is expanding internationally.
The online brokerage firm launched a global trading platform on Tuesday that will enable U.S. "mass affluent" customers and active traders to access foreign equities directly, while conducting those transactions using local currencies.
U.S. customers are currently able to trade American depository receipts, exchange-traded funds and mutual funds invested internationally on E*Trade's platform, but until now did not have access to international stocks. Meanwhile, E*Trade has already set up the technology needed for international customers to trade U.S. securities in their home markets, it says.
E*Trade is launching the platform in six markets -- Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan and the U.K. It will eventually expand the platform to include online trading access to up to 42 international markets, it says.
The company is charging $20 per trade to access the international markets.
The move complements E*Trade's vision of catering to all the financial services needs of a "global mass affluent investing customer," it says.
The company considers the "mass affluent" customer as those with $50,000 to $500,000 of investable assets. Active traders typically make 10 or more trades a month.
The mass affluent have "no place to go to invest in equities in a foreign market," says Jarrett Lilien, E*Trade's president and COO, in an interview with
. "We want to offer those customers trading and investing, cash products and lending. In the U.S. we're pretty far along with that vision."
In the third quarter, E*Trade plans to unveil a bank in the U.K., Lilien says.
Patrick Pinschmidt, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, wrote in a recent note that international customers trading activity accounted for 15.8% of E*Trade's total trading activity in January vs. 14.5% in December.
Last month, "international activity outpaced domestic, leading to a geographical mix shift and underscoring E*Trade's international traction," he wrote.
The move to boost international trading online could be a wise move for E*Trade as a way to diversify itself away from the pack of other online brokers. The online trading war continues with more and more brokers looking to attract customers by lowering prices on domestic stock transactions.
is the latest company to amend its pricing line-up. Last week, the San Francisco bank launched a program to double the amount of commission-free trades per year to 100 for customers with at least $25,000 held in Wells Fargo accounts.
Bank of America
and Zecco.com also offer free online trades to a select customer segment.
, two online brokerages that are direct competitors to E*Trade, currently do not offer direct international trading online. Schwab and TD Ameritrade customers must make a phone call in order to trade foreign shares, spokesmen say.
And while E*Trade's online brokerage brethren will at some point enter the international trading arena, Lilien does not foresee another price war internationally anytime soon, he says.
"At some point everyone will do it," Lilien says. "But it's not going to be easy because they don't have the infrastructure. It's unlikely that you are going to see real price competition for a long time."