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Commission-Free ETFs at Canadian Discount Brokerages: A Clever Lure or a Good Deal for Investors? Part 1

Every day increasing numbers of self-directed investors are either turning to exchange traded funds (ETFs) to meet their investing goals or are learning more about how ETFs could help lower their investing costs.   Given the interest in these products by self-directed investors and the commission costs that are associated with buying and selling ETFs, Canadian discount brokerages have not only taken notice but have also sought to leverage this interest to their benefit.

In the first of this three-part series, we briefly review the landscape of commission-free ETF trading in Canada. In part two we’ll look at what types of “commission-free” ETF trading options investors have as well as provide investors with several tips to keep in mind when considering these types of ETFs with a discount broker.  Lastly we’ll be taking a look at each discount brokerage’s commission-free ETF offering in detail to see what the pros and cons are of each.

It’s so Hard Being Popular

The case for investors embracing ETFs is relatively simple to make. Essentially, with ETFs investors get most of the benefits of a mutual fund (the two primary ones being professional management and diversity in composition) but at a fraction of the management cost.  Beyond the diversity and low management costs of ETFs, one of the biggest attractions for many investors has been the fact that ETFs, unlike their mutual fund counterparts, trade on stock exchanges the same way ‘normal’ stocks do.

The freedom to buy or sell them short, to take options on ETFs and to enter and exit with relative ease has meant that investors of all kinds have a very versatile tool in their wealth creation toolbox to work with.

Ironically, it is the popularity of ETFs that might be their undoing.  Data from the Canadian ETF Association (CETFA) shows that ETF landscape in Canada contained 257 ETFs from 6 distinct providers as of May 2013.  While their data does show strong demand and interest in ETFs with self-directed investors as well as with institutional investors, a recent article about the state of ETFs suggests that the ETF craze might be plateauing. Data from the US suggests that the sheer number of ETFs may have exceeded the interest and capital that can be allocated to them.

In short, it appears that there are hints of an oversupply of ETFs relative to demand for them. The consequence  is a predictable downward price pressure and intense competition.

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