The Online Brokerage Wars: E*Trade Offers Compelling Risk/Reward

 |  Includes: AMTD, ETFC, SCHW
by: Rafael Grillo

One of the most competitive spaces right now must be the online brokerage business. It is to be expected: it is an industry with relatively low barriers for entry and a huge potential market. As the stock market is democratized by the power of the Internet and its abundance of quality information, the need for full-service brokers is dwindling.

This is not new, and the process has been going on for years now. Yet, full-service brokers still have significant number of customers who the online brokers are constantly vying for. Likewise, new generations of would-be investors join the mass of potential customers each year as thousands of young professionals with an independent, entrepreneurial mindset enter the job market and need to decide how to invest their newly acquired disposable income.

Online brokers invest intensely in advertising and promotions trying to gain these available new customers, and of course, steal a few from the competition. This massive investment and ferocious competition keep their margins razor-thin. In this situation, is it wise to invest in an online broker? If so, which one, if any, is poised to win the online broker war?

The three front-runners in this race are Charles Schwab (NYSE:SCHW), TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) and E*Trade (NASDAQ:ETFC). Their trading platforms, fees and quality service can be considered quite similar in principle. What will determine then which a potential customer will choose? Here is where building an emotional connection with target customers becomes crucial. In a market where the tangible products or services being offered are quite homogeneous between competitors, creating a sense of rapport and shared values becomes the angle that can make the difference for a consumer.

Each of the three key brokers is trying to achieve this affinity of values in different ways. TD Ameritrade is sticking to Sam Waterston as its spokesperson and trying to leverage the independent spirit of America as their guiding value. This approach, in my view, has limited appeal among young, truly independent investors. It positions investing as a fairly stern, mature and conventional endeavor. That does not resonate well with the right-brained nature of the current generation of customers (for a great book on this, I suggest Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future).

Charles Schwab hit a home-run with the launch of its "Talk to Chuck" campaign. What a dramatic repositioning for the company! The pioneer of the industry had been losing ground to other online brokers after the retirement of its name-sake founder. The new management at that point lost its sense of direction and tried to take the company to play with the big boys… exactly the opposite of what had made the company successful in the first place! When Charles Schwab returned at the helm, he realized that the company had lost touch with its customers and had created a stodgy and outdated image for itself. "Talk to Chuck" was a vibrant and energetic way of re-humanize Charles Schwab.

From the emotional perspective, I think Schwab is in the best position in its history. "Talk to Chuck" is a warm, fun and irreverent campaign that makes the company approachable and dynamic. However, Schwab might be missing an opportunity: their recent commercials are still talking to sophisticated investors. Their strategy is still about switching consumers from the full-service brokers. In its commercials, Schwab's "customers" invariably explain how the service they got from their previous broker didn't match their own sophistication and knowledge. This communication may be irrelevant for investors that don't feel to be as experienced and, dare I say it, wealthy as the ones portrayed in the ads.

Finally, there is E*Trade. This company was firing on all its cylinders until it got badly hit by the sub-prime meltdown. Its competitors didn't wait to take advantage of E*Trade's woes, and in just a matter of weeks, they stole thousands of consumers and billions of dollars from the company. Even in the midst of the crisis, E*Trade did not lose sight of the importance of communicating with its customers and the reassuring power of advertising. Despite its hemorrhage of liquidity and its internal shakeout, the company upheld its plans to advertise in the Super Bowl. E*Trade's famous "Trading Baby" TV ad was enough to assuage the consumers' jitters and is credited with stopping the bleeding.

In terms of understanding consumer values and position itself as the right complement to their lifestyle, E*Trade does the best job of all three. Their approach is plain, simple and straight-forward. They focus on the simplicity, power and excitement of trading, and are able to let the consumer know that they understand the emotions they are going through in navigating the stock market world: from the father making his first online trade surrounded by his family, to the dude that trades while fragging his friend in "Gears Of War" (very insightful!). These are real people and E*Trade is there with them. Not above, not ahead, but at their side.

Online brokerages will continue to be in an intensely competitive industry in the foreseeable future, and the fierce fight to gain customers will continue demanding huge investments that will keep its profitability in check. Nevertheless, I think E*Trade presents a very compelling risk-reward proposition right now. The stock price is still depressed after the credit crunch scare. While I think their financial situation is still fragile, management is doing the right things to refocus the business and gain new customers. All reports indicate they keep opening new accounts at a vigorous pace. I am not surprised. I think E*Trade has a strong brand equity and they know how to leverage it among the segment of consumers that represent the highest potential for gains. I think the bottom for E*Trade is in the past, and for the patient investor, this could be a rewarding investment. Something to consider for your portfolio; who knows, soon you may even get to rent your own clown.

Disclosure: I own shares of ETFC.