Zecco Has A Hard Road Ahead

Note: The following post was written by regular contributor Neil Kjeldsen. It’s worth noting that Neil worked for nine years in the brokerage industry, most recently managing the schwab.com website and online brokerage product. He is no longer with Schwab or affiliated with any other broker.

Yesterday’s announcement by Zecco and their $0 commission trading platform generated a lot of buzz within the tech community. It’s an interesting play at an interesting time given the instability in the world, which isn’t typically market friendly, but I think it will be a long time before Zecco or any other upstart has an impact on the big brokerages. Here are several reasons why:

  1. Most people don’t trade that much, thus commissions only matter to a small percentage of consumers. There are some who trade very actively and generate significant commissions for brokerages, but the average account trades only a few times per year. For that reason, it’ll take the kind of bull market you see once in a lifetime (which we saw in the 90s), which starts everyone trading, to make another Ameritrade or eTrade. When that happens and if Zecco is still humming along, then maybe I’ll be wrong. Doesn’t mean they won’t survive, even build a nice little business – but pose a threat to the big guys? Not without a raging bull market. I’m certainly no market prognosticator, but with $70 oil and the US engaged in hostilities across the globe, I don’t like the odds of that in the next few years.
  2. Discount Brokerages expect commissions to go to 0. Schwab has dropped commissions from $30 to $10 in two years and restructured the company accordingly. They’re moving into advisory services, managed accounts, proprietary mutual funds, and banking/lending, because they know they can’t depend on trading commissions as a revenue stream forever. I don’t know the specific numbers, but I do know Schwab and Fidelity both make far more money from mutual fund and cash balances than they do from trading. Banking probably saved eTrade after the last crash and now they’re moving into the advisory business as well. Ameritrade acquired Waterhouse in part because of its advisory services. The $0 trade is the future, but I think these firms will have several more years to adjust their models to deal with it.
  3. Just because it’s cheap, it doesn’t mean people want it. If cheap was all that mattered, Schwab should have killed Merrill years ago. They’ve certainly impacted them, but Merrill remains a force in the financial services world. They’ve survived in large part, because when it comes to money (even if it doesn’t help performance), relationships seem to matter. Case in point: how are Schwab and Fidelity now attacking Merrill, Smith Barney, etc? By selling relationships.

Now, all that said, if Zecco could build a killer active trading platform and attract the cream of the Active Trading crop from these guys, they’d have something, but I just don’t see that happening. The cream of the Active Trader crop is not a hyper price-sensitive 22 year old with no assets. They’re older, they’re established, they have significant assets, and they typically only trade with some of those assets. I don’t see them running to Zecco to save themselves a few grand per year. The big brokerages will create relationship offers that will satisfy a healthy percentage of these guys. Zecco is as likely to find itself brawling with companies like TradeStation, which has a great product, a loyal following, and is already pretty damn cheap.

So what will Zecco attract? If they build an absolutely killer Active Trading platform, they could make me eat my words. If their community has the strength from which fee-based advisory services or mutual funds could emerge, then there could be a fine business here. But if it’s just a me-too brokerage site with ads, they’ll get the young and the price sensitive with few assets. And what happens when the young become the middle-aged? Their assets will go to the big guys with a broader array of services.