Are Web broker stocks ready to run?

The market is volatile and some folks will lose their shirts in heavy trading

That's the bad news. The good news -- for online brokers at least -- is that volume is still strong and could stay that way in the first quarter.

The Nasdaq fell 5.5 percent Wednesday, but shares of online brokers held steady. Why not? Web brokers win as long as folks trade. Who cares if investors win or lose as long as they pay commissions?

Web brokers are expected to post upside surprises when E-Trade, Ameritrade and others trot out their December quarter results later this month.

Lehman Brothers analyst Richard Repetto said in a report Tuesday that he expected online brokers to report better-than-expected earnings for the quarter ended December 31, in part because of record trading volume.

He trimmed loss estimates for E-Trade, Ameritrade and DLJDirect. Knight-Trimark, which processes trades for online brokers, should also benefit from the heavy volume as will other online brokers such as TD Waterhouse.

The predictions weren't that much of stretch.

Just last week, Charles Schwab said it expects its fourth quarter profits to exceed Wall Street expectations. Schwab said profits would be $162-$171m (£100m-£106m), or 19 cents to 20 cents a share. First Call was expecting 17 cents a share.

Schwab also said it sees sales of about $1.1bn for the quarter, a record for the company.

"After a very active November, December is shaping up to be our busiest month ever, with customer daily average revenue trades of 236,000 through the 27th," Schwab President and Co-Chief Executive David Pottruck said in a statement. "These trading volumes have helped put the company on track to achieve record revenue."

So the quarter ending December 31 is a foregone conclusion, but what about the first quarter ending March 31?

Web brokers could continue to outperform the market for a few more months. The first quarter also happens to be the winter. When it's cold, folks stay indoors and are more likely to trade. In the spring, trading volume pulls back a bit and the summer slows even more.

Tuesday's trading tells the story. The markets had a huge sell-off as Wall Street decided to take some profits. No surprise there since the Nasdaq and other tech stocks set records almost daily in December.

But volume remained heavy and that's why Web brokers will benefit for at least a few more months. Whether the market goes up or down, Web brokers will rake in commissions as long as you trade.

There is a caveat of course -- if the market corrects too much, folks stop trading. But it's far too early to worry about that.

With last night's Sugar Bowl, the college bowl season ended and Florida State is the champion. Although I'll miss college football, I certainly won't miss all the .coms being tacked on to bowl games.

This bowl season we had the Music City Bowl, the Humanitarian Bowl, the Bowl, and the Citrus Bowl. Like the glut of holiday advertising, .coms managed to go overboard with the bowl season. Did anyone visit these .coms after watching the bowls? Didn't think so.

And next year, there will be even more .com bowls.

Traditional gearheads, however, can rejoice in the fact that good old tech was represented too. There was the Micron PC Bowl, the Southwestern Bell Cotton Bowl, the Rose Bowl by AT&T and the Nokia Sugar Bowl.

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