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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – December 16, 2019

Heading into mid-December, there are clearly lots of numbers being thrown about. The number of shopping days left until Christmas, the countdown to the end of the year, and the exact deadline for trades to be counted for inclusion in 2019. To add to the pile, there are also numbers to consider that measure the online brokerage industry in Canada – which for some folks is like getting an early Christmas present.

In this edition of the Roundup, we take a deep dive into the latest online brokerage rankings to be released ahead of the end of 2019, and look at the impact that big changes in definitions can have on how investors ultimately decide which online brokerage is best. After that heavy dose of numbers, we’ve layered on some interesting comments and reactions from DIY investors in the forums and from Twitter to close things out.

2019 Online Brokerage Rankings: Focus on Experience over Price

Just in time for the end of 2019, there was a fresh round of online brokerage rankings for DIY investors to review as they do their financial planning for the year ahead. The annual Canadian discount brokerage rankings from financial services analysis firm, Surviscor, were released this past week and featured some interesting results on the pool of Canadian brokerages.

For DIY investors, rankings and ratings from third party agencies help to provide insights into what the client experience is like at particular Canadian online brokers. In Canada, there are three primary rankings that investors typically turn to – the Globe and Mail’s annual online brokerage rankings, the Online Self-Directed Discount Brokerage Rankings by Surviscor, and the J.D. Power & Associates Self-Directed Investor Satisfaction Study.

Expectedly, each of these rankings and ratings measures different aspects of the online brokerage segment and provides a rating based on their respective view of what separates the best online brokerages in Canada from their peers. For DIY investors, this translates into a somewhat muddled experience where different rankings and ratings provide different perspectives on the question: “which online brokerage is best?”

It is against that backdrop that the most recent iteration of Surviscor’s Canadian discount brokerage review offers some fascinating insights and also provides important lessons for DIY investors relying on rankings for researching online brokerage accounts. In particular, because of significant changes to how they have defined their Canadian online brokerage review in 2019 and what the resulting effects are for interpreting the rankings, it is important for DIY investors to look more carefully at the latest Surviscor rankings to understand how those changes impact potentially important decisions around choosing an online broker.

Starting with Definitions

An important but easy to overlook detail about the difference between the 2019 Surviscor rankings and the 2018 rankings is seen in the respective press releases associated with the rankings data release. In the 2019 rankings news release, it states:

“Surviscor’s proprietary scorCard methodology measures over 3,600 objective usage-related criteria questions over six independent categories, each weighted according to industry importance through direct feedback with industry firms.”

However in the 2018 news release, the following was stated:

“Surviscor’s proprietary scorCard methodology measures over 4,000 objective usage-related criteria questions and reviews each firm by 9 independent categories, each weighted according to industry importance through direct feedback with industry firms.”

Thus, the first important difference appears to be a change in the number of criteria and in the number of categories that are being used to assess Canadian online brokerages in 2019.

As seen in the table below, the categories that did not make it into the 2019 assessment were related to service experience, mobile experience, transactional experience, and cost of services. This selection of categories substantially changes the way in which an online brokerage is evaluated as a whole – shifting the focus to certain components of the experience.

2018 Categories 2019 Categories
Initial Experience Initial Experience
Service Experience X
Mobile Experience X
User Experience User Experience
Account Experience Account Experience
Market Analysis Experience Market Analysis Experience
Transactional Experience X
Investing and Planning Experience Investing and Planning Experience
Cost of Services X

Another important qualifier to the 2019 Surviscor rankings is that these rankings are purposefully attempting to measure the overall “self-directed online brokerage experience” for desktop users. The rationale for the significant change to this year’s study was to focus “on the pure online usability experience to better determine the best online/desktop platform for Canadians.”

Diving into Numbers

Those important contextual points considered, this year’s ranking saw Qtrade Investor still manage to retain its position atop Surviscor’s rankings for the fourth consecutive year. While this is a laudable feat in such a competitive field, it is noteworthy to see that this year the gap between first and second place (TD Direct Investing) came down to one percentage point – a gap that has never been that narrow in the four consecutive years that Qtrade Investor has topped these rankings. Rounding out the top three this year was Scotia iTRADE, a bank-owned online brokerage which has traditionally had a strong showing in these rankings and is back on the podium in 2019 after having placed fourth in last years assessment.

When transactional, service, mobile, and cost data are removed from the evaluation criteria, the 2019 online brokerage rankings paint an interesting perspective of the field of DIY trading service providers. Immediately, the relative advantage that “low-commission pricing” provides is removed in the 2019 rankings.

Three of the four lowest cost online brokerages occupy the lowest three positions when it comes to the “online brokerage experience”: CIBC Investor’s Edge (ranked 10th), National Bank Direct Brokerage (ranked 11th) and Interactive Brokers Canada (ranked 12th).

Clearly, it is important for DIY investors to note that the “best online brokerage” doesn’t necessarily translate into the lowest cost online brokerage nor the “best value,” since commission prices appear to be heavily factored out.

Even with most online brokerages now charging standard commission pricing in the sub-$10 per trade range, events in the US online brokerage space as well as recent moves by brokerages such as Wealthsimple Trade (which was not featured) and National Bank Direct Brokerage point to a significant enough gap in pricing that DIY investors could still see merit in switching brokerages to realize savings on commissions. In other words, DIY investors are still price sensitive when shopping for online brokerages.

The performance of the Canadian online brokerage field in 2019 as measured by the Surviscor rankings is interesting in and of itself. Removing price factors as well as mobile and service features, however, introduces a substantial degree of variability in the scoring when comparing results year over year, and paints the picture of an industry that – other than the excluded factors – is generally getting it right when it comes to “online brokerage experience” for DIY investors.

One of the first interesting characterizations was noted by Surviscor in their press release as a “surge” in performance by TD Direct Investing moving up three ranking positions from fifth place in 2018 to second in 2019. We took the extra step of crunching the numbers on the gainers and decliners for 2019 compared to 2018 to highlight the magnitude of performance difference. Indeed, TD Direct Investing did “surge” a remarkable 22 percentage points from 69% in 2018 to 91% in 2019.

That said, a positional shift (or surge) also took place with two other firms: Desjardins Online Brokerage and HSBC Invest Direct. The latter of these was particularly interesting given the historically poor performance shown by HSBC InvestDirect on the Surviscor ratings since 2016 where it has either been second last or last. Using the new criteria for measurement in 2019, this suggests that the combination of pricing, transaction, mobile experience and service were actually dragging these firms down in terms of performance on the Surviscor rankings.

Two other firms saw double digit percentage point improvements compared to 2018: Scotia iTRADE (+16 percentage points) and Virtual Brokers (+17 percentage points). Despite these sizable gains, however, their respective rankings only improved one position, with Scotia iTRADE climbing to third place this year and Virtual Brokers rising to seventh place.

Interestingly, there were three firms that saw percentage improvements but did not see any change in their rankings: Qtrade Investor (remained in first), RBC Direct Investing (remained in sixth), and CIBC Investor’s Edge (remained in 10th).

Perhaps the biggest curiousity from this year’s rankings comes not with the advancers, but in the decliners category.

There were four firms that saw position rankings slip, however, in three of those four brokerages, there were actually increases in the percentage scores compared to 2018. This underscores a broader takeaway from the results of this year’s online brokerage rankings, which is that the quality of online brokerage experience appears to be significantly better this year at almost all brokerages. The one exception according to these results is Interactive Brokers, which plunged from seventh place in 2018 to twelfth in 2019.

Removing the factors related to price, mobile experience, transaction experience, and service experience appears to have a significant impact on the comparability of results year over year.

Compared to previous years, the year over year volatility in rankings and percentage points seen from 2018 to 2019 is significantly higher. The standard deviation in scoring in 2018 vs 2017 was 1.97 whereas in 2019 compared to 2018, this worked out to be 7.62 or almost a factor of four (3.87x) difference.

Why that is relevant to note, however, is that in comparing rankings from one year to the next, it is also important to understand that those rankings are not measuring the same set of attributes. And, it is on that particular point of year over year comparability of rankings that consumers and DIY investors need to take the streaks and the ranking shifts with a grain of salt.

To put the impact of the measurement changes in perspective, in 2018, only one firm (Qtrade Investor) scored better than 79% for overall experience whereas in 2019 there were six – or half the firms analyzed – that scored above 79%. Since 2019 to 2018 is not a true apples-to-apples comparison, however, the shift in ranking positions year over year has to be heavily qualified, as does the consecutive nature of a particular ranking. While it is true that Qtrade Investor is first overall (again), why they are first is materially different.

The Takeaway for DIY Investors

For DIY investors shopping around for online brokerages, rankings and ratings are generally a go-to resource to better understand what kind of brokerage experience can be expected. That said, it is important to note that online brokerage rankings and ratings are not static, nor do they measure the same things between rankings.

As such, while an accolade such as being named “best online brokerage” by a particular rating firm is certainly something online brokerages can be proud of, for consumers it is crucial to ask more questions about the nature of what’s being measured. In other words, definitions matter as much as the results.

In the case of the 2019 Surviscor online brokerage rankings, the focus has shifted away from a number of previously important components to focus on the desktop user experience.

The fascinating implication of this analysis, however, is that the differentiators for almost half the brokerages are on the factors that were excluded. That is to say, with so many brokerages scoring 80% or better on “experience” features, this evaluation shows the brokerages have very similar (and reasonably good) platforms and will have to differentiate themselves on other features.

The real answer (if there is one) is how these experience factors combine with the separated-out factors like mobile experience, price, and service. Strategically, Surviscor will be launching a comprehensive “Digital Brokerage Experience award” in 2020 that combines the multiple assessments into one evaluation. The challenge for DIY investors, however, is making sense of the different ranking performances and the inevitable confusion from multiple online brokerages rightfully claiming that they are the “best online brokerage.”

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Cast a Wide Net Worth

Following the loss of their preferred finance tracking tool, one DIY investor wants to know how others keep tabs on their net worth and investments. Read on for tools and tips provided by fellow forum users.

Singled Out

A DIY investor has questions about how to go about investing in a single US stock as a Canadian. See what advice other Redditors provided.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this edition of the Weekly Roundup. We’re going to be putting the Roundup on park for the remainder of 2019, so this is the official sign off for the year (unless some kind soul in the online brokerage world decides to take commissions to zero just before the end of the year). While we’ll be monitoring developments and reporting on deals updates (and potentially groundbreaking news), we’ll otherwise be in the workshop until 2020.  On behalf of the SparxTrading team, we’d like to thank the loyal Weekly Roundup (marathoners) readers for tuning in, and wish you all the best for the holiday season, and the New Year! Stay safe and profitable!

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