Selling the discount brokerage dream was easy in the 1990s. With stocks climbing and wealth spilling out to the individual investor by the bucketful, you had to love companies providing the tools for personal financial empowerment at rock-bottom prices.

The last three years haven't been as kind. Weak markets. Weaker investor confidence. When's the last time someone offered you a hot stock tip? Well, if your portfolio got battered and bruised, imagine how rough it has been for the discount brokers. Schwab(NYSE: SCH), Ameritrade(Nasdaq: AMTD), and E*Trade(NYSE: ET) are all trading in the single digits right now.

It may not stay that way for long.

Last night, Ameritrade reported it opened 30,000 new accounts last month. An average daily volume of 134,000 trades and nearly 2.9 million active accounts implies that the average Ameritrade customer placed an order every 22 days. That's basically in line with the company's pace during the buoyantly optimistic December quarter, and well ahead of the September period, in which the average customer placed an order every 33 days.

Look around -- the signs of life are there. Depending on how you look at it, Schwab has been either the picture of consistency or stagnancy. Over the last eight quarters, it has earned between $0.06 and $0.08 a share every time out. Wall Street's target for the current quarter? You got it. Eight cents. But looking ahead to June, the consensus estimate breaks from tradition at $0.09 per share. E*Trade also plans to break higher, projecting a record showing of between $0.45 and $0.55 a share for 2003, despite the skittish market environment.

Discount brokers also continue to diversify their revenue streams. Toronto-Dominion Bank(NYSE: TD) subsidiary TD Waterhouse had a great deal of success referring some of its wealthiest customers to independent, fee-only financial advisors. While just 4,500 account holders took up the offer last year, those who did represented better than $2.6 billion in assets. Last week, E*Trade announced it's now the country's second-largest ATM network, after acquiring 4,000 ATMs from XtraCash. The same day, Schwab revealed it will expand its defined benefit plan pension services.

Ameritrade and TD Waterhouse are members of our Broker Center. It has been an active area, as investors and potential investors weigh the discounted alternatives. So, sure, the publicly traded discount brokers cope with sagging share prices, but the fundamentals aren't as bleak.

Who knows? Maybe buying into some of these players at these prices is a prudent way to kick off the new brokerage accounts.