FleetBoston Financial Corp. has decided to step out of the deep-discount brokerage business almost altogether.
On Monday, Quick & Reilly, FleetBostons retail brokerage arm, said it will fold its Lincoln, R.I., subsidiary, SureTrade Inc., into the Quick & Reilly brokerage on March 3.
The move is a calculated gamble for FleetBoston since SureTrades 500,000 customers must now decide whether they want to stay with the 1.3 million at Quick & Reilly, where they would get features like access to financial advisers but pay commissions that are about twice as high.
Donald E. Froude, Quick & Reillys president and chief operating officer, said he does not expect to lose a lot of SureTrade customers. On the contrary, he said, many of these people now want the extra advice, even at the cost of more expensive trades.
Fleet stands to benefit from the move in several ways. Most SureTrade customers, who currently pay $7.95 for market-order trades and $9.95 for limit-order trades, would pay the same prices as current Quick & Reilly customers: $14.95 and $19.95, respectively. In an effort to retain the highest-volume traders, perhaps 10% of the combined entitys customers will continue to get discounted rates, Fleet said.
Also, consolidating the brokerages would save FleetBoston the expense of having two compliance offices and call centers. A spokesman said that a moderate number of layoffs are expected, though he would not say how many.
The layoffs will probably affect brokers, compliance officers, and call-center employees, the spokesman said. Some call-center employees may be moved to FleetBostons retail banking operations, he said.
The move underscores Quick & Reillys move to a more advice-driven business model as market volatility prompts some discount brokers to lay off workers and freeze salaries.
In an interview this month Mr. Froude said that market conditions had prompted the firm to adopt the more advice-oriented model. Repositioning SureTrade is part of that, he said.
In 1997, 98, and 99, everything went up everyone was a genius, Mr. Froude said. People now realize that everything doesnt always go up. Youve got to have some sort of game plan. People need advice.
Combining the brokerages will also give Quick & Reilly customers access to SureTrades more sophisticated technology, he said.
Quick & Reilly introduced SureTrade with great fanfare in November 1997, a time when companies such as Ameritrade Inc. and E-Trade Group Inc. were jockeying for the high-volume business of active traders. But those companies are now finding that they cannot survive by brokerage alone, observers said.
The market for active traders is contracting, and only a certain number of those firms will survive, said Kelly ODonnell, a senior consultant at Cerulli Associates in Boston.
Research has shown that many traders who were once self-directed now want guidance, she said.
David B. Master, managing director of Optima Group Inc., a financial services consulting firm in Fairfield, Conn., said that the cost of obtaining and maintaining customers keeps rising for brokerages as they try to differentiate themselves in a crowded market.
As a primary capability, banks are better positioned to leverage their role as advisers, he said.