Market skid roils Schwab traders

The online broker says that trading by its clients has slowed dramatically in the face of an increasingly bearish market.

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Charles Schwab, the largest U.S. discount and online broker, said Thursday that trading by its clients has slowed dramatically in the face of an increasingly bearish market, and the company is likely to miss earnings estimates for the first quarter.

"We are not comfortable with the consensus of analysts' estimate but we are not issuing any revised guidance at this point," Schwab spokeswoman Marta von Loewenfeldt said, referring to the 13 cents per share expected by analysts polled by First Call.

She added that it is still to early to comment on the 59 cents per share analysts expect for the full year.

Customer stock trading slumped by 31 percent in February and by 13 percent in January compared with the same period one year ago, the company said.

Layoffs might also be imminent at Schwab.

"Given our business outlook we are assessing the appropriate level of staffing, facilities and systems capacity reductions in each of our client and support enterprises," David Pottruck, Schwab's co-chief executive, said in a statement.

Schwab joins a growing list of online brokers buffeted by the continuing turmoil in the stock market.

Still, the company said that net new assets by new and current clients totaled $8.5 billion in February. Total client assets by the end of February were $844.8 billion, down 5 percent from the year-ago period and down 8 percent from January, the company said.

Even during the giddy heyday of stock trading on the Internet, analysts and some online brokers had been bracing for a slowdown in the economy, which would likely slow individual investor trading to a trickle.

Several Internet brokers tried to diversify by offering asset-management, banking and mortgage services, and insurance products hoping to generate revenues with fees for service rather than depending on solely on fees for trades.

Despite the effort, many Internet brokers have felt the sting of slowing trading activity. Just yesterday, CSFBdirect announced it would eliminate 150 jobs, about 10 percent of its U.S. work force. And last week Ameritrade, which has already said it will slash nearly 10 percent of its work force, cut its revenue estimates. Morgan Online, the site for J.P. Morgan Chase, said it will lay off some 150 employees, The Wall Street Journal has reported.

Late last year, Schwab instituted a hiring freeze and said it would curb the salaries of its top executives.

Shares of Schwab have fallen almost 40 percent this year. The stock is hovering around $17 per share after reaching as high as $44.75 during the past 52 weeks.