Allfirst Financial Inc. of Baltimore is seeking to boost its brokerage business by introducing an on-line trading service that charges $29.95 a trade.
The move by Allfirst, which is owned by Allied Irish Banks PLC, comes as the discount giant Charles Schwab Corp. announced plans to cut its long-standing $29.95 trading commission to $14.95 for very active traders.
But Allfirst is not looking to enter the deep-discount brokerage business and is undeterred by Schwab's move to attract active investors, said Mark A. Mullican, president of the Baltimore company's brokerage unit.
And Allfirst's trading commissions are still consistent with those of Merrill Lynch & Co. and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., Mr. Mullican added.
"We believe this puts us in a competitive position," he said.
Bank customers are more apt to view the transaction as part of their overall banking experience, he said. "We're looking for long-term customers, not day traders," Mr. Mullican added.
Customers can access the service through the bank's home page, Allfirst.com, which reflects the close ties between the banking company and the brokerage business, Mr. Mullican said. "Our hope is that checking and savings account customers access our brokerage services."
Allfirst is targeting a broad spectrum of investors, Mr. Mullican said. Investors buying stocks, bonds, and options have been accessing the service since its inception in early January, he added.
He said customers have also bought the banking company's proprietary Ark Funds, which comprises 14 portfolios and has $6 billion of assets, on-line. Allfirst has been pushing the fund family in its branches. "We're interested in growing our asset base.
To drum up business for the on-line service, Allfirst plans to send out statement stuffers and put up signs in the branches, Mr. Mullican said. Allfirst may also place print and radio ads in local communities, he said.
Allfirst joins a growing number of banking companies that offer customers on-line trading.
"Banks are getting into the game," said Dan Burke, a brokerage analyst with Gomez Advisors of Lincoln, Mass. "They recognize that this is necessary to compete with the Merrill Lynches of the world."
But banks have been slow to make their on-line sites as sophisticated as mainstream brokerages that typically offer financial planning, research, and other services, said Mr. Burke.
Allfirst sees the service helping it achieve longer-term goals.
"Brokerage and Internet trading are key components in our transition from a banking company to a financial services company," said executive vice president Richard Gold.