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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – October 21, 2019

On the eve of election night in Canada, citizens are tasked with making an investment of their own in the party or candidate that they believe is in their best interest. Another voting machine, the stock market, provides price as a proxy for expectations. Fascinatingly enough, the recent activity in US and Canadian online brokerage is providing a glimpse of where DIY investing is heading next.

In this edition of the Roundup, we dive into the latest earnings announcements from US online brokerages in the wake of the recent commission-fee cuts and read the tea leaves as to what’s brewing for the industry and investors alike in this new pricing reality. Speaking of trends, it looks like combos are the menu item of choice in the bank-owned online brokerage battle here in Canada – our second story spills the tea on what’s about to be trending for DIY investors. As always, there’s plenty of chatter from investors to dish out in the Twitter posts and in the investor forums.

Forecast for Online Brokerages: Cloudy with a Chance of Upside

As every experienced trader knows, sentiment and expectations drive pricing. Prices in the stock market, however, are dynamic and constantly changing which, by extension, means that so too are expectations.

The recent and rapid implosion of prices of US online brokerage stocks was anything but rational. While the market is an efficient pricing mechanism, during times of heightened emotion or uncertainty there’s a natural mispricing moment, and since the big price drop earlier in the month, we’ve witnessed the recalibration of expectations and calculations restore some sense of calm to a rattled industry.

This past week, the earnings announcements and management guidance for three of the big four names in the US online brokerage space were released. And, without giving away any spoilers, it appears expectations are shifting from pessimism to cautious optimism.

Since early October, the stock prices for publicly listed online brokerages AMTD, EFTC and SCHW have rallied an average of 15.3%. Interestingly, the online brokerage that touched off the avalanche in pricing drops, Interactive Brokers, is down about 4% over the same period of time.

What’s behind the change in sentiment? Fortunately, the question is somewhat answerable thanks to earnings conference calls held last week for E*TRADE Financial and Interactive Brokers.

The timing of earnings releases and subsequent investor conference calls so close to drop in commission pricing means that predictably, the “plunge” is almost all of what analysts covering these online brokerages wanted to discuss on the conference calls.

Despite the best efforts to pry additional information out of company management, there wasn’t a lot of brand-new market moving information that was revealed. More than anything, there was a lot of soothing of nerves and spin on what the significant loss of revenue from trading commissions would mean going forward.

At E*TRADE, for example, the CEO Mike Pizzi framed the loss of $300 million per year of commission revenue as an opportunity to win back clients to a best-of-breed trading platform. Indeed, that appears to be a pillar of the new narrative and the competitive reality.

Without trading commission costs, active traders will undoubtedly be seeking out the best online investing experience – including the best trading platform, decision support, and feature set. In that way, established brands like E*TRADE and Interactive Brokers (and Schwab and Ameritrade) have a significant leg up on the newcomer Robinhood for the most lucrative account holders (active traders) who need advanced tools and convenience.

Despite the many evasive dips and weaves of management to the analyst questions about what happens next, there were still a few interesting takeaways revealed by tuning into these calls.

The first, and arguably most significant for Canadian online brokerages, is that Interactive Brokers sees a business case for bringing commission-free trading here to Canada. In a question from analyst Will Nance from Goldman Sachs during the Interactive Brokers earnings conference call, it was asked whether or not IBKR Lite would be expanded to other locations around the world served by Interactive Brokers. Chairman and now former CEO of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, stated that unlike the US, there weren’t that many equities markets internationally that could support robust payment for order flow. One exception: Canada.

Another important and recurring question that arose was the prospect of consolidation in the US online brokerage space and whether E*TRADE would be a candidate to be acquired.

Asked on both the E*TRADE conference call and on the Interactive Brokers one, it was interesting that there appears to be a renewed chatter about this online brokerage in particular. While nothing was affirmed in the call with E*TRADE, the door wasn’t closed on the topic either.

For additional context, E*TRADE had communicated achieving a target earning per share (EPS) of $7 by 2023 and in this earnings announcement call, that timeline was pushed back by a year to 2024. The current EPS forecast is ~$4 so even if the P/E ratio (9.88) manages to stay the same by 2024, the share price by that point could hit $70 (closing price on Friday was $40.85).

Normally, a downward revision or delay in EPS of that nature would prompt a sell off, however based on the drop in price prior to this earnings release, it’s evident the market believes it was oversold and hence the stock rallied. Moreover, it’s a vote of confidence in management that the market believed that hitting that target is achievable.

Suffice to say, the fact the door was left open to an acquisition suggests that if the price is right, management would consider a sale, and there’s even a target price on what that might be. When asked by an analyst if Interactive Brokers would consider buying E*TRADE, Peterffy rejected the prospect – however, it would be hard to imagine that even if they were kicking the tires on an acquisition, that they would disclose as much in a conference call.

Another very interesting takeaway from the investor conference calls was that even though there might not be commissions on equities trades any more, commissions on options trades are likely to stay buoyant for quite some time. The complexity of options strategies and trading almost necessitate having the right platform in place, and so this somewhat technical requirement could serve to ringfence trading commissions for these types of securities.

All told, the story going forward for the US online brokerage industry is still highly fluid.

There were a slew of new feature announcements (which will be covered in a subsequent Roundup) most notably the ability for investors to trade fractional shares (something Schwab and Ameritrade announced last week).

The reality is that there is no exact playbook to navigate a fundamentally different world than the one that has been in place for the past three decades. That said, it is fascinating to see just how adept each online brokerage is at evolving to the new reality of zero commissions for equity trades.

There are undoubtedly other levers and fees that can be used to grow revenues, as well as diversification away from just order execution – a preferred path it seems for Schwab and E*TRADE. There’s also a lot of cost cutting that is slated to take place. E*TRADE announced a number of initiatives in its conference call. Curiously, Interactive Brokers reported a 15% year over year increase in their total headcount, a signal that in spite of everything, they appear to be building out their overhead and team resources, not shrinking it the way that Schwab recently announced they would.

We’re eagerly awaiting what TD Ameritrade will have to say about the journey forward in their conference call, however, we suspect it will be some variation of what as already been said by E*TRADE, Schwab, and Interactive Brokers. There is a strong platform and client experience appeal to TD Ameritrade, so they certainly have a leg to stand on in that department. Add to that another very strong trading platform experience and new entrants are going to have a tough time competing. Ironically, zero commissions might accelerate the onboarding of clients to TD Ameritrade at the expense of other “low cost” online brokerages.

It does beg the question as to what’s next for Robinhood – the zero cost online brokerage that essentially helped to catalyze the industry race to zero commissions. In a way, they appear to be victims of their own success, and the other online brokerages appear to be forcing the hand of Robinhood to compete on feature sets and value drivers beyond just commission price.

Just because commission prices have fallen to the ground, it doesn’t mean that the incumbent online brokerages won’t be hitting that same ground running.

Packaged Delivery

For any fast food aficionados, there’s nothing unfamiliar about the combo being a better deal than the single item. Turns out that DIY investors hungry for a deal at Canada’s bank-owned brokerages might just be in luck. Earlier this month, National Bank Direct Brokerage launched their newest pricing offer which also happened to come with perks (like lower commission pricing) for anyone who was also a National Bank client.

Another bank-owned brokerage also seems to be looking to offer a compelling online investing side-order to its banking clients. Scotiabank, parent to Scotia iTRADE, is offering up clients who sign up to the recently launched Ultimate Package 10 commission-free trades in the first year, and five commission-free trades every year that the account is open.

This new offer is likely going to generate some waves with DIY investors and potentially open a new front in the online brokerage battle.

In terms of the offer itself, the threshold for this banking package requires a minimum balance of $5,000 to be maintained in the bank account. However, there are a number of daily banking features and perks to keep things worthwhile. To boot, there is a cash incentive of up to $350 that would make this offer even more compelling relative to other onboarding offers from the online brokerage side of many big bank-owned brokerages. Finally, there is the ongoing commission fee waiver for five trades per year which is likely to appeal to the very passive investor. Combined with Scotia iTRADE’s selection of commission-free ETFs, there’s a lot on the table for the right profile of investor who has enough to surpass the inactivity fee threshold ($10,000). For investors under the age of 26, however, this is an especially interesting choice because those inactivity fees are waived for younger investors.

When it comes to the future of online trading in Canada, it appears that bank-owned brokerages are relying on their biggest asset – the banking relationship – to entice DIY investors to stay put.

This is almost certainly the next front in an ongoing battle for DIY investor assets, one that non-bank owned brokerages such as Questrade, Virtual Brokers or Qtrade Investor will have to figure out how to counter.

One likely scenario is for the non-bank owned brokerages to start providing high interest on uninvested cash – something that has clearly been shown to work for Interactive Brokers. As has been the case in the US online brokerage market, the major online brokerages have increasingly started to deploy “bank-like” solutions such as bill payment capability and even credit cards to enable a “one-stop shop” experience for personal finance management.

With more zero-commission fees on the horizon for the Canadian discount brokerage space, this latest combo experiment may buy brokerages some much needed time before having to drop their commission rates to zero. More importantly, combo offers like this keep customers from casting their gaze over the fence.

Interestingly, unlike a race to the bottom, this appears to be the next step in a bidding war for loyalty.

The unintended consequence to the bank-owned brokerages, however, is that they will have to get all points of the service experience right – from banking through to wealth management – because going forward, those fortunes, like those of their clients, are going to be tied closer together than they have ever been before.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Clean Break

Breaking up is never easy, so in this forum post on the Financial Wisdom Forum, a user seeks advice on the process of leaving their full service broker for a discount brokerage account at NBDB.


In search of investment options without fees that add up over time, a Redditor asks for discount brokerage options and advice for a first-time investor in this forum post.

Into the Close

With online brokerages and the ongoing fee-asco now in the spotlight, the focus on the industry is almost unprecedented. We are definitely in uncharted territory as to what will ultimately shake out as a direction for the industry, and that uncertainty is going to definitely translate into lots of questions from consumers.

Turns out that in addition to putting an X on a ballot this week, DIY investors are going to need to remember to tune into the blue X to stay on top of what’s going on. We’re thrilled to see where this next chapter takes us and are starting to get the feeling we’re going to be needed now more than even we could have imagined. Here’s to whatever comes next.

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