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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – January 12, 2018

Twitter is no stranger to controversy or strong language, however when it comes from the commander in grief, well it’s becoming strange to see exactly what shocks us anymore. Speaking of strong reactions on Twitter, several Canadian online brokerages have also been on the receiving end of some strongly worded feedback because of trading platform interruptions and customer service wait times which yet again dominated the DIY investor chatter this week.

Even though Groundhog Day is still some time away, this edition of the weekly roundup will feel a bit like the Bill Murray version (perhaps with less to laugh at). Up first will be an update on some good news for DIY investors – another bank-owned online brokerage stepping into the deals foray. From there we’ll update the latest developments on long telephone wait times and online trading platform outages that continued to plague DIY investors in week two of 2018. And yes, once again we’ll cap off the roundup with lots and lots and lots of DIY investor tweets about Canadian discount brokerages and sprinkle in a couple of forum posts for good measure.

Deals Action

While markets (at least in the US) continue to push to new highs, the momentum in the online brokerage promotions segment also appears to be strengthening heading into 2018. This week, we spotted HSBC InvestDirect jumping into the promotional offer pool with a new tiered cash-back bonus offer.

This latest offering is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, as a bank-owned online brokerage, HSBC InvestDirect is positioned, in theory, to be able to challenge its larger bank-owned brokerage peers.

With standard commission rates at $6.88, there is already financial incentive to consider HSBC InvestDirect and this latest offering only serves to strengthen the timing for those on the fence about HSBC InvestDirect. A promotional offer for anyone looking to open a new account or perhaps transfer an account from a bank-owned brokerage might find this to be just enough incentive to give HSBC InvestDirect a try.

Another interesting element to this offering is that in order to qualify for the cash bonus, one of the important conditions to fulfil is executing at least three commission generating trades. So, at a minimum, individuals will have to spend at least $20.64 ($6.88 x 3) to receive a cash bonus. That’s a steep dent (~23%) for the lowest tier which offers an $88 cash back bonus (which shakes out to a $67.36 bonus).

A final interesting thought on this latest move by HSBC InvestDirect is the timing.

With a firestorm of stories about unhappy clients, long wait times at larger bank-owned online brokerages as well as platform outage issues, HSBC InvestDirect’s latest promotional offer might end up landing them in the media spotlight.

After all, bigger online brokerages – especially the bank owned brokerages, pitch the ‘convenience’ and ‘security’ angle to win over new clients however HSBC InvestDirect can offer many similar banking and investment products and for DIY investing – especially those with relatively straightforward needs – it ultimately comes down to paying less for being able to trade. Offering a deal puts HSBC InvestDirect on our radar and certainly on the radar of anyone now in the market wondering about what else is out there.

Of course, the spotlight isn’t without its risks.

One of HSBC InvestDirect’s biggest differentiators in the online brokerage space in Canada is their ability to let clients trade international securities. And, while commission rates for trading internationally listed securities via HSBC InvestDirect are nowhere close to the cost to trade North American equities, it might be on the list of features that other online brokerages may want to consider introducing into their feature set.

Now that HSBC InvestDirect has stepped into the promotional pool offer heading into RRSP season, there are now only two bank-owned online brokerages that don’t have a special promotional offer on the table: RBC Direct Investing and National Bank Direct Brokerage (both do have transfer fee coverage offers, however).

Given the dynamics in the Canadian discount brokerage space right now, it’s hard to believe that either of these two firms will want to sit out the chance to get the attention of Canadian DIY investors by putting out a better offer than what’s currently available. We’ll be watching.

Outage & Outrage

The long wait times trying to reach Canadian online brokerages by phone continued this week and it appears that patience among DIY investors is wearing thin.

Time spent waiting on the phone to speak to client service representatives continued to be reported as being up to and even longer than an hour with frustrated users taking to social media to express their discontent – often with bitter disappointment and sometimes with screenshots and photos of just how long they’ve been waiting.

With clients from several different online brokerages reporting ultra-long wait times, it’s becoming clear that getting in touch with many online brokerages over the phone right now is going to be a challenge.

Of course, for some users, this is a challenge that they’ve now become accustomed to as phone service wait times appear, at least on the surface, to be woefully unprepared for groundswell of clients looking to have passwords reset, transfers made or other service enquiries handled on the phone at this time of year. Thank goodness the market isn’t crashing right now too.

Combined with the platform outages that occurred at the end of December and beginning of January, and that also appeared again at a couple of online brokerages this week, the customer experience stories are a PR firestorm for Canadian online brokerages.

It was interesting, therefore, to see how Canada’s online brokerages responded to this mini-crisis this past week. In addition to helping provide some answers as to what’s going on, the ways in which the situation has been managed by different online brokerages might actually serve as a proxy for how well-equipped each brokerage is to handle a crisis. Simply put, when things go awry, getting things back on track is an important marker of responsiveness.

Just Fix It

Before getting into what the online brokerages did this week in response to the crisis, it’s helpful to reflect on the sentiment expressed by DIY investors in the hundreds of Twitter message, forum posts and news article comments.

While not unique to online brokerages, job one when it comes to an outage, downtime or a service interruption or delay is to fix it. Bells and whistles come second – actual uptime and trade execution come first. When there’s money on the line, however, the stakes (and emotions) are much higher. History on social media shows that hell hath no fury like a trader scorned so the sooner things are fixed the better.

Fortunately for TD Direct Investing, it appears that WebBroker was more stable this past week however neither RBC Direct Investing nor Virtual Brokers were as fortunate. In the case of RBC Direct Investing, platform interruptions drew the ire of DIY investors on social media yet again.

And in the case of Virtual Brokers, it appears to be bad timing as all platforms are under a microscope and it so happened that Rob Carrick, one of the most influential voices in the online brokerage space in Canada, posted a tweet of VB’s trading interface essentially immobilized.

On the phone wait time front, things appeared this week to still be far from fixed.

Undoubtedly there are frantic conversations taking place about how best to address the telephone wait time issues, however DIY investors expectations are – for better or worse – that things should be fixed, and fast.

It is one thing that consumers may be forced to wait 15 or even 20 minutes however DIY investors on Twitter have reported wait times in the hours, sometimes even being disconnected or hung up on before an issue is resolved. It’s not hard to imagine the frustration levels rising for clients.

Unfortunately for Canada’s bank-owned brokerages, there is very little sympathy or goodwill to be found for these types of service interruptions or delays.

Almost nobody would argue that Canada’s largest banks – who own the online brokerages – don’t have the money to resource an exceptional client experience, or when problems occur that they can resolve them fast. So, it begs the question: how could both technology and wait times be vulnerable to the very thing that online brokerages set out to do, process trades online?

As pointed out time and again by clients, none of the reasons appear quite good enough. If customer service agents are overwhelmed, hire more. If compensation is an issue, pay client reps more and attract more staff.

How could online brokerages not see this kind of scenario coming?

Communicate in Real Time

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements to this outage and wait time story has been the absence of timely communication from online brokerages about what exactly has been happening and what was being done to fix it.

In the early moments of the outages, numerous online traders were asking aloud on Twitter as to what was happening. Unfortunately for many of them, there was radio silence from the brands or at best, scripted responses from client service reps about ‘higher than normal’ call volume or high trading volumes.

What ensued as a result was a tweetstorm of traders and investors who were fed up about being left in the dark. To draw attention to their plight, members of the media were being tagged to force some kind of communication out the online brokerages. From there things snowballed with major news outlets and BNN covering the status and talking about how trading platforms were down for a few days in a row.

While the news stories last week focused primarily on RBC Direct Investing and TD Direct Investing because of the platform outages, there have also been numerous reports of wait times for phone reps that seem off the charts at Scotia iTRADE. Regardless of the issue, however, it wasn’t really until this week that we heard from TD Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing as to what exactly happened with the platform outages.

Showing Leadership by Taking Ownership

After receiving substantial negative press coverage as well as a firestorm on social media, Paul Clark, President of TD Direct Investing & EVP, TD Bank Group published a note this week apologizing to clients about the downtime on WebBroker essentially stating that trading systems were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of client activity.

Screenshot of message on WebBroker

Clark’s note also spoke to the wait times being encountered by clients attempting to call in to TD Direct Investing by phone, requesting ‘patience’ as TD works through resolving these issues.

What is particularly interesting about the note is firstly that the head of an online brokerage took the time to post a response, and secondly that there were important details on what went wrong, when they went wrong and that TD Direct Investing is working to address the issues.

Most importantly, there was also an apology and an expectation that things should be better.

It was an honest and earnest message that should only come from the top of the brand to let clients and investors know the person in charge is watching. Of course, it is up to clients to decide whether or not the words ring true or hollow, but at the very least the top brass stepped up.

Late Friday, RBC Direct Investing also posted a somewhat similar message, offering up some details on what happened and also apologizing to clients for not meeting the standard that clients expect of them.

Screenshot from RBC DI platform

In the online age, however, these communications have come much later than the events they describe.

The investment world hates uncertainty and so it is somewhat ironic to find the absence of more detailed and timely communication with clients about these issues by the online brokerages. The predictable result is that a lack of details introduces uncertainty as to whether a service provider to deliver on their brand’s promise.

In that light it is interesting that there haven’t been any details provided by Scotia iTRADE – similar to what has been done by TD Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing – on what has been impacting wait times for clients and what may be in the works to fix it going forward.

What Happens Next?

Faced with the realities of tighter margins, brought on by competition and investor trends, Canadian online brokerages find themselves at a bit of a cross roads.

To compete and win, service, pricing and overall client experience – including the digital/online and telephone experiences, need to be excellent. To do that, they need money however with about a dozen or so online brokerages in Canada and only so many traders and active investors to go around, the margin for error is very small. Charging a premium price for commissions only to fall short when it comes to delivering on trading platform stability or customer service agent availability doesn’t measure up.

The biggest takeaway from these outages and wait times is that the entire space is under a microscope. There are now lots of eyeballs watching to see who slips up or doesn’t deliver and no shortage of outlets looking for a story in case those slip ups happen. It won’t just be DIY investors chiming in on social media anymore; mainstream media and business news outlets will be scrutinizing every step and misstep.

How many investors jump ship as a result of the service experience snafus is hard to say. Canadian DIY investors are patient, perhaps even willing to cut online brokerages some slack for occasional technology hiccups. The real question, however, is how long they’re willing to wait for things to improve before they’ll move? Judging by recent reactions, the answer seems to be not that long.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

No surprises here. Service delays, outages and frustration are on the menu. Viewer discretion is advised. Mentioned by Canadian DIY investors were BMO InvestorLine, CIBC Investor’s Edge, Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTRADE, and TD Direct Investing.

From the Forums

Promotions for switching brokerages?

Yup. Though this post on might be a tad bit self-serving, it was nonetheless interesting to see DIY investors make decisions on online brokerages based on incentives (and how we help make it easier!).

Banking on a better experience

When it comes to telling apart bank-owned online brokerages, sometimes small differences make big impacts. This post from generated an interesting discussion when comparing CIBC Investor’s Edge to BMO InvestorLine.

Into the Close

So despite all of the negative headlines from this past week, markets seem to be in rally mode – at least in the US. That’s pretty amazing stuff when you consider all that has been said. So, for the traders and investors out there, try to get some rest this weekend, you’re going to need your strength to hang on for the wild ride of the next few weeks. Of course if you’re looking for something really interesting to plan your future trades (and Christmas lists) around, here are some highlights from the recent CES show. Have a great weekend!

1 thought on “Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – January 12, 2018

  1. Scotia iTrade is not even responding to email sent to their service@ id either so that tells you a bit more how responsive or lack of some of these outfits are..

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