Two of the leaders of the online brokerage industry may be merging. Charles Schwab is said to be in talks to buy TD Ameritrade in a deal worth $26 billion according to multiple reports.
The deal — if one happens — would come one month after both companies announced plans to eliminate commissions for most online trades — a move that is great for their customers but left analysts and investors in these stocks wondering how Schwab and TD Ameritrade would make up for the loss in revenue.
Schwab said it would go to zero just a few days after smaller rival Interactive Brokers Group (IBKR) said it was ending commissions. But the decision by Schwab launched an immediate price war, with TD Ameritrade (AMTD), E-Trade (ETFC), Fidelity, Ally Invest (ALLY) and other smaller online brokers all quickly following suit.
The traditional discount brokers have all faced intense competition from Robinhood, a trading app popular with millennials that launched a few years ago with a no commission business model.
TD Ameritrade CEO Tim Hockey hinted that his company could be for sale in an interview with CNN Business last month after the company reported earnings.
“We will always take a look at something that makes strategic sense,” Hockey said.
The fact that Hockey announced in July that he plans to step down once a successor was found only added to the rumors that TD Ameritrade was on the shopping block.
“On the heels of all the zero-commission announcements, this was the inevitable next shoe to drop. A merger would make a lot of sense,” said Bill Capuzzi, CEO of Apex Clearing, a custodian firm that holds securities for brokerages.
Capuzzi said that there is the potential for massive cost savings because of overlap in their respective businesses. That would probably mean layoffs, he added.
Schwab (SCHW) and TD Ameritrade were not immediately available for comment.
Shares of Schwab surged 8% while TD Ameritrade’s stock shot up more than 20%. Interactive Brokers Group’s stock was down slightly and E-Trade’s shares fell more than 8%.
The notable drop in E-Trade’s stock might be because of fears that the company could be the odd man out in a game of merger musical chairs. There has been on-and-off chatter for several years that E-Trade could be a good fit for Schwab.
E-Trade was not immediately available for comment.
But Kristi Ross, the co-CEO of financial tech firm tastytrade, which is the parent company of new online broker dough, thinks E-Trade could be a takeover target as well.
“We will definitely see more consolidation in the industry. It’s a natural next step given more competition and the price disruption,” said Ross, who is also the former CFO of thinkorswim, an online options trading firm which was bought by TD Ameritrade for more than $600 million in 2009.
But would a Schwab-TD Ameritrade merger get by federal regulators?
“This deal may face somewhat significant antitrust hurdles, depending on how the competitive market is viewed by relevant authorities,” said KBW analyst Kyle Voigt said in a report Thursday morning.
It would all depend on what the government decides are the most pertinent competitors, Voigt said. Will officials just look at other online brokers like E-Trade and Fidelity or also consider big Wall Street firms like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) as rivals?
Apex Clearing’s Capuzzi conceded that a big negative of a potential Schwab-TD Ameritrade deal is that it would reduce choices for consumers.