changed over the years.
''The planning process is paramount.''
Of course, some people have accounts at more than one brokerage - perhaps to get more than one point of view on their investments, and perhaps to let them hold their cards close to their vest.
But, Mr. Leightman argues, if you deal with more than one broker, ''there's a loss of coordination. You miss the implementation and monitoring of your program.
''It depends on the trust level you have with the people you're dealing with.''