If you think the wealth management business has emerged from the shadow cast by the 2008 meltdown, you’ve got another think coming, Aite Group says in a report called “New Realities in Wealth Management: Market on the Rebound?”

The research and consulting firm says higher net new-money inflows last year — thanks mainly to a resurgent stock market and the return of some sideline assets — have helped wealth management companies regain precrisis asset levels and signal a return to better times in “recent quarterly results.”

But Aite cautions that this improvement “still relies heavily on external factors” — principally stimulus from the Federal Reserve. This past spring, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke had only to say that the U.S. central bank’s quantitative-easing program would eventually end to send stocks into a short bout of volatility like the topsy-turvy market action that held sway the first three years after the financial crisis. Meanwhile, possible regulatory changes — especially extending a strong and unambiguous fiduciary standard to securities brokers — could “substantially alter the rules of the game” and favor RIAs over brokerages, says Aite.

In fact, Aite says 2012 asset levels in wealth management channels points to accelerated growth for independent RIAs. These firms saw a 0.9% year-over-year increase last year, up from a gain of 0.3% in 2011, to account for 13% of U.S. wealth management assets. In contrast, the retail-brokerage arms of Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and UBS — which manage 37% of U.S. wealth management assets — together saw assets dip by 7% in 2012, the same rate of decline Aite recorded for these wirehouses in 2011. Other brokerages saw declines last year in the 0.2%-to-0.3% range.