The potential sale of

Fleet Financial's

(FLT) - Get Report

Suretrade

unit -- to another company or to investors -- may show just how much accounts matter.

With online brokers trading near all-time highs, Fleet announced Thursday that it may spin off or find a joint venture partner for Suretrade, the No. 9 online broker. With a market cap of $5.8 billion at Friday's close, No. 3 online broker

E*Trade

,

(EGRP)

is trading at about $8,600 for each account it had at December's end. With a market cap of $2.6 billion,

Ameritrade

(AMTD) - Get Report

, the No. 6 online broker, is worth about $7,300 for each account. (The rankings of online brokers are based on the number of online transactions during the fourth quarter, as cited by

Piper Jaffray

.)

That's pretty heady stuff. All this generates great speculation about how Suretrade, and other brokers that may go public or be acquired, will be priced.

There's no denying Suretrade is a nice package. It has over $1.1 billion in customer assets, 250,000 accounts and about 11,500 trades per day. It went from nothing to the No. 9 broker in terms of transactions in a little over a year, according to Piper Jaffray, thanks in part to its active customer base. Suretrade's trades per day increased 42% in 1998's second half, and its accounts grew about 100% during the same time.

In spinning off or selling Suretrade, Fleet says it wants to maximize shareholder value. Speculating on Suretrade's valuation, Fleet spokesman Charles Salmans points to various industry reports that value online brokerage accounts between $2,000 and $10,000 each. Using that range, Suretrade could be valued between $500 million and $2.5 billion.

But if buyers are interested in the quality of accounts, Suretrade might sell at the low end of the range. Its assets per account are rock bottom, meaning its account base isn't as valuable as the account base of some competitors. At the fourth quarter's end, Suretrade had about $5,000 per account, according to its own numbers, the lowest of the top 10 brokers. That compares with about $22,000 per account for E*Trade, $42,000 for Ameritrade and $17,000 for No. 7 broker

DLJdirect

, which

Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette

(DLJ)

is considering spinning off.

Assets per account are affected by the number of accounts that exist but aren't active. In other words, Suretrade's active accounts may have a good number of assets -- it's hard to trade with less than $10,000 -- but a big chunk of its accounts aren't active, dragging down the average assets per account.

In addition, Suretrade, with its cheap $7.95 base commission, has a reputation for attracting active traders, customers who may be more susceptible to market fluctuations. But assets also tend to be smaller when accounts are new. Suretrade, which opened for business in November 1997, is one of the youngest brokers.

Suretrade's real value is its infrastructure and its ability to handle several hundred thousand accounts, says Alex Stein, a principal at

Gomez Advisors

, which rates online commerce services and consults for interested buyers and sellers of online brokerage services.

An institutional-oriented firm looking to add a retail arm or a retail-oriented firm looking to add online distribution could do it quickly with Suretrade, says Stein. He expects an outright sale, not a joint venture or a public offering.

Fleet declined to give a time frame for an announcement or say whether the company is already in talks with interested parties.

Damn the Torpedoes

Online broker ads are going over the top.

Retail investors have swarmed online, expecting 10-second executions, rocketing Net stocks and easy money. Of course, online trading systems can't guarantee flawless trading or an extended bull market. Recent technology problems and tales of novices losing thousands have made brokers the subject of regulatory hand wringing. But some online brokers are trying to keep things light.

Recent ads from

Discover Brokerage Direct

, a

Morgan Stanley Dean Witter

(MWD)

unit, show a corporate raider bartender and a rebellious, helicopter-flying teen, both Discover users. That's in addition to the tow-truck driver who owns his own island. A new campy ad from Ameritrade shows two geekily hip twenty-somethings discussing the ease of making money with Ameritrade. E*Trade's ads court investors by depicting live brokers so calculating and self-absorbed, they seem to have been lifted straight out of

In the Company of Men

.

"They're supposed to be over the top," says Discover spokesman Robert Livingston. "We're not saying invest with us and you'll get a helicopter or an island. The point is to be so far over the top and be humorous."

Livingston says the goal is to use humor to reduce some of the intimidation people feel when they consider investing, especially investing online. Livingston says to expect more ads, created by San Francisco-based

Black Rocket

(

Yahoo!'s

(YHOO)

ad agency), in addition to the one that's just hit the airwaves.

But Charles Schwab, who appears in his own company's ads promoting the benefits of using

Schwab's

(SCH)

Web site to manage IRA accounts, doesn't think Discover's ads are very appropriate, according to a Schwab spokeswoman.

Schwab certainly takes a different tack, pitching the benefits of long-term investing and the human touch. The ads even lack the humor of

Fidelity's

similarly traditional approach to investing. But, while Schwab's ads may not be sexy, they might be more in line with the day-to-day drudgery of financial planning.

Fidelity Fee Hikes

Fidelity will boost mutual fund commissions as part of a larger revamping of its fund fee structure.

The new fees will take effect April 26, and online traders will notice a big change. To buy shares in a fund with a transaction fee, the online commission will grow to $75 from $28.95. However, investors will only have to pay the commission when they buy, not when they buy and sell, as before. That change takes some of the pain out of the hike, but users will still end up paying about $17 more than if they bought and sold for $28.95 each way. On the upside, those who bought under the old structure and sell under the new will get a deal. And only one of seven fund transactions at Fidelity involves funds with transaction fees.

Trades with a live broker cost 0.75% of the principal, with a minimum charge of $100 and a maximum charge of $250, under the new schedule. Before, the fees varied from $35 to $150, depending on the size of the transaction. Touch-tone and wireless trades under the new schedule are 25% off the price of trades with a broker. Previously, they were 20% cheaper than broker-assisted trades, with a minimum $30 fee.

Fidelity says the changes help balance the cost of servicing accounts more equitably. They're also intended to encourage customers to consolidate fund holdings at Fidelity.

"We've actually seen quite a lot of demand from customers who may have accounts at a number of different mutual fund companies and want to transfer those funds into one account," says Jessica Johnson, a Fidelity spokeswoman. "The way that the transaction fees were set up before, it was discouraging for those folks."

Fidelity also changed its

inactivity fees. The No. 5 online broker says it's not considering changes to its stock trading commission structure. Fidelity's base online stock trade commission is $25, or $14.95 for active traders.