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EARNINGS PREVIEW: Online Brokers Off To Good Start In 2012

By Mia Lamar Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: The major online brokers started off 2012 on a high note, logging better-than-expected trading volume in January and February as a solid stock-market rally and wave of encouraging reports on the state of the global economy drew retail investors off the sidelines. An improving interest-rate environment also came as a relief, easing a bit of the low-rate pressure with which the sector has long been dealing. With an apparently strong quarter in the works, investors piled into the major e-brokers, driving up the group's shares by an average of 29%, according to analysts at KBW. Still, the firm notes enthusiasm is being drawn mostly from "improved consumer and investor sentiment rather than a substantial improvement in the underlying fundamentals of the business." COMPANIES TO WATCH: Charles Schwab Corp. (SCHW) -- Reports April 16 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts are looking for a per-share profit of 15 cents on $1.18 billion in revenue. Schwab, the largest discount broker by market capitalization, last year reported earnings of 20 cents a share on $1.21 billion in revenue. Key Issues: Schwab has long been stuck with the task of waiving some fees for its money market funds to ensure client yields don't turn negative in an era of rock-bottom interest rates. Now that headache finally seems to be receding somewhat as rates along the yield curve have started to turn higher. Evercore analysts in a note last month wrote the firm expects "incremental" improvements in Schwab fee waivers for the quarters ahead, predicting they will total $145 million in the first quarter, down from the fourth quarter and below the $165 million to $170 million Schwab is predicting. TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. (AMTD) -- Reports April 17 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts expect a per-share profit of 25 cents on $672 million in revenue. A year ago, TD Ameritrade reported earnings of 30 cents a share on $718.2 million in revenue. Key Issues: Investors will be looking for an update on the brokerage's progress in adding new client cash, particularly as Ameritrade has prided itself on growing its stock of customer assets. Last quarter saw an increase in net new money over the year earlier, although the sum was less than Ameritrade added in the prior quarter. KBW analysts estimate new asset growth at the major online brokers ran above expectations in the first three months of the year, with Ameritrade appearing to lead the pack. E*Trade Financial Corp. (ETFC) -- Reports April 19 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts are looking for a per-share profit of 10 cents on $469 million in revenue, excluding loan-loss provisions. A year earlier, E*Trade reported earnings of 16 cents a share on $537.7 million in revenue. Key Issues: For E*Trade investors, any update on the company's loan book is just as important as trading volumes as E*Trade continues to recover from bad bets made on the U.S. housing market. With losses in the roughly $13 billion portfolio on the decline, Wells Fargo last month raised its view on the stock, saying E*Trade is leveraged to both an emerging recovery in the housing market and among retail investors. "While uncertainty remains, we want to get involved in the stock before it becomes obvious that housing has completely recovered and/or that the retail investor is fully engaged," the firm wrote. -By Mia Lamar, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3207;

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