It's getting a whole lot cheaper to get your foot in the door at Charles Schwab (NASDAQ:SCHW) today. The leading discount broker is lowering account minimums and doing away with its minimum balance penalties.

In a nutshell:

Initial deposits



Schwab One



IRA, ESA, and college saver accounts



Custodial accounts



The new initial deposit rates will be waived entirely for customers who make a monthly direct deposit commitment of at least $100. Schwab is also eliminating penalties on accounts that used to be tacked on if accounts dipped below their minimum balance requirements.

Retail investors will applaud the moves, but should shareholders be concerned? Fees and high minimums are in place for a reason. Small, dormant accounts cost Schwab money. Vanguard probably couldn't get away with its dirt cheap mutual fund expenses if it didn't have a $3,000 initial deposit requirement for most of its funds.

But let's not assume that Schwab is cruising for a bruising or that it's desperate to sign up new -- potentially thriftier -- accounts. It may simply be smelling blood in the deep discounter waters. Rivals TD AMERITRADE (NASDAQ:AMTD) and E*Trade (NASDAQ:ETFC) announced disappointing quarterly results earlier this week. They both cited market volatility and account inactivity as the seeds of fiscal discontentment.

Schwab held up better in this week's report. Could this be a healthier Schwab trying to jockey for position to snag some rival accounts? It could be. Another possibility is that this is a response to aggressive tactics by some major banks. In recent months, Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) and Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) have promoted commission-free trading. The freebies have strings attached -- like requiring that bank customers have $25,000 in assets -- but it's still a marketing message that discount brokers need to respond to.

Either way, embattled longtime rivals and new threats with deep pockets were going to make a competitive sector even more competitive. Lowering the bar may not make sense as a short-term move to shareholders, but it's the best way to make sure that Schwab remains relevant in the long term.

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.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has been trading exclusively through discount brokers since 1990, but he does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.