Schwab: Benefitting from Higher Interest Rates

31 October 2022 | by Ensemble Capital

During our third quarter portfolio update, we profiled portfolio holding, Schwab (SCHW). Below is a replay of our live commentary on the company from our quarterly portfolio update webinar and an excerpt from our QUARTERLY LETTER.


As we have discussed before, Schwab’s core value proposition is about helping its customers, both individual investors and independent registered investment advisors like Ensemble, intelligently and efficiently invest in capital markets. What everyone might not be as familiar with is how Schwab’s business model has changed over the years as its offerings and capabilities evolved, initially being driven by trading commissions, then distribution fees on third party mutual funds, and later asset-based fees on its own proprietary mutual funds and ETFs, and more recently net interest revenue that is derived from its customers’ cash holdings sitting on Schwab’s balance sheet.

Through each of these revenue transitions, Schwab has accelerated the arc of industry trends that leveraged technology and scale to commoditize each of the earlier revenue sources. While doing this, Schwab grew its scope of services and revenue to new more profitable levels built off its ability to drive operating costs lower with scale thereby offering excellent value and service to millions of customers relative to competitors.

This has powered its growth and profit flywheel that relies on scale and efficiency to drive costs lower, allowing it to reduce prices that attract more customers and assets even as it invests to add higher value services to cross sell, which further increases scale and efficiency opportunity. As a result, assets held at Schwab now stand at over $7 trillion from about $1 trillion in 2005.

For Schwab, scaling assets, sticking to a culture of adaptability and efficiency, and focusing on customer value has resulted in a win-win-win model for its key stakeholders: its customers, its employees, and its shareholders.

It was the fact that net interest revenue comprised more than half its business while trading revenue had fallen to less than 10%, that enabled Schwab to cut trading commissions on equity and ETF trades to zero in October 2019, without taking a significant hit to its financial model. This set the stage in 2020 and 2021 for a dramatic acceleration in client account growth and the net new assets they brought in, which is exactly how Schwab’s strategy of perpetual disruption has worked for decades now.

Traditional online trading competitors reliant on commissions saw their stock prices fall dramatically. TD Ameritrade was one that saw its stock price fall over 30%, creating the opportunity soon thereafter for Schwab to acquire it in a highly accretive transaction that increased Schwab’s asset scale by a third by bringing in $1.6 trillion in assets. Adding Ameritrade’s $6 billion in revenue to Schwab’s platform saw the opportunity to cut out 60% of costs associated with it, taking the margin on that incremental revenue from about 50% to nearly 80%.

Powering Schwab’s long-term model has been their focus on operational efficiency that is an important part of its competitive advantage. It allows the company to offer low prices and higher value to customers, which wins them over and retains them, while also delivering attractive returns for shareholders.

A way to measure this is a metric called the efficiency ratio which measures the operating expenses per dollar of client assets. The spread between the revenue yield, which measures total revenue collected per dollar of client assets, and the efficiency ratio translates into the profits that Schwab is able to collect on those assets.

The persistent decline in the efficiency ratio from 0.25% per dollar of AUM to 0.14% over the past decade and a half powered the profit spread per dollar of AUM from 0.09% to 0.14%. The result is that every dollar of revenue generated from client assets translates to 50 cents of operating profit. This really captures the financial magic of Schwab’s model.

What’s key from a business model perspective is that over the past decade, Schwab has transformed its financial model from one that predominantly monetizes its services from fees to one that increasingly monetizes via interest earned on customers’ uninvested cash balances.

In other words, it’s become the wealth management service leader in offering low explicit costs to the customers by driving them towards zero while monetizing its services with the implicit opportunity cost of earning interest on cash balances customers hold in their accounts. It’s no wonder that the company’s focus on customer value, scale, and efficiency has enabled it to keep growing client assets organically at an unfathomable scale.

In 2021, it added over half a trillion dollars of net new assets from new and existing clients and this year it is on pace to add about $400 billion. This is the part of the business that is all about the great service and low fees that cause customers to come to Schwab and stay. It’s where the rubber hits the road.

Over time Schwab’s net new assets have grown AUM at about a 5%-7% rate per year, even as its scale has grown dramatically. Not all of the AUM growth is fueled by net new assets – market returns also add to the overall AUM growth. As a result, AUM has grown at about a 17% compounded annual growth rate or 15% if we exclude the $1.6 trillion that came in from the Ameritrade acquisition.

Today, Schwab stands in front of a large revenue opportunity not seen since before the great financial crisis, with interest rates higher that they’ve been in a decade. As mentioned earlier, Schwab’s largest revenue source is now net interest revenue, and it’s a highly profitable source too.

Schwab’s net interest revenue is generated from two drivers – the client cash portion within its large AUM base, typically 6-8% that substantially comprise its interest earning asset base, and the net interest that can be earned on it, a metric called net interest margin (NIM).

We saw that in the last rate hiking cycle, Schwab’s NIM tracked market rates higher from 2013 to their peak in 2018. We can see a similar phenomenon occurring today, from a lower base and at a steeper slope that could head higher than in the previous cycle since market interest rates are already higher, with the Fed expecting a “higher for longer” rate cycle. Meanwhile, the base of assets that Schwab can earn its NIM on has grown significantly since the past cycle.

Earnings grew dramatically last time this cycle played out and with an even higher base of interest earning assets today, we expect the eventual higher NIM will power much higher earnings again.

One other thing to note is that despite near record low NIM recently, Schwab was already reporting record high adjusted operating margins in 2021. Adding billions of dollars in additional interest revenue at little incremental cost over the next couple of years should drive those margins higher.

Clearly while many companies will see headwinds during this time of higher inflation and higher interest rates, companies like Schwab will experience it as a tailwind to its business. It is important to note that during the low-rate period just concluded, which was a boon to most businesses, Schwab experienced the low rates as a material headwind.

However, Schwab’s business model is a resilient one, as we believe are the other businesses owned in our client portfolios. By focusing on serving its customers and providing a strong value proposition, Schwab was able to grow the business metric that underpins its future earnings power once rates normalized from the depressed rates experienced during the COVID period and the post financial crisis period prior to that. Now we are seeing the start of the benefits of the efforts and investments that the company made during all those years in growing customers and assets as interest rates have become more favorable.

We will conclude by observing that over the long term, Schwab’s secular growth over a business cycle will mirror its success in growing client assets, which will reflect the sum of net new asset growth and market appreciation. Increasing scale improves long-term operating margins as well, which drive earnings and the share price over time. Finally, we would note that Schwab has several long-term initiatives in place to improve monetization of client assets beyond the interest rate discussion we have focused on here.

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