E*Trade beats estimates but doesn't grow

Share price rise among fears of online trading slowdown

E*Trade Group, reported a fourth quarter net loss of 10 cents a share Wednesday - better than the 13 cent a share loss predicted by First Call. But transaction figures and account growth show a slowdown compared to the third quarter.

"The E*Trade brand is on fire," said Christos M. Cotsakos, chairman and chief executive officer of E*Trade in a release that boasted how heavy marketing expenses had upped account numbers and failed to give a true comparison of the third and fourth quarters.

Shares were up 7/32 cents to 25 5/8 Wednesday morning.

Revenue grew to $173.2m (£106m), up 84 percent from $94.2m for the same period a year ago, according to results which included revenue from recently acquired TIR Holdings. But revenue fell from third quarter sales of $177m. E*Trade attributed the decline to "the introduction of an aggressive pricing strategy offering trades as low as $4.95".

Although E*Trade touted its year-on-year figures, the sequential gains for the fourth quarter against the third tell a different story. In the third quarter, E*Trade reported 1,241,000 active accounts. In the fourth quarter, that total jumped to 1,551,000 active accounts, but growth was off the 37 percent growth of the third quarter.

Meanwhile, transactions were flat after showing 15 percent sequential growth in the third quarter. Transactions had actually fallen slightly from 5.1 million in the third quarter, or 80,600 a day, to 80,350 a day in the fourth quarter. This could give credence to recent concerns that online trading volumes are slipping.

The company didn't reveal page views in the fourth quarter, but reported 6.3 million average daily views in the third.

The company has focused on brand building through a heavy marketing campaign, and cited heavy investment in this area for its fourth quarter net loss of $24.4m (equivalent to 10 cents a share), before acquisition-related expenses. The company will continue to further what it calls "the E*Trade brand experience", by improving customer service. Media Metrix has ranked E*Trade number one against other online investment sites every month this year by a wide margin. Recent reports have accused online brokerages of lagging in customer service.

The company said it lowered the acquisition cost per account in the fourth quarter to $198 compared with $424 a year ago, and $238 in the third quarter. Total transactions in the quarter were 5.1m, up 163 percent from 2m in the same quarter a year earlier, and in line with the 5.1m in the third quarter. The company executed a daily average of 80,350 transactions during the quarter, a 163 percent increase from a year ago. Assets held in customer accounts as of 30 September were $28bn, up 154 percent on last year.

On the international front, the E*Trade brand has launched in six countries outside the US, and the company plans to increase its international presence in the year ahead. E*Trade UK and E*Trade Japan are expected to grow. With the TIR acquisition integrated with E*Trade International, the company takes 18 percent of its yearly revenues were from International. Acquisition-related expenses accounted for one cent a share for the quarter.

Merger plans with US Internet bank Telebanc, announced in June, are expected to close later in the year. E*Trade also plans to expand its financial media initiative, which gives customers access to investment analysis and opinion from the Power E*Trade site. E*Trade also announced Wednesday the appointments of two senior executives to accelerate its plan. Debra Chrapaty, who has headed E*Trade Technologies will lead the initiative. Joshua S. Levine, former managing director and global head of equities technology for Deutsche Bank, has joined as E*Trade chief information officer.

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