Traffic is building at banking companies' on-line brokerages, but executives say they have no plans to take on the likes of E-Trade and DLJdirect.
"I don't want to convert 100% of accounts to electronic trading, because we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot," said Larry Kreul, managing director of Comerica Securities Inc. in Detroit. "It's extremely difficult to make any money, because the margins are so thin.
"We are looking at this as a defensive measure."
Twenty-eight percent of discount trades through Comerica were made on- line in March, the most recent month for which figures are available, up from 19% in November.
The site is not only for trading. Customers access free real-time stock quotes, freeing up brokers to talk with people who want to pay for advice before trading, rather than with price checkers. Comerica's quote page was logged into 19,000 times in March, compared with 9,000 in November.
Bank-affiliated brokerages differ from the on-line leaders, which have a short-term "profits be damned" mentality, said Daniel Burke, senior brokerage analyst for Gomez Advisors in Concord, Mass. The on-line leaders' objective is to gain scale through advertising campaigns buttressed by low commissions.
Paul C. Richards, senior vice president and managing executive of Wachovia Investments Direct, defends higher commissions by touting banking connections. He says access to Wachovia Corp.'s banking services compensates for the extra cost of Wachovia's flat commission-$29.95 for on- line trades of up to 2,000 shares.
"They can sweep money back and forth-it's relationship-oriented," Mr. Richards said. "I'm not going after the day trader."
On-line trading is 45% of volume at Wachovia Investments, which administers $11 billion for 225,000 clients. On-line service will start at IJL Wachovia, an acquired section 20 affiliate, after a systems conversion over Labor Day weekend.
Mr. Richards said his advantage is "the weight of the Wachovia name" and that its on-line trading has a "hometown presence" for customers.
"If they have an issue, they can walk into a branch," he said.
But on-line investors' loyalty to their banking companies will wane, said Bill Burnham, an electronic commerce analyst with Credit Suisse First Boston.
"The on-line brokerages are going to be offering on-line banking quite shortly," he said.
Retail investors are making at least 35% of trades on-line, Mr. Burnham said. At the biggest brokerages with on-line service, at least 70% of trades are electronic.
To keep investors from moving to cheaper alternatives, banks should cross-sell deposits and loans on-line, said Mr. Burke of Gomez. "If banks could capitalize on that head start, I see they have a chance to fight back."
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. markets WellsTrade in TV ads along with other on-line services, including bill paying and home equity lending. Roughly 60% of its discount trading is on-line. Most WellsTrade clients have other accounts at the banking company.
"We have had customers move over here from E-Trade," said Jennifer LaSalle, Wells' vice president of on-line brokerage. "Having all their assets in one place is of value to them."