Lower trading volume caused by the stock market tumble is forcing discount brokers to find new strategies to compete, Deloitte & Touche LLP says.
Even larger firms that specialize in online trading could become takeover targets if they fail to offer a range of other financial services, the Wilton, Conn., accounting firm asserts in a new report.
The diversified full-service firms, which have not seen their stock prices fall as far, may take advantage of the industry downturn to acquire their discount competitors, the report says.
George Simeone, a partner in Deloitte & Touches financial services practice, noted in an interview that consolidation has already begun in the online brokerage sector. In December, Deutsche Bank AG bought National Discount Brokerage Group, and E-Trade Group Inc. announced in May that it had agreed to acquire Web Street Securities, a competitor.
At a recent conference in New York, Bear Stearns analyst Amy Butte predicted that at least half of online brokerages will shut down or find merger partners within the next year. Henry McVey, an analyst at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, said he expects to see a significant wave of consolidation among Internet brokers.
The market downturn and resulting shift in investor expectations are causing the line to blur between full-service brokerages and discount firms, Deloitte & Touche found in its third annual survey of online securities trading. As equity prices plunged over the past year and more and more active traders were replaced by longer-term investors, discount brokerage firms are relying less on cost strategies and moving into territory once associated with full-service outfits.
Full-service firms and online discount firms, Mr. Simeone said, are starting to look more alike, because competing on low cost is no longer the only nuance that will attract the investor. People are starting to seek advice, and the discount firms are trying to increase the breadth of services that they offer and are starting to try to compete less on price and more on having a better service offering.
Among discount firms surveyed, 54% said that widening their service offerings is central to their positioning, while only 31% mentioned low-cost services. Strategic alliances will become increasingly important to discount firms, the study found. Fifty-five percent said they planned to form alliances within the next year to offer banking services such as cash management, certificates of deposit, mortgages, and access to automated teller machines, while 27% said they planned to form alliances to offer bill payment services.
The survey found that 54% of discount firms were offering wireless trading, against 33% of full-service firms, and that 77% were offering real-time streaming quotes compared with none of the full-service firms surveyed. Likewise, 79% of discounters offered extended-hours trading, against only 33% of full-service firms.
But full-service firms led in account aggregation, the compiling of customers financial data from various locations at one Web site. Just 23% of discount firms offered aggregation, versus 33% of full-service firms. The survey also found that while many discount firms offered research and analytical tools, they lagged in advice. Just 31% of the discount brokerages surveyed provided access to a financial adviser, compared with 83% of full-service firms.
Mr. Simeone said discount brokerages shift in strategy is letting full-service firms slow down investment and evaluate their own offerings, since the rush to compete on price has subsided.
But he said the five discount firms that control about 85% of online trading volume pose a serious threat to full-service firms, particularly if they can add enough products and services to take clients away from their full-service competitors.