Talk about jumping into a crowded swimming pool at the wrong time.
Bank of America's (NYSE: BAC ) Merrill Lynch is diving into the online discount brokerage game this week, hoping to hook young investors who haven't amassed the portfolio girth to be worthy of its full-service slate of advisory services.
Bank of America will be transferring existing clients of its online brokerage unit to Merrill's discounting arm, incredulously called Merrill Edge. Yes, the name clearly implies that even self-directed investors will have an "edge" here, but my initial impression was of Merrill's customers dangling from a cliff ledge. Merrill Ledge?
A cynic will naturally wonder if the strategy is flawed. Once investors get a taste of low commissions and the joys of due diligence, it won't be easy to convince them to pay up for guidance or fall for load-laden mutual funds like their ancestors did.
However, even if Merrill's intentions were to strictly make a splash in the discount space, it sure is picking a crummy time to dive into this market.
Price wars have forced the leading players to slash their commission schedules. That's welcome news to individual investors like you and me, but not so good for shareholders of E*TRADE (Nasdaq: ETFCD ) , TD AMERITRADE (Nasdaq: AMTD ) , or Charles Schwab (Nasdaq: SCHW ) .
Between having to subsidize money market funds in this low interest rate climate to the one-upmanship of eradicating trading commissions on select ETFs, it's not as easy to make money in the discount brokerage space as it used to be.
Don't just take it from me. Analysts see Schwab, TD AMERITRADE, Interactive Brokers (Nasdaq: IBKR ) , TradeStation (Nasdaq: TRAD ) , and optionsXpress (Nasdaq: OXPS ) all posting lower earnings this year. E*TRADE is the lone exception, but analysts simply see it posting a narrower deficit.
What's Merrill's "edge" here? Sheer brazenness or dreadful timing? With so many discounters trading well off their highs, Bank of America would have been better off entering this niche by acquiring an established player on the cheap.
Then again, I'm not the one living on the Edge.
In the market for a new discount broker? The way that rates and initial deposits are bouncing around, I can't say that I blame you. Check the sponsored broker comparison table in the Discount Broker Center to see if you can find the bargain-minded brokerage outfit that's right for you.