Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith laid off eight brokers at its Bethesda office Monday and will close the branch entirely on July 2, transferring the remaining 23 brokers to other offices in the metropolitan Washington area.

Officials of the nation's largest brokerage firm, which handles about 15 percent of the transactions on the New York Stock Exchange, said the move was not in any way related to a decline in retail trading volume or the state of the economy.

Merrill Lynch representative Jim Flynn said the office is being closed because its lease in the Air Rights Building at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. is expiring, and no other suitable location is available. Customers have not yet been notified of the closing. The company official said accounts will be directed to other Merrill Lynch offices in the area.

Brokers in the Bethesda branch, who asked not to be identified, said the company had opportunities to relocate the office and charged that the eight layoffs were handled in "an unusually abrupt manner."

They suggested Merrill Lynch may have decided to close the office because it has a nearby Chevy Chase branch. They noted that business at the Bethesda office, while suffering along with the brokerage trade nationwide, was still profitable.

Employes, who were not told of the move until Monday, speculated that the closing may have been planned for some time. They noted that the office manager left in May and was not replaced.

Speaking for Merrill Lynch, Flynn said that an office closure is an "unusual" occurrence for the company and that the Bethesda decision had nothing to do with the depressed state of the brokerage industry.

Flynn said employes at the office knew that a closure was imminent. "The impression I got," he said, "was that it was not abrupt."

Regarding the layoffs, Flynn added that it was routine for the company to take a "hard look at everybody" and that regional management had decided to "go through with some terminations." Said Flynn: "They did what they had to do in business."