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Conference Snub Could Signal E*Trade Shakeup

CEO Mitch Caplan cancels a slated appearance Wednesday at the Merrill Lynch conference.

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CEO Mitch Caplan canceled a scheduled presentation at a major investor conference Wednesday, raising speculation about a possible sale or management change at the beleaguered firm.

Caplan was slated to speak at the Merrill Lynch Banking & Financial Services conference on Wednesday afternoon, but will no longer be presenting so that the management team can focus on fixing the problems at the company, a spokeswoman said.

E*Trade shares

lost more than half their value on Monday after a Citigroup analyst suggested there could be a run on the company's bank. The speculation came after the New York-based firm announced late Friday that it will take

further writedowns on its collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, and second-lien securities portfolio.

Observers have suggested that the firm may need to sell certain assets --

or the entire company -- to recover from the losses.

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Typically, when a company executive cancels a major presentation to be given to investors, the perception is not good. Investors usually expect a major piece of news, such as an impending M&A transaction by the firm or that a management shake-up is about to occur.

Even as E*Trade shares spiraled downward on Monday, analysts renewed talk of a sale. Market chatter earlier this year had

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and E*Trade talking about a possible merger.

"CEO Mitch Caplan will pursue what's best for shareholders and would step aside/give up control of the company if an appropriate transaction was presented," Sandler O'Neill & Partners analyst Richard Repetto wrote in a note Monday.

E*Trade, whose shares climbed $1.45 to close at $5 Tuesday, would not address speculation about a merger or Caplan's possible departure. Spokeswoman Pam Erickson said only that in light of the problems the online brokerage firm has experienced with its securities portfolio, "clearly there was a need to reprioritize the schedule."

When asked about whether Caplan was resigning from the firm, Erickson said that he and the management team "are completely committed to the company."

One analyst, who declined to be named, said investors shouldn't read too much into the cancellation.

It could be that the company is in merger discussions or another transaction, the analyst says. In addition, "they may have made the decision to cancel so as to not put themselves in a bad situation when answering questions," the analyst said.