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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – February 3, 2017

It’s hard to believe a whole month has gone by in 2017. With the news cycle dominated by the ever unpredictable movements of the US president, speculation is as rampant as ever. For Canadian online brokerages, however, getting attention is far more difficult than just sending out a tweet at odd hours. Nonetheless they’re still finding a way to make some headlines.

This week there’s lots on the docket. First we take a look at some ‘yuge’ news to come out of the deals arena, as one online brokerage definitely went ‘bigly’ on the incentive offers for RRSP season. From there, we’ll cover the headlines made by two online brokers and their respective awards for service and price that were announced this past week. In keeping with the influence of the US on the news cycle, one online brokerage caused a ‘tremendous’ stir by repealing and replacing their standard commission rates with something much lower. And, as is usual fare, we’ll take a look at what DIY investors were chatting about on Twitter and in the investor forums.

New Deals & Promotions

It’s a new month and while winter still might be here (amiright Vancouver?), February’s deals and promotions at Canadian discount brokerages are red hot.

At the outset of February, Virtual Brokers made a very big splash by launching four deals at the beginning of the month, including the mind-boggling $10,000 commission-rebate offer that dwarfs anything put forward by other Canadian brokerages in recent memory. After factoring in the deals that were retired and the inclusion of credit card points related special offers, there are now at least 30 incentive offers from Canadian brokerages.

Looking back on January, there were six brokerages that announced offers, primarily timed around the RRSP season. While most were commission rebate offers, there were also a pair of cash back incentives and even a couple of credit card points offers for good measure.

Despite almost all brokerages offering some type of offer, there was one notable exception – Interactive Brokers. Perhaps because they already enjoy having significant appeal to the trader community, Interactive Brokers doesn’t need to work as hard to attract this highly prized category of the DIY investor market. Even so, with no shortage of other Canadian brokerages who are willing to try and get a share of those in the market for an online trading account, Interactive Brokers may want to reconsider their approach here in Canada in order to give them more visibility in a very crowded space.

Virtual Brokers, thanks to the launch of its recent flurry of deals now leads Canadian brokerages with 6 offers followed by Questrade and Desjardins Online Brokerage, each of whom has four. Even though Virtual Brokers saw some turnover, it’s clear they’re doubling down efforts heading into the RRSP deadline, with promotions and marketing ramping up significantly.

In terms of the deals themselves, transfer fee coverage remains a staple at almost all discount brokerages, followed by the commission-credit and cash back category. The least popular category, interestingly, remains the referral bonus with only three brokerages having an advertised program in place.

For DIY investors looking at opening an online trading account, be it for an RSP account, a TFSA or just another trading account to put in that income tax refund, this year competition amongst brokerages means a great selection of offers. And while a deal may not be the only reason to select a brokerage, the market has clearly shown that it can be the make or break factor in such a competitive race.

Accolades for Service & Pricing

For a pair of Canadian online brokerages, February is off to a great start.

At what is the busiest time of the year for Canadian discount brokerages, financial services research firm Surviscor released the results of two assessments of the Canadian online brokerage industry.

The first, an analysis of customer service quality known as the ‘Service Level Assessment Review’ found that Qtrade Investor handily outperformed its competitors, both bank-owned and independent, in terms of response times to client service inquiries.

With a score of 96% Qtrade Investor was more than 15 percentage points ahead of the second place Desjardins Online Brokerage (81%) and third place Scotia iTRADE (79%).  This assessment used 170 ‘mystery shopper’ service enquiries per firm and measured how quickly each firm responded as well as a number of other items including accuracy of response and whether a firm met its own response guidelines.

While Qtrade Investor’s strong customer service scores are in keeping with its history of strong performance in this category, it was also interesting to note just how far apart Canadian online brokerages were in terms of their scores on this assessment.

For example, the difference between the top rated Qtrade Investor (who scored 96%) and bottom rated Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage (who scored 4%) is almost unbelievably wide. Even so, the number of firms (9) who scored less than or equal to 50% was also staggering, especially because it contained four major bank-owned online brokerages as well as firms such as Questrade (who scored 15%) who have demonstrated a strength in responding to clients across social media channels and far flung places such as reddit.

Without knowing the exact scoring methodology or how the results were gathered, however, it is difficult to put the numerical values into context and as such, while these figures likely do measure some component of the online customer service enquiry process, they should also be taken with caution.

The second Surviscor assessment which was announced was this week  was for the ‘Cost of Services’ award given to Virtual Brokers.  While the press release about this reward was published by Virtual Brokers, it was interesting to note that this particular survey simulated the cost of trading by looking at over 13,000 trades across brokerages and found that Virtual Brokers came out on top.

Further details about this survey or its methodology were not available so the results should be treated with caution however it is clear that as competition between brokerages heats up, awards and recognition for areas of strength are going to be increasingly a part of the marketing and advertising strategies of all Canadian brokerages who receive them.

Major US Online Brokerage Cuts Commissions

What a difference two dollars can make. Charles Schwab, one of the largest online brokerages in US with almost $3 trillion in assets, announced this week that they were lowering commission prices down to $6.95 per trade from $8.95. In doing so, Schwab caused a massive sell off in the stock prices of other publicly traded online brokerages such as E*Trade Financial and TD Ameritrade as markets anticipate that these firms will likely have to follow suit and lower commission prices (and therefore revenues) to compete.

The latest move is an interesting case study for industry observers as Schwab’s business model has evolved in the low interest rate, low volatility environment to rely on managed wealth fees as a significant source of revenue rather than trading commissions. Currently less than 11% of net revenues are from trading.

In the Canadian online brokerage landscape, this move might inspire a large enough player (such as a bank-owned brokerage) that has both a strong managed wealth business as well as an online brokerage component to disrupt the market as a whole with a commission price drop from the $9.95 standard.

Internal data from already indicate that for CIBC Investor’s Edge, there has been a dramatic shift investor interest away from higher cost alternatives because of CIBC’s commission price cut to a standard commission of $6.95.

The fallout from the latest move by Schwab will be interesting to monitor, in particular because it puts tremendous pressure on firms such as E*Trade Financial and TD Ameritrade to respond. Additionally, it could very well signal to Canadian firms that yet another round of commission-lowering is on the horizon, especially if the largest players at the table decide like their US counterparts, to aggressively gain market share.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

Lots of chatter on Twitter this week – there’s good, bad and even a little ugly. Mentioned this week were BMO InvestorLine, CIBC Investor’s Edge, Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTRADE, TD Direct Investing & Virtual Brokers.

From the Forums

Glitch Happens

This past week, a user on reddit posted a notice of a technical outage on Questrade’s platform. It was an interesting thread insofar as the author seemed to entertain switching because of a glitch however other users chimed in to provide alternate perspectives.

Platform for Trading

A familiar question comes from this recent post from reddit’s personal finance Canada section with a user looking for a trading platform/brokerage to trade ETFs. Worth a read for those in a similar boat.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on yet another crazy week. Fortunately for football fans, the big game takes place this Sunday which might offer just a little sanctuary from the political football that keeps getting tossed around. For those who don’t really care much for football, here is a little something that will hopefully send you into the weekend on an entertaining note.

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