In its latest bid to reinvent itself as online trading lags, E-Trade Group Inc. has begun offering its biggest customers access to separately managed accounts.
The service, called Personal Money Management, links customers with at least $100,000 invested at E-Trade with money managers outside the company, who will manage these accounts.
For an annual fee of 1.5% of the invested assets or less, depending on the size of the portfolio, the service helps customers seek and hire a money manager online, essentially cutting out the middleman - the personal financial adviser who would typically place the investor's money with the separate accounts manager.
Investors can customize portfolios to focus on specific securities or market sectors, or to meet specific needs such as tax efficiency.
E-Trade is not the only brokerage that is retrenching. Charles Schwab Corp., for example, instituted a hiring freeze last month. Prudential Securities, Merrill Lynch & Co., and other brokerages have also announced austerity measures.
Several companies have reconsidered their online financial services strategies. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. said last month that it would reposition its private banking Web site, Morgan OnLine. Rather than use the site to target a new slate of emerging affluent investors, Morgan fired some 150 marketing employees and said that it would instead use the site to serve existing private banking clients.
Last month FleetBoston Financial Corp. announced plans to discontinue its deep-discount Internet brokerage subsidiary, SureTrade Inc., and pull those customers into Quick & Reilly Inc., which itself was founded as a discount broker (though not an online one) but is moving towards a more advice-driven model.
E-Trade is not the first company to offer an Internet-based separate account service. Foliofn Inc. lets individuals own and manage up to three personal portfolios on its Web site for $29.95 a trade or $295 a year. Netfolio.com lets individuals put together a personal portfolio with five to 40 investments for $20 a month or $200 a year.
One of E-Trade's rivals, CSFBdirect Inc., the online brokerage arm of Credit Suisse First Boston, offers a handful of managed account options for customers with $100,000 or more to invest. Charles Schwab & Co. and TD Waterhouse also help match customers with financial advisers.
But like other Internet brokers, E-Trade, of Menlo Park, Calif., has been hit by the recent decline in online trading volume. Its brokerage arm had flat results last quarter. The company has aggressively sought to diversify its asset base: Its online bank unit, for example, said last week that it had topped the $6 billion mark in retail customer deposits, more than double its total from a year earlier.
This is yet one more expansion E-Trade has undertaken in recent months. The company - founded in 1982 as a service bureau providing online quotes and trading for brokerages - will open a financial center on New York's Madison Avenue in the next few months. It also has 20 staffed offices in Target stores, and plans to open more.
In September, E-Trade and Ernst & Young LLP teamed up to offer access to personalized advice about home buying, taxes, and retirement. E-Trade provides the service through PrivateAccounts.com, a Minneapolis start-up the firm bought in November.
Observers said that offering separate accounts reflects a realization shared by many online brokers that they can no longer live by trading alone.
"Transactions are going to zero, so this is a way of getting that recurring, fee-based revenue," said Paul A. Fullerton, an analyst at Cerulli Associates Inc. in Boston.
Ellen H. McKay, a principal of Optima Group Inc., a financial services consulting firm in Fairfield, Conn., said E-Trade's move was also a way to go after the affluent market.
E-Trade - whose average account size is about $21,000 - is following a trend common to many brokerages of going after a larger share of wallet by building more of a "relationship" with customers, Ms. McKay said.
If it can get even a small portion of its 2.6 million customers to use the separate account service, it can make money, she said. "Just because people don't have a lot of money with E-Trade, doesn't mean they don't have a lot of money to invest."
The big question, Ms. McKay said, is whether E-Trade, which has a strong brand identity as a discount broker, can successfully rebrand itself as a full-service provider.