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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – August 18, 2017

Right now, a lot of news in the US and from around the world seems bad. Rightfully so. This week, however, after many weeks of discounting the rhetoric, it seems that along with headlines, markets are also making a formation to look to the future with pessimism. For DIY investors and for online brokerages, however, figuring out how to adapt and ride out the storm is par for the course.

In this week’s roundup, we take a look at some of the interesting developments emerging from the US online brokerage market which might offer the promise of something the look forward to for DIY investors here in Canada. First, we look at the move of one very popular online brokerage into the world of traditional banking services and the potential impact it might have on how DIY investors manage more than just their investments. Next we shift gears to look at one rapidly growing online brokerage’s  creative approach to reach younger investors while also growing their client base on the cheap. As usual, we’ll also review the latest discount brokerage related tweets and see what DIY investors were chatting about in the investor forums.

Interactive Brokers plays an interest-ing card

One of the major reasons that individuals choose a particular online brokerage, especially a bank-owned brokerage, is because they have the convenience of accessing additional (and very useful) financial products or services.

This past week, however, Interactive Brokers sent a shock wave through the traditional online brokerage space by announcing their launch of a MasterCard-branded debit/credit card. Specifically, Interactive Brokers is ‘banking’ on being able to compete against big bank ‘convenience’ by offering IB clients a way to manage their daily finances through the IB platform with a low interest credit card or debit card.

As part of the roll out of this new initiative, chairman, founder & CEO of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, took a personal approach to pitching the new ‘integrated’ value proposition of Interactive Brokers with a four-minute video in which he describes several reasons why he believes Interactive Brokers is a leading online brokerage.

Currently, the Interactive Brokers Debit MasterCard is only available to US residents, so unfortunately Canadian residents wanting one are out luck at this time. That said, the fact that an online brokerage has built the infrastructure and is now rolling out this kind of product, means that a genie has been let out of the bottle. Observers will be keenly monitoring what kind of traction this offer gets and if the model itself is a profitable one. In the event that it is, other online brokerages might be inclined to follow suit.

For clients who have a cash account, the new Interactive Brokers Debit MasterCard works like a debit card with a limit available equivalent to the amount of free cash that is in the account.

For margin account holders, individuals can borrow against the equity in the account so long as they can continue to meet margin requirements. Interest rates for borrowing against securities, at this time, range between 1.41% and 2.5%.

Interactive Brokers has put together a calculator on the information page related to this new feature to assist individuals in calculating what the amount borrowed will be. Shown below, for example, is the approximate spending limit under the Reg-T margin account option with a stock value of $100,000.

In addition to the simple ‘banking’ feature, Interactive Brokerage appears to be shifting its messaging to taking an “integrated” approach to personal financial management. Specifically, the functions that can be accomplished with Interactive Brokers account include borrowing, earning, spending and investing – the combination of which starts to sound much like a bank-owned online brokerage.

There is, of course, a catch (or two), the main one being that all of this takes place seamlessly within a ‘brokerage’ account. So, depending on whether your assets are in cash or securities, you can still access ‘cash’ for real world purposes the same way you would at a bank, but at substantially lower borrowing rates (if need be) and with the ability to earn interest on idle cash (i.e. the dry powder). There is no need to switch back and forth between accounts or providers.

Whether or not something like this can be replicated in Canada at a different brokerage is debatable.

At best, Canada’s non-bank owned online brokerages might emulate what E*Trade Financial had done several years ago by starting to offer other banking services, such as bill payments, to clients. As for Canada’s bank-owned online discount brokerages, thus far the best that individual clients can do is to access cash from their accounts or even pay bills from their online trading accounts. Using an online brokerage account card to purchase a cup of coffee the same way that one can with a credit card or deriving the same benefits (e.g extended warranties on purchases) is not yet a reality.

It will be particularly interesting to monitor if Interactive Brokers can roll this program out to other locations – including Canada. If they are able to do so, individual traders might find themselves asking a slightly different one than Peterffy posed, namely: “why not manage your finances on the Interactive Brokers platform?”

Robinhood online brokerage goes looking for friends

Refer-a-friend programs from online brokerages are generally a way for the brokerages to offer an incentive (such as cash back or free trades) to an existing client to help bring in new clients, often at a fraction of what it would normally cost to do so through other means.

Earlier this month, US-based startup online brokerage Robinhood, continued to disrupt the online brokerage space with an innovative and millennial-friendly promotional offer: namely a chance to get shares in popular companies as compensation for referring a friend.

One of the hallmarks of Robinhood is that it doesn’t charge commission fees on trades. While consumers love it, the flip side is that Robinhood has to get creative to ensure that the cost to acquire a client stays as low as possible. Being ultra-low cost will always get the attention of investors, however at the end of the day, Robinhood will have to be profitable to be sustainable.

The stocks that they’re putting up for grabs as part of this referral promotion are popular and predominantly large cap stocks. Value of the shares is between $2.50 and $200 however stocks are randomly selected so it’s more of a lottery based reward.

Referring parties who successfully get another party to sign up for a Robinhood account receive compensation in the form of a single share from an assortment of shares that Robinhood has in its inventory. There are shares from a number of companies representing, where possible, high market capitalization in various ranges of share prices between $3 and $175. Interestingly here is the probability of getting stocks of certain value according to their terms and conditions:

Stock Price Range Probability Min Expected Cost Max Expected Cost
$2.50 – $10.00 98%  $       2.45  $       9.80
$10.00 – $50.00 1%  $       0.10  $       0.50
$50.00 – $200 1%  $       0.50  $       2.00
Total 100%  $       3.05  $    12.30

Fans who enjoy calculating the expected value can see that the acquisition cost for the referral ranges between $3.05 and $12.30 (which might average out to $7.68). Stocks received as compensation, according to users on Twitter, include Sprint, Sirius XM, Groupon and others.

Interestingly, in looking at the fine print, there were not the same kinds of restrictions on defining what or who could be considered a friend for Robinhood as there are in Canada. For certain Canadian online brokerages, such as Scotia iTRADE, the terms and conditions of the refer-a-friend program explicitly define who can be designated as a ‘friend or family’ member. By comparison, Robinhood’s referral terms are similar to that of Questrade’s referral program.

Robinhood is an online brokerage that has clearly excited a large number of investors in the US. Since launching publicly in 2015 they’ve already managed to open more than two million accounts, an impressive feat considering other online brokerages such as Interactive Brokers report have over 436 thousand accounts (as of July 2017) but who’ve been around much longer and are substantially larger in terms of valuation.

Interestingly, like Interactive Brokers’ latest moves (see above), Robinhood is also seeking to disrupt more than just the online brokerage space by also setting its sights set on the traditional banking world.

According to a quote by Vladimir Tenev, one of Robinhood’s cofounders in a recent article in Fast Company, “Anything that you would be able to get walking into your local Bank of America branch office, you should be able to get faster, better, cheaper, with a much better user experience, from Robinhood.”

Ultimately, Canadian DIY investors would like to know if it could happen here. Could Robinhood realistically make a move into the Canadian marketplace?

Perhaps the better question is “could Robinhood move into the Canadian marketplace before a Canadian online brokerage enables commission-free trading?”

The reality is that there are already signs Canadian discount brokerages are experimenting with commission-free trading in one form or another. Certain ETFs at several Canadian online brokers, for example, are already completely commission-free; purchases on all ETFs at Questrade and Virtual Brokers, and all trades of Canadian ETFs at National Bank Direct Brokerage for example, are commission-free.

Robinhood’s growth has demonstrated that DIY investors have been looking for a cost conscious alternative to existing banks/brokerages. With so many Canadians hungry for low cost financial services,  it seems inevitable that zero-commission trading, akin to the Robinhood model, will come to Canadians.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

Technical difficulties rattled investor nerves on Twitter this week. Mentioned by Canadian DIY investors were CIBC Investor’s Edge, Questrade, Scotia iTRADE and TD Direct Investing.

From the Forums

Spot the difference

One of the downsides of certain online brokerages is the foreign currency exchange fees that can add up when trading or converting currency for US trades. In this post, from Red Flag Deals’ investing forum, one user was nervous about an upcoming change by RBC Direct Investing in the way foreign currencies are exchanged. Fortunately, another user helped provide an important clarification.

Banking on advice

Thinking about the best route to manage one’s financial future means having to consider who should be ‘in charge’ of handling the decisions for investing. In this post from reddit’s Canadian Investor thread, an interesting discussion ensued when one contributor asked for opinions on going the managed advice route and whether there’s good value in doing so.

Into the Close

It’s hard to fathom that the week could get any stranger than it already has, but it’s Friday and by now, we know better. It is certainly challenging to seek out stories of courage and human progress and to remember the good that people can and do carry out. Just like investing – what people do in life comes down to choices, which is why having the freedom to choose is as valuable as it is. Heading into the weekend, take a deep breath and find a way to stay positive. Hopefully this will help…

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