As online trading volumes cool, some brokerage firms are taking a cue from retail banking and imposing fees on unprofitable customer accounts.
E-Trade Securities Inc. and TD Waterhouse recently announced they would charge holders of inactive accounts $15 a quarter, starting at the end of this quarter. Fidelity Investments, Charles Schwab & Co., and American Express have charged such fees for some time.
There was a time when online brokerages were eager to court every customer to prove their popularity to Wall Street. But now that venture capital for e-brokerages has all but dried up, these companies like more traditional financial services firms are seeking to trim expenses rather than puff up their numbers.
This strategy mimics one adopted by many retail banks a few years ago. Realizing that huge parts of their retail customer base were unprofitable, banks began offering incentives for customers to use lower-cost delivery channels, such as automated teller machines and telephone centers, instead of branches. Unprofitable customers who continued to use the branch were charged for it, sometimes up to $3 per teller visit.
As with retail banks, which were willing to lose customers who were not contributing to the bottom line, the brokerages appear to be seeking higher-quality, revenue-generating customers who have strong streaks of loyalty. This approach contrasts to the willy-nilly grab for customers characteristic of the aggressive advertising campaigns some had used.
As Morrison Shafroth, a spokesman at Schwab put it, were trying to help these clients build wealth. But in order to do that, you have to be committed, we think.
Theres been such a tremendous push, particularly by E-Trade, over the last two years to add accounts at all costs, said Stephen C. Franco, managing director and senior e-finance analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. Now theyre stepping back and thinking, We werent very discriminating when we were adding new accounts, and some of these accounts we added arent all that profitable for us to be servicing.
With the stock market faltering and putting a crimp in online trading volume, the focus on making accounts more profitable may be timely. Online trading at the nations top brokerage firms fell 12% during the third quarter, according to a December report by U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. The decline was the first in the industrys history that persisted through consecutive quarters, the report said.
But the brokerages say the new quarterly fees are not an attempt to make up for lost trading revenue. TD Waterhouse wants to ensure that customers who trade more actively are not underwriting the costs of service to less active clients, said Melissa Fox, public relations manager. Its designed to keep services up and commissions down, she said.
E-Trades quarterly fee is intended to help cover the costs of administration and services such as research and quote information, said Tim Whitehead, senior manager of corporate communications.
All of these services we offer do have a cost for us, and we think this helps us spread these services among everybody, he said. We think the fee is fair, and its a good way to offer everyone an equal level of service.
At American Express, the $12.50 quarterly fee is intended to cover administration costs, said David Kanihan, a spokesman. He pointed out that Amex has less pressure to find alternative revenue streams when trading is down because its business is so diversified. It already collects more revenue from its financial advisory services than from brokerage, he said.
If you look at the companies that really dont do anything other than online trading, thats a whole different ball game, Mr. Kanihan said. Were not like that.
Fees vary from company to company, and there usually are ways to avoid them. E-Trade customers must maintain a $5,000 minimum balance or have made two trades in the six months before a quarters end to avoid paying the fee. TD Waterhouse customers can avoid the fee by having made four trades in the preceding 12 months.
The rules are somewhat more complicated at the traditional brokerages. At Fidelity, mutual fund customers need only have $2,500 in each position to avoid the $15 quarterly fee. All other accountholders must maintain a minimum $30,000 balance; or, within a year, have generated at least $100 in margin interest; or have made at least two transactions involving commission in the preceding year.
At Charles Schwab, maintenance fees range from $15 to $25, depending on the balance and type of account. The fees are waived if combined household accounts exceed $50,000, if four trades are made within 12 months, or if the customer deposits $250 a month into any Schwab account. At American Express, customers are not charged the fee if they complete four trades in 12 months, have designated retirement accounts, hold mutual funds only, or maintain a $20,000 account balance.
Web Street Securities, which does not charge fees to inactive accounts, instead focuses on developing alternative revenue sources, said Joe Barr, president of online brokerage. The Deerfield, Ill., company is opening branches, expanding into areas such as fixed-income products and wireless services, and marketing its brokerage platform to other companies.
Most online firms would acknowledge that you dont want to be entirely dependent on trading revenues, Mr. Barr said. We reacted to that as an important part of our business strategy.
Charging for inactive accounts serves a couple of purposes, said Mr. Franco of U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray. Closing some inactive accounts would reduce administration costs, and those remaining would yield more revenue because of the fee. Its kind of a double positive, he said.
Shalin Patel, a research analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc., said inactivity fees reflect a change in investors typical behavior. Investors wanting more financial guidance increasingly are replacing those seeking cheap trades, he said. So brokerages are realizing the importance of building assets by cultivating existing accounts.