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February 16, 2001|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Charles Schwab Corp. said a steeper-than-expected decline in trading by its customers may cut earnings more than forecast at the biggest online broker.

Schwab's daily average stock trades fell 26% in January and continued to fall this month. The firm said that meeting analysts' average first-quarter earnings estimate of 15 cents a share will be "quite tough" if trading trends continue.

Schwab clients made 222,000 trades a day in January, compared with 298,000 a year earlier. Volume in the first nine days of February averaged 182,000 trades a day.

The brokerage's shares (SCH) fell 36 cents to close at $24.40 on the New York Stock Exchange, after trading at a 52-week low of $22.50. . . .

Margin debt owed to NYSE-member brokerages fell 0.8% in January to $197.1 billion, the exchange said. That may be a healthy sign in that it suggests the stock market's rally in January wasn't powered by borrowed money, said Charles Biderman at market research firm TrimTabs.com. Stock purchases on credit soared last year during the market's boom, which then contributed to the bust as stocks slid and loans had to be repaid.

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Reuters and Bloomberg News were used in compiling this report.

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