Welcome to April. While there may be pranks and gags to kick off the start of a new month and a new quarter, it seems like some Canadian discount brokerages are taking the chance to start anew a little too seriously.
In this week’s roundup we take a look at the latest deals action that shows some interesting changes to the makeup of the brokerage landscape. From there, we’ll take a look at a major online brokerage that sees nothing but upside as they bet big on technology. Technology also seems to be the focal point for many DIY investors on Twitter in this week’s tweets summary albeit for those brokerages that are still struggling with bugs. We close out the roundup with more interesting chatter about commission pricing from the investor forums.
Out with the Old
It looks like Canadian discount brokerages have taken spring cleaning seriously this year, especially when it comes to their deals and promotions.
Heading into a new month, the number of commission-free trade and cash back offers from Canada’s online brokerages saw a sharp decline, with a significant number of offers expiring at the end of March. While many of these deals were deployed specifically to capitalize on the seasonal interest in RSP accounts, only a handful of brokerages have standing offers that ran alongside RSP season and into what is now ‘income tax refund’ season.
That said, there are still 19 offers that we’ve noted, which still provides many DIY investors interested in an online trading or investing account some kind of incentive to try one brokerage over another. Of course, the big unknown for many brokerages is whether DIY investors are turning to more passive or automated strategies (such as Robo-advisors) or interest in markets is waning in favour of other more popular investment types.
While the firm numbers of account openings and assets brought into each firm will give the best idea of what’s going on, there is something that is definitely different about the start of Q2 2016 – especially in the deals and promotions space.
Specifically, what stands out as interesting is that one of the most active brokerages (historically) in offering commission-free and cash-back offers, Questrade, is not significantly present in this category at the launch of a new month and new quarter.
In addition, Virtual Brokers’ move to offer an as yet unrivaled commission-free trading offer means that the winds of change appear to be blowing in the discount brokerage deals space. In fact, the new promotions page on Virtual Brokers’ website also signals they’re likely to be more active in offering promotions which will pose a challenge to all other players on the field.
While 19 or so offers is still substantial, it is unlikely that the deals and promotions field will remain this thin for much longer. Whether brokerages are going to mix up their promotional offers to more partner or product offers (VR headsets anyone?) or rely on the tried and true commission-free trade offer, one thing is clear – there is all of a sudden a lot more room for brokerages to make a splash by offering up a bold offer to DIY investors.
View from the Top
Not one to shy away from the spotlight, the CEO and founder of Interactive Brokers Thomas Peterffy, was featured in an interesting interview from The Wall Street Transcript in late March.
The interview itself offers a great overview of Interactive Brokers’ focus on technology and automating as much of their process as possible in order to achieve efficiency and also cost advantages over their peers.
Three points from this interview stand out: the role of robo-advisors, mobile trading and technological preparedness.
With regards to robo-advisors, it’s clear that Interactive Brokers sees this as a significant enough trend to get in on. In particular, their acquisition of Covestor as well as their investor marketplace are both moves that diversify Interactive Brokers away from just the DIY investor client. In fact, many of the tools mentioned by Peterffy resemble the automatic or more passive investor strategies that don’t fit their typical ‘active trader’ client base signaling a clear interest in going after the ‘managed wealth’ space.
Another area in which Interactive Brokers is signaling they’re going to push into is mobile trading. This is particularly challenging to get right for active traders, many of whom are still trading on a desktop (with multiple monitors). That said, there is definitely a balance between form, function and features when going from one screen size and device to another.
The success and resonance of the Robinhood app with mobile users signals that thinking ‘mobile first’ tends to favour functionality over features. Interactive Brokers’ platforms, however, are appealing because they are so robust. Fortunately, smartphones now are powerful enough to handle heavy applications, however usability will ultimately determine whether a trader feels comfortable enough stepping away from their desk and letting their phone be their lifeline to the market action.
Finally, the most ominous (for competitor brokerages) comment came at the end of the interview where Peterffy was asked about the landscape of the online brokerage industry in the next five years to which he responded “Five years from now the industry will have fewer and technologically more advanced participants…” The pace of technological change and the associated costs of keeping up with that technology means that Canadian online brokerages who aren’t able to fund this technological arms race will likely be made obsolete.
Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week
Even though the weather was improving outside, storm clouds were brewing on Twitter. From platform outages, to delayed tax slips and frustrations with reporting, Twitter users didn’t hold back when it came to the shortcomings of Canadian brokerages. Mentioned this week were Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTrade, TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers.
From the Forums
A valuable lesson
Whether you focus on price or value is the job of marketing departments and sales staff being able to tell one story or the other. In this post from Reddit, there is definitely some debate over whether recent fee changes at Virtual Brokers represent an increase in price or an increase in value.
An article on discount brokerage commission fees from the Globe and Mail’s Rob Carrick this past week stirred up a lot of strong opinions about the current perception of price and value across the Canadian brokerage landscape.
Into the Close
That does it for another week. Here’s a great little roundup of April fool’s day ideas that are surprisingly not all that far-fetched. Enjoy the sunshine if you’re lucky enough to have some this weekend!