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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 30, 2020

For frequent market watchers, a screen is hard to ignore. Information about COVID-19 is flying at investors faster than a souped up Vin Diesel muscle car and coupled with, or perhaps compounded by, stock market volatility means it is hard to know exactly how to navigate the unfolding economic, medical and societal crises. Of course, channeling a little Vin Diesel at this moment means having a steady hand at the wheel, being ready to shift gears and having some strong clichés at the ready.

In this edition of the Weekly Roundup, we drive into a story of how investors who move fast also get furious when systems can’t keep up. Staying on theme, we also look at how one big online brokerage got sanctioned for skirting the rules. As usual, we wave the checkered flag with comments from Twitter and the investor forums. Buckle up!

The Upside of Down(markets)

With markets trying to digest, model and value multiple shocks to the economy, it is no wonder that volatility and uncertainty are at all-time highs. And while many investors are rightfully afraid and panicked by the current market whipsaws, there are nonetheless certain investors piling into the markets in hopes of either making fast money or picking up assets at shockingly low prices.

Although there is no one reliable indicator of a market bottom, one of the requisite ingredients for stocks to reverse fall in price is buyers. And, this is no way to call how the market floor is forming; however, the evidence from multiple online discount brokerages appears to indicate that there is a strong flow of DIY investors who are opening online brokerage accounts on both sides of the border.

A scan through recent Twitter threads and synthesis of news stories reveal that, among the complaints logged in the current market conditions, DIY investors are encountering issues with account opening, funding and getting started. Having tracked the Canadian online brokerage industry for the better part of 8 years now, when complaints about getting an account opened begin to show up on social media, it generally points to FOMO – or fear of missing out – kicking in.

A second line of data that might also be indicative of the activity level of DIY investors in this market is that online brokerage systems become strained under the volume. After the frenzy of the cannabis and crypto craze in early 2019, why system overload is still an issue is a bit of a mystery, but being what it is, the backlog of calls and delays in account opening processing reflects the pace and priority of technical and support system investment.

In fact, this past week, there was a fairly critical article in the Financial Post which highlighted the malaise of DIY investors who reported losing money on trades because of system failures and order-related mishaps at many of Canada’s largest bank-owned and independent online brokerages. Had this been during “normal” times in the market, outages would not be getting the kind of coverage they are, but these are not normal times.

A closer inspection of the complaints being cited in the Financial Post article shows that they were from investors using highly leveraged securities, for example, the Direxion Daily S&P 500 Bull 3X Shares, or those using options trades or who were intent on quickly flipping a trade on a highly volatile cannabis stock. These are not the garden variety buy-and-hold or passive investors, and this confirms the data we’ve published in previous weekly roundups as to which DIY investors were in this market.

There are only a small handful of online discount brokerages with platforms and data packages that are equipped to service clients who want to trade this actively and it is, by all measures, the most ideal time for Canadian online brokerages to step up their efforts in appealing to this group of investors, both in service experience and incentives. It perhaps won’t be too long before offers to attract these investors are launched – however, there is a cruel irony at work.

At the time when these most highly-prized active online investors want to sign up and trade with Canadian discount brokerages, the systems cannot support the volume nor can the client service teams keep pace. It seems that grocery stores aren’t the only place that Canadian DIY investors are going to be forced to wait in line.

To drive this point home even further, it was also remarkable to witness Wealthsimple Trade have to place new clients who had signed up to invest on a waitlist to trade after they’ve signed up to trade. As much as Wealthsimple Trade has earned its current standing as innovative and disruptive to the Canadian wealth management landscape, moments like those observed last week are damming and not-soon-forgotten.

For all of the assurances that Canadian DIY investors are provided as to the safety of their investments, moments of extreme strain on the systems reveal there are still many points of possible failure. While there is already a lot of compliance burden on Canadian online brokerages, when it comes to financial services, the latest in a recurring set of examples points to the need for greater transparency in technical system integrity. System reliability, scalability, and service provision capability are factors that DIY investors are learning that will be crucial to determining which online discount brokerage can best suit their needs.

On the flip side, one way that Canadian online brokerages can avoid having this surge of interest show up where new accounts need to be opened in the height of market volatility is by ramping up their marketing efforts across the year.

If Canadian online brokerages effectively “flattened the curve” of demand or “raised the line” on their own systems through a combination of assertive “always on” marketing campaigns and appropriate investments in scalable technology systems, this kind of system overwhelm could be mitigated. Had the market volatility hit a mere two or three weeks earlier, at the peak of RSP contribution season, the results could have been catastrophic for Canadian DIY investors.

As the world continues to be forced to adapt and learn from the COVID-19 crisis, there will undoubtedly be lessons that Canadian discount brokerages will be learning from as well.

Much Ado about Noting

In one of the more apropos headings to be found in a Weekly Roundup, this one is a play on words from a famous William Shakespeare play in which one of the key arcs happens to be about the consequences of not providing the full picture.

In the Canadian online brokerage world, when it comes to the disclosure to clients of certain key information about their investments, there is no room for playing around.

From about the end of 2013, Canadian regulators at the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC) initiated a revision to the way in which member organizations were to report certain pieces of key information to Canadian investors. Regulators gave member organizations, including Canadian discount brokerages, a long runway of about 3 years to implement changes to the way in which investor statements were organized to ensure that organizations had sufficient time to implement the necessary changes.

Unfortunately for one organization, however, the decision to step offside of a regulatory requirement was met with a harsh rebuke. TD Waterhouse Canada was fined a stunning $4 million dollars (plus almost $30 thousand dollars in legal fees) for its decision to not comply directly with the CRM2 requirements.

There are a number of intriguing angles to this story, but what sticks out is what the calculus of this plan must have been to warrant such an action. It truly begs the question “what were they thinking?” in running afoul of regulators and exposing themselves to the kind of financial penalty they ultimately ended up having to pay.

With any business decision, the risk has to be worth the reward.

Looking at the fascinating details of this particular event, it was clear that the downside of ensuring that the TD Direct Investing was fully compliant within the timeframe laid out by IIROC seems to have suggested that there would have been some messy tax consequences and potential litigation that could have ensued. In short, facing the stern – if not damning – language (see image below) and fine was potentially the better option.

Ultimately, the persistence of a single client that sought information that was legally required from TD Direct Investing was what triggered the avalanche of activity that concluded in the fine and the damaging rebuke. It demonstrates that individual clients do, in fact, have the power to hold their vendors – in this case, online brokerages – accountable.

In the language of the panel’s decision:

“In the modern world where news is distributed almost instantaneously and widely by all forms of media, the reputational aspect has to be taken into account in fixing a sanction. Major financial institutions such as TDW invest large amounts of time and money in promoting their brands. While they may be able to easily afford large fines as a cost of doing business, bad publicity is very bad for business and that in itself provides a strong specific deterrence.”

For a brokerage of the size and repute of TD Direct Investing (TD Waterhouse) to be called out by IIROC is a very big deal and certainly something their peers – and perhaps investors – will take note of.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Go with the Flow

Redditors discuss an article from the New York Times of an investor who was rocked by the recent fluctuations in the market in this post. Forum users go back and forth on the impacts of the markets on their own portfolios and investment plans.

The Little Short

A forum user asks how they may be able to short the market and fellow Redditors offer their two cents on the incredible risks involved in this post.

Into the Close

That’s it for another edition of the Roundup. To close out this irony-filled edition, markets also appear to be both fast and furious. While the plot of the unfolding saga in the markets may be hard to follow, there is certainly no shortage of action unfolding a quarter mile at a time.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 23, 2020

The most fundamental view of how the stock market works is a balance between supply and demand. As the past few weeks have now shown, there are clearly some places where there’s an oversupply and some places, like grocery stores and phone lines, where demand has surged. Even so, it’s important to remember, especially at the beginning of spring, that growth is a force that will happen and that life will find a way.

This edition of the Roundup will be shorter than usual, as the one big story that matters and is on everyone’s mind is COVID-19. In particular, we will highlight the responses to the COVID-19 crisis that different Canadian discount brokerages have posted to their websites and what interesting things have emerged as a result. Not departing too far from the norm, we’ve also corralled comments from DIY investors on Twitter and in the investor forums.

Canadian Discount Brokerages Provide COVID-19 Updates

It’s safe to say, almost everyone is impacted by COVID-19 and Canadian online discount brokerages are no exception.  Over the past two weeks, there have been a slew of updates from most of Canada’s discount brokerages informing their clients of how they are prepared to provide support during this extraordinary time.

The overall theme emerging from these various messages is that DIY investors looking to get in touch with their online brokerage should be prepared to wait.

Call volumes are up and so too are volumes on other channels, such as email.  The net impact is that systems are currently overwhelmed and investors will face delays. At a time when markets are facing unprecedented volatility and market circuit breakers are being tripped, systems are particularly vulnerable to being unable to support the flood of actions that normally would be quite low.

While many market observers, including those who advise passive investment strategies, are doing their best not to look at markets or even to sell off investments, there is only so much “loss” that investors are prepared to take in the face of a totally unprecedented event. There have been financial crises and recessions before, but nothing at the speed and scale at which COVID-19 is moving.

As such, this pandemic is testing the planning and resourcefulness of all online brokerages. In reviewing the different responses from Canadian discount brokerages, the messages that some chose to provide came from the parent bank, if they were bank-owned brokerages, whereas some came directly from the online brokerage themselves.

Here are some interesting and important highlights from the COVID-19 messages posted on Canadian discount brokerage websites:

BMO InvestorLine

BMO InvestorLine referenced the features and service options that can be accessed online, as well as their modified call centre hours. Although their message was focused primarily on service, they also pointed site visitors to the BMO parent page on COVID-19 which had more general information.

CIBC Investor’s Edge

At the time of publishing, the CIBC Investor’s Edge was displaying an alert for website visitors to expect higher than normal wait times on call centre channels. Also, they were encouraging individuals who wanted to open an account to consider doing so using their online account open feature.

Interactive Brokers

Though this message came from the head of Interactive Brokers (and thus not a message directly referencing to Interactive Brokers Canada), it nonetheless acknowledged the global nature of this online brokerage. The CEO’s message mentioned that Interactive Brokers has invested significantly in the robustness of their trading systems, and even in light of the heightened volatility, they are confident in their capacity to operate. Interestingly, they revealed that they have multiple fail-over options for running their organization remotely, should one of their trading operation centres go down.

National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage directed users on their website to an announcement from the parent brand which detailed a reduction in branch hours and, in some cases, temporary closure of branches to minimize in-person contact. There was also a link provided to a Facebook live video answering questions about the market volatility.

Qtrade Investor

Qtrade Investor reiterated their commitment to providing service to their clients and mentioned plans put in place to enable call centre staff to work remotely should it be necessary. In addition, they highlighted services that would be available for investors to access online and provided a couple of articles that helped to explain market volatility.


Questrade’s message, like those from its peers, indicated the increased wait times on their client service channels. Importantly, they mentioned that they are allowing document drop-offs only at it their Toronto retail location and are encouraging customers to submit documentation online instead.

RBC Direct Investing

RBC Direct Investing’s COVID-19 message contained important information on their response plan, as well as some of the issues they are encountering. While they did specifically mention telephone wait times as an issue, they also directly referenced the fact that they have been fielding lots of interest for new account opens which have added to delays and wait times. Importantly for documents that need to be submitted to RBC Direct Investing by mail, they are still available to receive those documents.

Scotia iTRADE

The COVID-19 response statement on the Scotia iTRADE points visitors to the COVID-19 information section of their parent brand, Scotiabank. This landing page contains a substantial amount of information about the Coronavirus, as well as important personal financial tips and updates on what the bank is doing to mobilize. In the note from their CEO, it was also revealed that in the past week, delays to their system were, in part, the result of their call centres receiving close to 80,000 calls per day, with calls to mortgage and loan teams up 500 percent.

Expectedly, things work differently at different online brokerages, and just because statements do not appear on websites does not mean or imply that steps are not being taken or communicated to clients or stakeholders. The statements on COVID-19 responses ranged between very matter-of-fact and somewhat inspirational in tone. There were messages which, encouragingly, recognized the efforts of call centre and customer-facing staff who are working hard to service clients at this time, as well as to clients for their patience.

In spite of the different messages, there were two recurring themes: that Canadian online brokerages (and financial services providers) stand ready to help customers and that they believe we will get through this together. These are key messages to remember – even for those who may be stuck on hold for what seems like an eternity. Waiting in lines might be the new normal for some time and it is simply a reminder of the fact that as digital as things are with online trading, there is still a large part of this industry that is driven by and relies on people being there.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week


From the Forums

Time and Time Again

On Reddit, users engaged in a lively discussion around a video on whether this market crash may or may not be different from those before. Redditors go back and forth on the narrative being constructed around this event in this post.

Ramping Up While Hunkering Down

In this post, Redditors discuss the merits and drawbacks of putting money saved by working from home and social distancing back into the stock market. Other users weigh in on how their plans for adjusting to ever-changing circumstances are going.

Into the Close

Another new week, and another start with Dow Futures hitting the “limit down.” There are currently no signs that trading will be any less volatile this week, as the largest economies in the US go into lockdown. Fortunately (or unfortunately), civil society and private industry have mobilized faster than many governments to make up for lost ground. Our hope is that all of our readers, their loved ones and the communities in which they call home stay calm, safe and healthy. Please remember to thank all of the front line workers – from hospitals to grocery stores – who are working so hard to keep us all afloat.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 16, 2020

To paraphrase a quote from Bad Boys, things just got very real. Markets are already in unprecedented territory with record volatility and anyone who looks at the hard right edge of a chart might be seeing just how important having some kind of visibility into the future is to financial markets. Let’s just say, capital is doing some major social distancing from risk right about now.

In this edition of the Roundup, we’ll keep things shorter than usual. In the spotlight, the latest online brokerage rankings are out – dial in for a look at which online brokerages continued to score well and which have room to improve. From there we provide a quick deals update, and then relay commentary from DIY investors on Twitter (viewer discretion advised) and from the forums.

More Canadian Discount Brokerage Rankings

Just because major league sports are on hold, doesn’t mean sports metaphors need to be. The latest rankings of Canadian discount brokerages were launched last week and in case you were distracted by other headlines, there was a familiar name taking the top spot.

Financial services research firm, Surviscor, announced their latest Canadian discount brokerage review, which is actually a compilation of four separate reviews conducted. The four areas that were measured as part of the inaugural edition of the “Canadian Digital Brokerage scorCard” include online experience, mobile experience, service experience, and cost of services.

In total, 11 Canadian online brokers were assessed as part of this combined ranking, with Qtrade Investor coming out on top of this set of rankings with a score of 91 percent, followed by Questrade at 85 percent, and TD Direct Investing at 73 percent, to round out the top three firms.

When viewed through a combined lens that looks extensively at “experience,” it is important for DIY investors to understand what that refers to and to consider that the word can mean different things to different people. As cited in their announcement, Surviscor reviewed “over 7000 objective usage-related criteria questions” at each online brokerage (which is a lot of questions!), so there was considerable ground covered in capturing different facets of the DIY investor experience.

The net result of the various analyses conducted paints an interesting picture of the Canadian online brokerage marketplace. To begin with, these rankings suggest that despite having deeper pockets and resources, simply being an online brokerage arm of a big five bank in Canada doesn’t necessarily translate into a great experience or value for investors. While TD Direct Investing (73 percent) and RBC Direct Investing (71 percent) were relatively even in terms of their performance, they were significantly higher than BMO InvestorLine, CIBC Investor’s Edge, and Scotia iTRADE.

In contrast, Questrade, one of Canada’s most popular non-bank-owned online brokers, scored 85 percent. Although Qtrade Investor’s parent is technically not a bank per se (the parent to Qtrade Investor, Aviso Wealth, is owned by Desjardins Group – a financial cooperative) it does have some very strong financial support. Coincidentally, the other online brokerage owned by Desjardins Group, Desjardins Online Brokerage, also managed to land within the top five online brokerages.

For Canadian DIY investors, the extremely volatile markets are likely to push many to the sidelines – if not heading for the exits. Traders and bolder investors, on the other hand, are coming back to these markets. Interestingly, the features and experiences that active traders turn to for research and decision making will undoubtedly come into play in these market conditions. The biggest and most important one of those features, however, is uptime. And, while it is difficult (perhaps not advisable) for any online brokerage to report 100 percent uptime, there is a trail of commentary on social media that gets formed when online brokerage systems falter or fail altogether.

Against the current backdrop of extreme volatility and uncertainty, there are clearly investors willing to step into the market. That said, the latest online brokerage rankings were compiled during relatively positive and less-volatile times and so it will be very interesting to see how current market conditions impact the rankings in 2021.

Quick Deal Update

In spite of the market meltdown, perhaps because of it, stocks are being repriced. As challenging as it is for society and traders alike to make sense of what is unfolding, a little piece of good news is that the cash back offer from BMO InvestorLine is being extended.

Originally scheduled to expire at the beginning of March, the cash back promotion from BMO InvestorLine has been extended to the beginning of June.

For DIY investors brave enough to step into this market, there are still deals available from several Canadian discount brokerages. March is still going to be a time of volatility for online brokerage deals though, with offers from RBC Direct Investing and Qtrade Investor set to expire at the end of the month.

With such a dynamic situation unfolding, perhaps the moves by central banks offer a hint of what Canadian online brokerages need to do in order to get attention in these wild times: extraordinary measures.

Although just speculation, perhaps a big deal is what is needed to help encourage investor confidence. Even better if it came with coordinated action.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

The Road Less Traveled

A young Redditor turns to the forum for advice on alternative ways to diversify their assets without investing in the stock market. Fellow forum users point him towards local investment opportunities and offer their advice.

Déjà Trade?

A forum user points out the apparent differences between the most recent market correction and that from 2016 in this post.  A lively discussion on the state of the markets and the impact on individual investors follows.

Into the Close

At this point, March Madness has taken on a totally different connotation. For DIY investors, the panic selling is creating all kinds of volatile market conditions, some of which would certainly warrant the purchase of toilet paper. As we collectively move into this social and economic experiment in real time, there will soon be many more investors at home – by force or choice – watching and trading markets. Wherever things go from here, we hope all of you are practicing sound risk management and taking things quantitatively easy.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 9, 2020

To tear a page out of the Sesame Street playbook, today’s edition of the Roundup is brought to you by the letter V. V is for volatility, V is for vix, V is for virus and V is for volume, and all of those factors are hitting markets, investors and online brokerages hard. And, thanks to daylight savings, all of this is coming an extra hour earlier starting Monday.

In this edition of the Roundup, we take a look at the double-edged opportunity that new customers are bringing to online brokerages in the US, as well as drill into the stats on trading behaviour during the past month and how popular commission-free trading has quickly become. Despite the rocky times, we’ve also got the regularly scheduled comments from investors on Twitter and in the forums.

Time to Get Down

Open up any news provider, tune into any news on TV and panic is everywhere. Funnily enough, while panic ensues, it seems like the rush isn’t only to buy toilet paper at Costco. There also appears to be a crowd of investors rushing back into the stock markets, generating a stampede, it seems, to open a trade with an online investing account.

The first data point showing that investors aren’t running from the market volatility came from an interesting source – the popular zero-commission online brokerage (although aren’t they all now?) Robinhood. This US online brokerage made headlines at the outset of last week for all the wrong reasons, as their trading platform suffered a catastrophic outage smack dab in the middle of a monster rebound day. To make matters worse, the platform was out for the entire trading day and was shaky for a portion of the following day. Before diving back into the stampede of the markets, it is useful to add a bit more context.

When Canadian online brokerages had platform troubles in the early part of 2019 – when the frenzies for cryptocurrencies and cannabis stocks were at a peak – the failure of trading platforms to handle the additional capacity were cited as the cause of the technology challenges. Of course, what happened as Canadian online brokerages – including Canada’s largest bank-owned online brokerages – went offline during trading hours was a predictable recipe of investor frustration that made the news and generated a firestorm which erupted on Twitter.

Fast forward to March 2020 and the outage that hit Robinhood. On a day where the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed more in one day than at any point in its history, Robinhood’s 10 million customers were left to watch from the sidelines and predictably, the frustration ended up on the news and generating furious tweets on Twitter.

Robinhood or Canada’s online brokerages were not alone in their technical difficulties. Canada’s largest stock market – the Toronto Stock Exchange – suffered a similar fate at the end of February when its market shut down early due to a technical glitch. A week prior to Robinhood, large online brokerages in the US, Schwab and Fidelity also experienced technical glitches to their trading systems.

It begs the question: if online trading venues know that that they are susceptible to surges in volume, wouldn’t they do more to properly prepare? Shouldn’t they know by now that with scalability also comes the responsibility to properly prepare for the volume and volatility that would accompany said scale? Should there be some kind of mandatory government regulation to ensure technology is up to a standard to handle the kind of capacity that can be generated by so many investors?

In a world where commission charges might slow down investors from taking certain kinds of trades, eliminating commission has the unintended consequence of removing any monetary barrier from executing a trade. As such, the decision to cut online brokerage commissions to zero inevitably means that there will likely be an increase in the volume of trades executed and, as such, systems that support online trading will also need to be ready for a commission-free experience.

The real story here isn’t the technical outage per se; it is that, after a long absence from the markets, real volatility appears to have returned and brought with it a flurry of investors wanting to capitalize on it. Yes, falling markets spook investors who may want to sell out of stocks. That said, falling markets also attract in active traders who seek to profit on the accompanying swings in stock prices.

It is that data point that was corroborated by executives from two different online brokerages this past week. The first was Robinhood, who published a written explanation and apology for the outage that took place. Contained in that apology was this interesting set of reasons:

“Multiple factors contributed to the unprecedented load that ultimately led to the outages. The factors included, among others, highly volatile and historic market conditions; record volume; and record account sign-ups (italics added).”

In spite of the uncertainty or perhaps because of it – or perhaps because of the meteoric rise of popular (with millennial investors) stocks like Tesla – Robinhood has seen a flood of new customers join their platform. And they are not alone. Former CEO and founder of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, when asked to comment on the recent outage by Robinhood, also disclosed the record numbers of account openings at Interactive Brokers stating, “Account openings have doubled over the past two months.”

Whether it is driven by coronavirus, the new oil price war or general political uncertainty, online investors and online brokerages are confronting a return of volatility. And, although that certainly will be spooking some investors, news from the US online brokerage market is indicating that DIY investors are not shying away from stepping into the markets at this point. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from Canadian discount brokerages this RSP season is that account sign-ups have been strong.

The big takeaway heading into what is sure to be another shockingly volatile week is that online brokerages need to be at their very best – perhaps more so now than at any point in their recent history. Active traders are coming back to the market which means, in spite of the trading commissions here in Canada, there are likely going to be DIY investors jumping in to find beaten up stocks or who can no longer withstand the red in their portfolio of cannabis stocks. With an oil price shock sending another volley of volume and volatility at the technical systems, here’s hoping Canadian online brokerages’ systems can handle what is coming.

Stranger than Friction: Data on Who’s Trading Commission-Free

With all of the other numbers currently flying around headlines and generating investor buzz, online brokerage metrics may not seem like the most exciting place to shine a light. That is, of course, unless you are intrigued by what trends are unfolding with DIY investors.

Again, the US online brokerage market is providing a glimpse into the trends taking shape as market volatility ratchets up and uncertainty as to the economic impact of coronavirus kicks in. As mentioned in the story above, there have been high level disclosures by executives at Robinhood and Interactive Brokers about the nature of the rush of online investors into the market.

With the cycle of a new month beginning, it is particularly useful, therefore, to look at the trading metrics reported by Interactive Brokers and to a lessor degree, Charles Schwab, to provide a more complete picture of the trading landscape.

Starting first with Interactive Brokers’ metrics, there are a few numbers that immediately jump out with respect to performance in February. The first is trading volume – measured in DARTs – which was 32 percent higher in February than January and 63 percent higher than in February 2019. This confirms the observation across markets that trading volume significantly increased in the first two months of the year. And while the vast majority of those trades were in stocks, another incredible stat to take note of was the year over year increase in options contracts (82%) and futures contracts (75%). This is a signal of a more sophisticated investor stepping into the market and certainly a bullish sign for anyone looking to get in front of an active trader.

Another very important number to take note of is the increase on a year over year basis of the number of net new accounts. In February, Interactive Brokers recorded a staggering 104 percent increase in the number of new accounts compared to last year. And, despite launching the free version of their platform – IBKR Lite – there are clearly signs that they are attracting sophisticated traders to their platform who are willing to pay for professional grade trade execution.  This is an important point to highlight as it demonstrates that the value for online investors is going to be driven by their investing style or behaviour, so one size fits all pricing at online brokerages may not make sense in 2020 and beyond.

Data reported by Schwab over the past 13 weeks actually splits out trades by whether they generate revenue or not – something that is somewhat unique compared to other online brokerages.

With this data and with Schwab having offered commission free trading since late 2019, it is now possible to see the trends and shifts in trading behaviour when commission pricing is removed. A three week stretch in February is particularly instructive in that it shows that commission-free trading increased twice as much as did commission-based trading. In terms of the popularity of commission-free trading, in the last week of February, it was 5 times more popular than commission-based trading.

These latest data points suggest that maybe the swings in volatility being seen in the markets might, to some degree, be an unintended result of many more investors having access to commission-free trades and therefore be more willing to take positions (even in the short term) that they might otherwise stay on the sidelines for. That volatility, in turn, attracts in professional and very active investors who are trading and utilizing sophisticated platforms and trading products.

Active traders are enticed by and thrive in volatile markets. Online brokerages make better margins on options trades and selling data feeds and sophisticated trading platforms than they do on stock trades. Could opening up commission-free trading spur volatility and enable active investors to maneuver around them?

As the experiment of commission-free trading continues to play out in real time in the US online brokerage market, there are data points starting to emerge that show more investors are opening online investing and trading accounts and that there is greater activity in times of market volatility. For Canadian online brokerages, despite the market carnage or perhaps because of it, now seems like a very good time to launch features or promotions for active investors or remove commission fees for less active investors. In either scenario, Canadian DIY investors with the stomach to handle the volatility should also be on the lookout for what Canadian discount brokers do to capitalize on this new trading reality.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Daze of our Lives

A new-to-the-workforce Redditor takes to the forum for advice on how to set financial goals and invest to reach them in this post. Fellow forum users help him assess his options and put into place a plan to improve his financial literacy for long-term investing.

Young and the Riskless

A financially-savvy forum user worries that his retired parents aren’t getting enough bang for their buck from their broker and wonders if there’s a way to approach them to encourage a change. In this post, Redditors give advice on how to go about communicating these issues and the potential downsides of such a change in retirement.

Into the Close

One wild week deserves another. The very fluid situation in markets, politics, and health have thrown the analysts a lot to try and compute. For many passive investors, this is the exact scenario that a well-balanced portfolio is meant to cushion. For those seeking adventure and fortune in the midst of this uncertainty, however, this appears to be prime time. Whichever you choose to do, hang on, because it’s going to be an exciting week.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 2, 2020

March is now here and while March Madness is synonymous with college basketball, it seems to sum up the sentiment in the stock market as fears about global economic slowdowns and uncertainty around COVID-19 continue to spread. Also at a fever pitch: deals from Canadian online brokerages at the RSP contribution deadline.

In this edition of the Weekly Roundup, we kick things off by looking at the best news coming out of the world of DIY investing this month: deals and promotions activity. From there, a review of the recent trading outage and how that serves as a constant reminder of the risks of trading online. As always, we’ve gathered colourful comments from investors on Twitter and in the investor forums.

Deals Marching On

The beginning of this month saw the apex of the number of offers that Canadian discount brokerages had for DIY investors. With offers from big bank-owned online brokerages and the smaller competitors, the race to RSP season meant a lot of selection for DIY investors to be able to choose from. Transitioning into March, however, there will almost certainly be a significant contraction in the number of promotions.

In terms of deals that expired at the beginning of March or that are set to expire during March, one common element is that most of these offers are from the bigger bank-owned online brokerages. Deals from BMO InvestorLine, TD Direct Investing, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTRADE, and CIBC Investor’s Edge are all set to expire in March, with the latest of them being the commission-free trade offer from RBC Direct Investing. In addition, recent online brokerage award winner Qtrade Investor will also see their deal expire at the end of March.

For consumers, the money conversation is still very much active and happening as we ramp up to the income tax filing deadline at the end of April.

What this means is that there are going to be a lot of Canadians with funds available to either direct towards investing or to keep safe somewhere while the market volatility continues to grip stock markets. Against this backdrop, the acquisition of SimpleTax by WealthSimple in 2019 is a particularly savvy example of being able to find a place that many of their potential key customers would be going to in order to make decisions about managing their wealth. And, make no mistake about it, tax planning is a key part of wealth management.

It will be interesting to see how Wealthsimple – in particular Wealthsimple Trade – benefits from this kind of software partnership. With an enormous amount of data being available from tax returns – including household income, investments, and more – there are a number of marketing possibilities with respect to understanding who might be interested in a wealth service provider.

Cycling back to the deals and promotions available for DIY investors, one new offer did surface at the outset of the month – a small commission-free trade offer from Virtual Brokers. In response to the launch of their new mobile app, Virtual Brokers is offering up 5 commission-free trades in exchange for completing a survey and downloading their new mobile app. Although it is small, it is a positive sign that Virtual Brokers is stepping back into the spotlight after having maintained a relatively quiet presence after its acquisition by CI Financial.

DIY investors continuing to think about and manage their financial well-being during the tax season indicates a bullish sign for deals and promotions for investors. That said, the backdrop of market meltdowns is going to make it considerably more difficult to attract DIY investors into the market. While some will see this dip as a buying opportunity, talk and fear of a recession or prolonged uncertainty is enough to keep investors at arm’s length. That reality might mean Canadian online brokerages will ramp up their efforts or incentives to attract gun-shy investors. Whether it is through investor education or using some well-timed, short term promotions, Canadian online brokerages will likely have a very bumpy beginning to spring season.

Wild Week of Market Outages

It’s (fortunately) not something DIY investors and traders see every day. This past week, a technical issue brought trading on Canadian stock exchanges to a grinding halt into the end of the day. No trades could be executed and as a result, lots of traders ended up frozen out and could only watch their trading screens broadcast error messages.

Were it some ho-hum week, it would still be bad, but on a week in which markets fell sharply, heightened emotions were already in play and this outage only amplified worries and concerns about market performance and integrity. Add into the mix the last business week heading into the RSP contribution deadline and it could hardly have been a worse confluence of events.

The fallout from the outage and heightened volume appeared to impact trading systems, and retail investors did not hold back in their dissatisfaction with the experience.

This is the second outage in two years at the TSX and a reminder that for online investing, there are many, many possible failure points for DIY investors to contend with. Whether that issue then contributed to a domino effect of systems issues at Canada’s online brokerages is tough to say. There were definitely messages that the change in price on Friday was actually relative to Wednesday’s closing price, since Thursday’s close technically didn’t happen.

With continued volatility in the immediate forecast, the benefactors are online brokerages who charge commissions. This is typically the kind of market that day traders love (because of the volatility) and that investors (even the nervous ones) tend to sell what they can or take profits off the table. And, that means trading, which means commissions.

Of course, if trading halts because of market technology failures or online brokerage failures, the ones impacted may include a higher number of active traders – the most valuable of the trading food chain for online brokerages in Canada.

Even if stock prices aren’t higher at the moment, stakes for online brokerages are.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Upsides to Down Time?

With the effect of the coronavirus being felt in the markets, a Redditor asks fellow forum users to weigh in on how DIY investors have been responding in this post. A discussion ensues on timing the markets and how world events can affect ill-prepared, anxious investors.

The Fare-est of Them All

A forum user seeks advice on which online brokerage to use in this post. Fellow Redditors give advice on how to weigh out their options and how to invest while keeping risk tolerance in mind.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another wild week. Activity at the end of the market day on Friday was interesting – it may have been some optimism stepping back in or shorts looking to cover into the weekend. It’s clear that market direction is decidedly undecided. With debates raging over pullbacks versus corrections and the news cycle fixated on coronavirus, some seasoned investors are hoping to employ the same enthusiasm in the markets that is taking place in toilet paper and hand sanitizer aisles in Costco.

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Discount Brokerage Deals & Promotions – March 2020

*Updated March 9* Even though the markets might be in meltdown mode, one of the interesting features of the Canadian discount brokerage deal landscape is that there’s still solid ground for DIY investors in search of a good deal.

Most offers from Canada’s online brokers were timed around the RSP contribution deadline and though several will be expiring in the next few days, there are a number of big names that are staying in the deals and promotions mode through the end of this month.

There will certainly be turnover forecasted in the deals space. Even though TD Direct Investing extended the deadline for their cash back offer from Feb. 29th to March 3rd, the largest bank-owned online brokerage will be joining CIBC Investor’s Edge in winding down their promotion in the first week of March.

Later on in the month, RBC Direct Investing and Qtrade Investor have scheduled the end of their RSP campaigns. BMO InvestorLine does have their RSP offer scheduled to expire in the first week of March however if history is any indicator, there may be another offer coming after March 3rd. Finally, Scotia iTRADE peeled off a little bit early with their promo expiring at the end of February.

In terms of volatility, stock markets aren’t the only place where uncertainty reigns this month. With so much negative sentiment around stocks, it will be a real challenge to Canadian online brokerages to navigate getting DIY investors to step into a falling market. For most DIY investors, however, money is still on their minds – including during tax filing season – so for the right price (or promotion) – it could still be compelling enough to consider opening an online investing account. For that reason, it will be especially interesting to tune into deals and promotions activity this month.

Expired Deals

One deal officially concluded at the end of February and that was from Scotia iTRADE. Their historical cadence of promotions has changed so it is unclear when or if another large public offer will be launched to replace the cash back/free trade/commission drop combo offer.

Extended Deals

*Update: Mar. 9 – If you were worried you had missed out on BMO InvestorLine’s special cash back offer, then have no fear. Originally set to expire on March 3, the deal has now been extended until June 1. This means you have about three months to take advantage of this deal with the code SPARXCASH when you open a new qualifying account. See table below for additional details.*

Although it is only for a few more days into the month, the good news for last minute RSP contributors is that the TD Direct Investing cash back offer has been extended through to March 4th.

New Deals

Virtual Brokers has jumped back into the deals and promotions pool – with a catch. To presumably boost adoption and feedback on their recently launched revamped mobile app, Virtual Brokers is offering up 5 commission-free trades for downloading their app and complete a 3-minute survey about the app.

With a number of expiring offers early in March, we’ll be watching for something new to sprout up in time for spring.

Discount Brokerage Deals

  1. Cash Back/Free Trade/Product Offer Promotions
  2. Referral Promotions
  3. Transfer Fee Promotions
  4. Contests & Other Offers
  5. Digital Advice + Roboadvisor Promotions

Cash Back/Free Trade/Product Offer Promotions

Company Brief Description Minimum Deposit Amount Commission/Cash Offer/Promotion Type Time Limit to Use Commission/Cash Offer Details Link Deadline
Open and fund a new account (TFSA, Margin or RRSP) with at least $1,000 and you may be eligible to receive $88 in commission credits (up to 17 commission-free trades). Use promo code SPARX88 when signing up. Be sure to read terms and conditions carefully. $1,000 $88 commission credit 60 days Access this offer by clicking here: $88 commission-credit offer . For full terms and conditions, click here. none
Open and fund a new account (TFSA, Margin or RRSP) with at least $1,000 and you may be eligible to receive 5 commission-free trades. Use promo code 5FREETRADES when signing up. Be sure to read terms and conditions carefully. $1,000 5 commission-free trades 60 days 5 commission-free trade offer December 31, 2020
Scotia iTrade Open and fund a new Scotia iTrade account to be eligible for up to $1,500 in cash back and $6.99 commission pricing, or up to 500 free equity trades. The amount of cashback and free trades are dependent on the funding of your account. Take a look at the offer details link for further information. $5,000 Cash + discounted commissions, or free trades. $6.99 trades available until June 30, 2020; Cash or commission rebate for free trades available until July 31, 2020. iTrade Offer Details February 29, 2020
Open a new RBC Direct Investing account by March 27th and you may be eligible for 25 commission-free equity and ETF trades. You must deposit or transfer $5,000 in your account by May 8th, 2020 to be able to use this promotion. Make sure that the offer code MFTC2 is applied during account opening. As always, be sure to take a look at the terms and conditions for further details. $5,000 25 commission-free trades 1 year Commission-Free Offer Details March 27, 2020
Open and fund a qualifying new or existing account at TD Direct Investing with at least A) $15,000; B) $25,000; C) $100,000; D) $250,000 or E) $500,000 or more and you may be eligible to receive a cash back reward up to A) $100; B) $200; C) $300; D) $500 or E) $1,000. Use promo code RSPCash20 when applying online. Be sure to read full terms and conditions. A) $15,000 B) $25,000 C) $100,000 D) $250,000 E) $500,000 A) $100 B) $200 C) $300 D) $500 E) $1,000 Cash back will be deposited by Aug. 16, 2020. TD Direct Investing Promotion March 03, 2020
Open and fund a new qualifying account with at least $25,000 and you may qualify for one month of unlimited commission-free trades and up to one month free of an advanced data package. Use promo code ADVANTAGE14 when opening a new account. Be sure to read terms and conditions for full details. $25,000 commission-free trades for 1 month + 1 month of advanced data. 1 month Active Trader Program December 31, 2020
When you transfer funds from another account into a CIBC Investor’s Edge account with assets worth at least A) $25,000; B) $50,000; C) $100,000, you may be eligible to receive A) $100; B) $200; or C) $400 in cash back. A) $25,000 B) $50,000 C) 100,000+ A) $100 B) $200 C) $400 Cash back will be deposited between May 18 – September 17, 2020. CIBC Cash Back Offer Details March 4, 2020
Open and fund a new Qtrade account with at least A) $25,000; B) $50,000 C) $100,00; D) $500,000; E) $1M or D) $2M+ in new assets by March 31, 2020 and you may be eligible to receive a cash bonus of A) $75; B) $150; C) $400; D) $800; E) $1,500 or F) $2,000. Individuals who contribute more than $1,000 through pre-authorized contributions by December 31, 2020 may also be eligible to receive an extra $50. Use promo code QTRADECASH at sign up to qualify. Be sure to read full terms and conditions for more details. A) $25,000 B) $50,000 C) $100,000 D) $500,000 E) $1M F) $2M+ A) $75 B) $175 C) $400 D) $800 E) $1,500 F) $2,000 The cash award will be credited to your cash/margin account in the week of October 30, 2020. Qtrade Investor Q1 2020 Cash Back Offer March 31, 2020
BMO InvestorLine Open a new qualifying account at BMO InvestorLine with new assets worth at least A) $50,000; B) $100,000; C) $250,000; D) $500,000 or E) $1M+, and you may be eligible to receive a cash back reward of up to A) $250; B) $450; C) $800; D) $1,000 or E) $2,000. Use promo code SPARXCASH when registering to qualify. Be sure to read full terms and conditions. A) $50,000 B) $100,000 C) $250,000 D) $500,000 E) $1M+ A) $250 B) $450 C) $800 D) $1,000 E) $2,000 Cash back will be deposited week of December 14, 2020 BMO InvestorLine Cash Back Offer Details June 1, 2020

Expired Offers

Last Updated: Mar. 9, 2020 11:08PT

Referral Promotions

Company Brief Description Minimum Deposit Amount Incentive Structure Time Limit to Use Commission/Cash Offer Deposit Details Link Deadline
Refer a friend to Questrade and when they open an account you receive $25 cash back and they receive either A) $25; B) $50; C) $75; D) $100; or E) $250 depending on the amount deposited amount. Enter code: 476104302388759 during account sign up to qualify. Be sure to read the terms and conditions for eligibility and additional bonus payment structure and minimum balance requirements. A) $1,000 B) $10,000 C) $25,000 D) $50,000 E) $100,000+ $25 cash back (for referrer per referral; $50 bonus cash back for every 3rd referral) For referred individuals: A) $25 cash back B) $50 cash back C) $75 cash back D) $100 cash back E) $250 cash back Cash deposited into Questrade billing account within 7 days after funding period ends (90 days) Refer a friend terms and conditions Code Number: 476104302388759 none
Scotia iTrade If you refer a friend/family member who is not already a Scotia iTRADE account holder to them, both you and your friend get a bonus of either cash or free trades. You have to use the referral form to pass along your info as well as your friend/family members’ contact info in order to qualify. There are lots of details/conditions to this deal so be sure to read the details link. A) $10,000 B) $50,000+ A) You(referrer): $50 or 10 free trades; Your “Friend”: $50 or 10 free trades (max total value:$99.90) B) You(referrer): $100 cash or 50 free trades; Your “Friend”: $100 cash or 50 free trades (max total value: $499.50) 60 days Refer A Friend to Scotia iTrade tbd
If you (an existing Qtrade Investor client) refer a new client to Qtrade Investor and they open an account with at least $1,000 the referrer and the referee may both be eligible to receive $25 cash. See terms and conditions for full details. $1,000 $25 cash back (for both referrer and referee) Cash deposited at the end of the month in which referee’s account funded Refer A Friend to Qtrade Investor none
You can send an invitation link from your Interactive Brokers profile to friends or business contacts for a chance to receive up to $200 reward for each successful referral. The referee needs to maintain $10,000 or more in their account. Please read the full terms and conditions. $10,000 Your can get 30% of the commission generated by each referred account for up to $200.00. Referred clients must maintain at least $10,000 or USD equivalent in their account. 1 year from the account opening date. Interactive Brokers Referral Program none
BMO InvestorLine If you (an existing BMO InvestorLine client) refer a new client to BMO InvestorLine and they open an account with at least $5,000 the referrer and the referee may both be eligible to receive $50 cash. To qualify the referee must use the email of the referrer that is linked to their BMO InvestorLine account. See terms and conditions for full details. $5,000 You(referrer): $50; Your Friend(referee): $50 Payout occurs 45 days after minimum 90 day holding period (subject to conditions). BMO InvestorLine Refer-a-Friend January 5, 2021

Expired Offers

Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2020 17:13PT

Transfer Fee Promotions

Company Brief Description Maximum Transfer Fee Coverage Amount Minimum Deposit Amount for Transfer Fee Eligibility Details Link Deadline
Move your brokerage account to Questrade and they’ll cover the transfer-out fee up to $150. $150 n/a Transfer Fee Promo none
Transfer $15,000 or more to RBC Direct Investing and they will pay up to $200 in transfer fees. $200 $15,000 Transfer Fee Rebate Details none
Transfer $15,000 or more into a new HSBC InvestDirect account and you may be eligible to have up to $152.55 in transfer fees covered. $152.55 $15,000 Confirmed via email contact with HSBC InvestDirect Rep. Contact client service for more information. none
Transfer $15,000 or more to Qtrade Investor from another brokerage and Qtrade Investor may cover up to $150 in transfer fees. See terms and conditions for more details. $150 $15,000 Transfer Fee Rebate none
Transfer $20,000 or more to a National Bank Direct Brokerage account and they will pay up to $135 plus taxes in transfer fees. $135 $20,000 Transfer Fee Rebate none
Transfer at least $25,000 or more in new assets to TD Direct Investing when opening a new account and you may qualify to have transfer fees reimbursed up to $150. Be sure to contact TD Direct Investing for further details. $150 $25,000 Transfer Fee Promo Contact client service for more information (1-800-465-5463). none
Transfer $25,000 or more into a CIBC Investor’s Edge account and they will reimburse up to $135 in brokerage transfer fees. Clients must call customer service to request rebate after transfer made. $135 $25,000 Confirmed with reps. Contact client service for more information (1-800-567-3343). none
BMO InvestorLine Open a new qualifying account with BMO InvestorLine or fund a qualifying existing account and you may be eligible to have transfer fees covered up to $200. Contact client service for more details. $200 Contact client service for more information Contact client service for more information (1-888-776-6886) none

Expired Offers

Disnat Desjardins Online Brokerage is offering up to $150 to cover the cost of transfer fees from another institution. To be eligible, new/existing clients need to deposit $10,000 into a Desjardins Online Brokerage account. You’ll have to call 1-866-873-7103 and mention promo code DisnatTransfer. See details link for more info. $150 $10,000 Disnat 1% Commission Credit Promo January 8, 2020
Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2020 17:15PT

Other Promotions

Company Brief Description Minimum Deposit Amount Required Details Link Deadline
Submit your information via the Hardbacon website to be referred to National Bank Direct Brokerage. Open and fund a qualifying account and you may receive up to 20 commission-free trades and discounted trading commissions. Be sure to read full terms and conditions. n/a Hardbacon Free Trade Promo none
Disnat Desjardins Online Brokerage is offering $50 in commission credits for new Disnat Classic clients depositing at least $1,000. See terms and conditions for full details. $1,000 Broker@ge 18-30 Promotion none
Scotia iTrade Scotiabank StartRight customers can receive 10 commission-free trades when investing $1,000 or more in a new Scotia iTrade account. Trades are good for use for up to 1 year from the date the account is funded. Use promo code SRPE15 when applying (in English) or SRPF15 when applying in French. Be sure to read full terms and conditions for full details. $1,000 StartRight Free Trade offer none

Expired Offers

Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2020 17:15PT

Digital Advice + Roboadvisor Promotions

Robo-advisor / Digital advisor Offer Type Offer Description Min. Deposit Reward / Promotion Promo Code Expiry Date Link
Discounted Management Open and fund a new Questrade Portfolio IQ account with a deposit of at least $1,000 and the first month of management will be free. For more information on Portfolio IQ, click the product link. $1,000 1st month no management fees KDKFNBBC None Questrade Portfolio IQ Promo Offer
Cash Back Open and fund a new or existing SmartFolio account with at least $1,000 and you could receive 0.5% cash back up to $1000. Use promo code PROMO1000 when opening a new account. See terms and conditions for full details. This offer can be combined with the refer-a-friend promotion. $1,000 0.5% cash back to a maximum of $1000. PROMO1000 January 2, 2020 SmartFolio Cash Back Promo
Discounted Management Open a new account with BMO SmartFolio and receive one year of management of up to $15,000 free. See offer terms and conditions for more details. $1,000 1 year no management fees STSF April 30, 2019 SmartFolio New Account Promotion
Cash Back – Referral BMO SmartFolio clients will receive $50 cash back for every friend or family member who opens and funds a new SmartFolio account. Friends and family referred to SmartFolio will receive $50 cash back for opening and funding an account, plus automatic enrollment into SmartFolio’s mass offer in market at the time. See offer terms and conditions for more details. $1,000 $50 cash back (referrer) $50 cash back (referee) Unique link generated from SmartFolio required. None SmartFolio Website
Transfer Fee Coverage Transfer at least $25,000 into Virtual Wealth when opening a new account and you may be eligible to have up to $150 in transfer fees covered by Virtual Wealth. $25,000 up to $150 in transfer fees covered None None Contact customer service directly for more information.
Last Updated: Feb. 28, 2020 17:15PT