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EARNINGS PREVIEW: Online Brokers Haunted By Low Rates, European Woes In 4Q

By Mia Lamar Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES TAKING THE PULSE: The fourth quarter is often host to a holiday trading slowdown, yet the European sovereign debt crisis has in recent months become of increasing concern to many retail investors, pushing some to rein in their trading habits. At the same time, low interest rates remain a nagging issue for the discount brokerages. In a note to clients last month, Nomura analysts said margin pressure from rock-bottom rates is overshadowing positive long-term trends, like rising mobile and Internet usage. The firm added it sees trading volumes likely posting just a modest increase over the next year as market volatility continues to spook retail traders. COMPANIES TO WATCH: Charles Schwab Corp. (SCHW) -- Reports Jan. 18 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect a per-share profit of 13 cents on $1.12 billion in revenue. A year earlier, Schwab turned in a per-share profit of 10 cents on $1.13 billion in revenue. Key Issues: The squeeze of low interest rates has been particularly acute at Schwab, the largest discount brokerage by client assets. In a bid to ensure client yields don't sink into negative territory, Schwab has waived $400 million in fees on its money market funds through the first three quarters of 2011, up from $331 million in the same period a year earlier. The company had expected $150 million in fee waivers per quarter in the second half of 2011, yet Schwab finance chief Joe Martinetto in October warned $165 million was a more likely figure for the fourth quarter. E*Trade Financial Corp. (ETFC) -- Expected to report week of Jan. 23 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts are looking for a per-share profit of 20 cents on $489 million in revenue, excluding loan loss provisions. A year earlier, E*Trade reported a loss of 11 cents a share on $324.2 million in revenue, excluding loan loss provisions. Key Issues: Investors are now looking for a glimpse into the company's plans for the quarters ahead after E*Trade in November said it won't put itself up for sale but instead focus on executing its business plan. The online brokerage had been encouraged by hedge fund and largest shareholder Citadel LLC to explore a potential sale. Updates on its bank's troubled mortgage portfolio remain of interest to E*Trade investors, though the company has recently seen delinquencies in the portfolio ease from past quarters. TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. (AMTD) -- Reports Jan. 17 Wall Street Expectations: Analysts expect a per-share profit of 26 cents on $670 million in revenue. TD Ameritrade reported a per-share profit of 25 cents on $656.2 million in revenue a year earlier. Key Issues: The discount brokerage has recently made strides in gathering up new assets, gains Chief Executive Fred Tomczyk has attributed to a variety of sources, including in some cases, fellow brokerages. Still, the company has also warned it continues to face many of the same challenges pressuring peers, including low interest rates and a still-uncertain global economy. An update on efforts to tightly manage expenses in response could be of focus when the company reports fiscal first-quarter results later this month. (The Thomson Reuters estimates and year-earlier figures may not be comparable due to one-time items and other adjustments.) -By Mia Lamar, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-3207;

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