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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – September 1, 2017

Heading into a long weekend where Canadian and U.S. stock markets are closed until Tuesday, certain investors are braving a long gulf of uncertainty. Meanwhile, a new and white-hot market in cryptocurrency continues to burn 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In the digital era, “money” truly doesn’t sleep. For Canadian online brokerages, it is a brave new world where technology is rapidly changing where and how investors manage wealth, and forcing everyone in the world of money to move ever-faster to keep up.

In this week’s roundup, we look at the latest move by one bank-owned Canadian discount brokerage to disrupt the DIY investing space by offering commission-free ETF trading. From there, we profile the newest promotional offer to cross our deals radar from the robo space looking to leverage a social approach to building their client base. As always, we’ll review which Canadian discount brokerages were active on Twitter and which ones were being talked about by Canadian DIY investors in the forums.

Tipping the balance of power: Commission-free ETF trading gives National Bank Direct Brokerage an edge

This week, National Bank Direct Brokerage redrew the map for the Canadian online brokerage industry by eliminating commissions on ETF buying and selling on both Canadian and U.S. listed ETFs, and in doing so, have likely touched off yet another price war in an already competitive commission marketplace.

The skeptical among us, and in fact most seasoned investors, would be right in asking whether or not this is too good to be true – or at the very least, how National Bank Direct Brokerage expects to make any money. Looking into the details and also putting this latest move into context can shed some light on both those points.

First, is commission-free ETF buying and selling too good to be true?

Well, the good news is commission-free ETF trading is positive – sort of. There are some important details to this new pricing structure that DIY investors should be clear about that clarify exactly the conditions under which NBDB clients can trade ETFs commission-free.

The first, and probably most important, condition for the commission-free trading is that purchases or sales need to be made in 100 unit increments. That means that only online orders of 100 or more units at a time will be considered commission-free. Fractional buys and purchases (or sales) of less than 100 units at a time will be charged at the regular commission rates ($9.95 per trade).

Another important condition is that individuals must sign up to receive all of their documents electronically. In today’s world, it’s not that uncommon to be fully digital, however the onus is on users to ensure that the digital versions of trade confirmations and statements are properly stored.

Finally, other important details that could impact users taking advantage of this offer are that commission-free ETF trades do not count towards active trader pricing activity levels, enable annual administrative fees to be waived nor do they help with getting free or discounted access to trading platforms.

In short, for the average investor – including the long-term passive investor, the ability to trade commission-free ETFs is a significant win.

According to Laurent Blanchard, President of National Bank Direct Brokerage, “More than ever, our aim is to innovate to meet the needs of self-directed investors. It’s our priority and today’s announcement is tangible proof. By saving on commissions, our clients will be able to build their portfolios and grow their wealth. This change benefits all types of investors.”

Yes, executing trades in volumes sufficiently high enough to qualify for zero commission pricing will require more organization and, potentially, a higher balance to take advantage of the offer, but savings on transaction fees are savings nonetheless.  On this last point, however, is where the answer lies as to whether or not NBDB can make money by effectively enabling free trading on ETFs (spoiler alert: they’re able to do it).

By including a minimum amount of 100 units to purchase in order to qualify for commission-free ETFs, there’s a reasonable likelihood that this would appeal to individuals with higher portfolio amounts – especially for passive portfolio holders.  As such, for NBDB, their commission-free ETF program might end up having slightly more appeal to individuals with somewhat larger portfolios than to individuals who are just starting out. Therein lies the value proposition.

Individuals with larger balances may also be looking for convenience in wealth and financial management, which would make National Bank and its constellation of traditional banking, lending and other financial services a natural fit. If individuals have multiple accounts at bank-owned brokerages, for example, there is now an incentive to consolidate at National Bank Direct Brokerage. And, it is that increased integration factor that appears to be an emerging trend for the online brokerage space, with notable examples in the U.S. online brokerages.

Screengrab from National Bank Direct Brokerage website

Two weeks ago, we reported on the move by Interactive Brokers to offer the ‘integrated’ approach to wealth management by linking a credit card into their wealth management mix. E*trade Financial, another US-based online brokerage, also offers chequing accounts and bill payments. On the commission-free trading side, both Robinhood and Merrill Edge have commission-free trading, the latter specifically offering commission-free ETFs.

The takeaway: online brokerages relying solely on commission revenue to survive are an endangered species – increasingly integrated financial and wealth management services will be the model that tomorrow’s online brokerages – bank-owned, credit union owned or otherwise will need to adapt to.  The writing is on the wall for high commission charges for order execution.

In that light, the latest move by National Bank Direct Brokerage is clearly a long-term strategy to get the attention, and hopefully business, of investors with larger portfolios. For those with modest portfolios, NBDB’s latest offer provides room to grow with the upside of occasional commission free trading. The added bonuses of being with a bank-owned brokerage, such as convenience of moving money into and out of banking accounts, might be enough to at least put National Bank Direct Brokerage into consideration.

Whichever way the Canadian online brokerage markets respond from here, the latest move by National Bank Direct Brokerage is reminiscent of the commission price drop from RBC Direct Investing in 2014.

Canadian bank-owned online brokerages are now in a world where a bank-owned brokerage is offering commission-free ETF trading. And, regardless of the conditions associated with the offer, nothing gets the attention of investors like something that sounds like a good deal. A bank-owned brokerage with no-commission trading on ETFs is just that.

Predictions are often perilous, but in this case, recent history offers a lesson for the online brokerage market in Canada: adapt quickly or risk obscurity. The one thing that we can predict is that DIY investors will continue to be the winners.

It pays to have friends: SmartFolio launches cash back Refer-a-Friend offer

Refer a friend programs are a great way for existing clients and their friends or family to mutually benefit from opening a new account. For early adopters in the online portfolio management and robo-advisor space, however, there is now another firm that is rewarding existing clients for referring new clients to them.

This week, BMO Nesbitt Burns’ online portfolio management service, BMO SmartFolio, rolled out a referral program as part of its growth efforts in this increasingly competitive space. The “Refer a Friend” program from SmartFolio offers $50 cash back to both the referring party and the referee.

Within the Canadian online portfolio management and robo-advisor space, there are a handful of firms that offer promotional referral deals which typically include waiving of fees and cash back incentives. What is interesting about SmartFolio’s approach to refer a friend programs, is that the referee’s referral bonus can be combined with an existing ‘mass market’ offer. Currently, SmartFolio is offering the first year of management free on assets up to $15,000, so the new referral bonus for the referee can be used in conjunction with this offer.

Another interesting component of the referral approach with SmartFolio is that they’ve managed to automate (or semi-automate) the process of facilitating a referral. In this referral program, SmartFolio clients get an individualized link that they can share directly with their friends/family. This is an efficient and easy way for both the individual doing the referring and the referee to ensure a bonus is generated. SmartFolio clients also receive an individualized referral code that can be shared with friends/family who would prefer to drop by a BMO branch to open their SmartFolio account.

With BMO InvestorLine, by comparison, the referral method relies on entering an email address of the referring party at the time of new account sign up.  Whenever a manual entry is involved, it typically takes more time and can lead to individuals not entering in correct information which can delay or potentially invalidate a bonus being offered.

Like all promotions, there are some important details to consider.

First, to qualify for the SmartFolio “Refer a Friend” bonus, the referee’s new account must be funded with a minimum of $5,000 and it must be kept open with this minimum amount for at least 90 days. If this is done, the $50 bonus will be deposited by the last business day of the month following the 90-day holding period. Another important condition to be aware of is that SmartFolio clients can get credit for up to 30 referrals per year.

As the competition between Canada’s digital online portfolio management providers (aka ‘robo-advisors’) increases, so too will the incentives in play. BMO SmartFolio’s referral program is a win-win solution for existing clients, new clients and of course for BMO Nesbitt Burns too. The fact that this offer can be combined with the current promo from SmartFolio means that anyone interested in testing the waters with SmartFolio can benefit from someone who has already done so.

[*disclosure note: has a referral program in place with BMO InvestorLine and BMO SmartFolio and may receive compensation for individuals opening a BMO InvestorLine account with code SPARXCASH or a SmartFolio account with code STSF and/or clicking through to the BMO InvestorLine or BMO SmartFolio websites]

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

It was a tame week for folks on Twitter, with customer service queries taking the spotlight. Mentioned by Canadian DIY investors were Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTRADE, TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers.

From the Forums

Deals on data?

For investors and traders alike, data is crucial to making good decisions. How often, and how quickly one trades or invests can determine whether having level 2 data is a worthwhile investment. In this post from, however, one user is looking to get the best price on some detailed information, and finds some pretty interesting online brokerage options.

Cross border shopping

In this post from reddit’s Personal Finance Canada thread, one user was looking for a little clarification on buying U.S. stocks for their TFSA at CIBC Investor’s Edge. Find out what money saving tips and insights other readers had to offer for a user hoping to save on exchange fees.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another eventful week. With the last long weekend of the summer upon us, hopefully you’re in a part of the country that isn’t going to require shoveling snow (amirite Labrador?) . And, speaking of snow, it looks like the Game of Thrones fans will have to find something to occupy their time between now and oh, sometime in 2019 when the next season rolls around. Good thing there’s never a dull moment in the markets.  Except when they’re closed for the holidays. In any case, hope you have a great and safe long weekend whatever you happen to be doing!

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