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Charles Schwab earnings grow 68 percent

Discount broker Charles Schwab Corp. said Monday its first-quarter earnings grew 68 percent as revenue increased to its highest point in five years.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Charles Schwab Corp.’s quarterly profit surged its highest level in six years as the stock brokerage continued to win over customers with lower prices and an advertising campaign highlighting the Main Street appeal of the company’s namesake founder.

The San Francisco-based company said Monday that it earned $243 million, or 19 cents per share, for the first quarter ending in March. That represented a 68 percent increase from net income of $145 million, or 11 cents per share, for the same period last year.

Revenue totaled $1.28 billion, a 21 percent increase from $1.06 billion last year.

The earnings matched the average estimate among analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

It marked the second highest quarterly profit in Schwab’s 31-year history, ranking behind net income of $284 million during the first three months of 2000 when the brokerage was still reveling in the stock market giddiness of the dot-com boom.

The company’s stock price has more than doubled, recovering about $11 billion in shareholder wealth, since founder Charles Schwab returned as chief executive in July 2004, determined to revive a business mired in a deep slump that had triggered more than 10,000 layoffs in four years.

With Schwab back in control, the brokerage returned to its discounting roots by lowering its prices to become more competitive with more nimble Internet upstarts that had been luring away some of its customers.

Although the price-cutting required relinquishing revenue in the short term, Schwab figured the sacrifice would pay off in the long run by spurring customers to trade more frequently.

The strategy bore fruit in the first quarter.

Schwab averaged 275,200 revenue-producing daily trades during the period, a 44 percent increase from an average of 191,300 daily trades at the same time last year. The brokerage’s commission averaged $13.39 per trade during the quarter, a 25 percent decrease from $17.95 per trade last year.

Over the past year, the company also has sought to capitalize on its founder’s populist appeal by running “Talk To Chuck” ads that positioned the brokerage as the best place for straightforward investment advice.

That effort also appears to be paying off. Schwab picked up 188,000 new brokerage accounts in the first quarter, a 25 percent improvement from last year. Excluding market gains, Schwab’s customer assets grew by $28.1 billion in the quarter, a 75 percent increase from $16.1 billion last year.

Encouraged by those results, Schwab plans to spend $55 million to $60 million on advertising during the second quarter, up from $50 million during the first three months of the year, said Christopher Dodds, the company’s chief financial officer.

Schwab also is hiring again, a reversal from many years of relentless job cuts.

In the past nine months, Schwab has added 500 employees to expand its payroll to 14,100 employees through March. In an interview Monday, Dodds emphasized the company won’t expand as aggressively as it did during the dot-com heyday when Schwab employed more than 26,000 workers.

In a sign of the company’s efficiency, its first-quarter profit margin was 19.1 percent, surpassing the 18.1 percent margin posted six years ago when its earnings hit their record high.

“We are a more disciplined company than we have ever been,” Dodds said. “You don’t see a lot of euphoria around here today.”