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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – August 24, 2020

It’s funny that gravity is often associated with apples falling. This week, we’re seeing Apple as the symbol of defying gravity. Of course, the iconic tech brand isn’t the only one defying gravity with markets hitting new highs – and apparently, some online brokers are too.

In this edition of the Roundup, we review some interesting news related to an increasingly popular online brokerage that has decided to flex their recently growing muscles against their competitors. From there, we highlight an interesting online investor education event for options enthusiasts who might just find an extra reason to show up to class in September. As always, we cap things off with some colourful commentary from DIY investors on Twitter and in the investor forums.

Robinhood Finds Riches with Latest Raise

Of the many twists that nobody really saw coming in the online brokerage space in 2020, having the most financially successful year (possibly ever) would not have been one of them. And, yet, here we are.

With just a few more months left in the year, it is hard to characterize 2020 as anything but a runaway success for many online brokerages in Canada and the US, especially for Robinhood – who has firmly locked in their status as the breakout star of the online brokerage world.

This month, Robinhood, which is not publicly traded (yet), decided to flex by reporting its June trading metrics. Robinhood customers racked up a staggering 4.3 million trades per day during June – higher than all of the major existing online brokerages and, in some cases, by a lot. TD Ameritrade, which came in second behind Robinhood in terms of DARTs, saw clients place 3.84 million trades per day; Interactive Brokers and Schwab both clocked in at 1.8 million trades and E*Trade at 1.1 million trades.

Why Robinhood chose to release these figures now is a bit of a mystery. However, they may be laying the groundwork for their eventual plans to IPO and what better way to demonstrate value to the marketplace than with the core metric that many online brokerages are evaluated against. Perhaps not coincidentally either, Robinhood also successfully closed another round of financing (series g) this year, raising 200 million dollars and vaulting their company valuation to 11.2 billion dollars from 8.6 billion just a few months ago.

What does this mean for the industry as a whole and for Canadian discount brokerages in particular?

First, it reinforces the notion that the path to success in the online brokerage industry points in one clear direction: scale. Without it, the machinery of the online brokerage business model simply cannot achieve the level of activity required to generate profitability. Relevancy is measured in how many accounts you have, the assets under management and how much trading activity takes place on your platform. Other metrics, however, which were also released by Robinhood on social media, point to the strength of their content infrastructure which puts them well beyond the reach of any of their peers.

Second, user experience is a big picture concept – pricing has to match the platform. Robinhood was built around and for a defined audience. It was built mobile first. It was built for younger investors first. The kinds of services and experiences these younger investors found more appealing were the areas in which they focused. Perhaps more impressive than their rise in numbers has been the fact they managed to create a powerful brand. The recent purchases of TD Ameritrade ($26 billion) and E*Trade ($13 billion) reflect a price that includes the value of the brand. The most recent valuation of Robinhood reflects a brand that has room to run. And, with a brand, it enables a premium to be paid to belong to the ‘club’ that is Robinhood.

Third, there is a clear disconnect in the online brokerage industry around the “zero commission” brokerages like Robinhood (and in Canada, Wealthsimple Trade) and whether they can be considered peers/competitors to online brokerages.

This past week, for example, financial information publisher Kiplinger released its online brokerage rankings in the US and surprisingly, despite the numbers of users on the platform, Robinhood was left off the list of online brokerages in the US that were considered for part of the review. The reason Robinhood was not included was “the mobile-first brokerage doesn’t offer trading of bonds or mutual funds—key investment vehicles for many of our readers.” A similar tone appeared in reference to Wealthsimple Trade in the latest Moneysense online brokerage rankings of Canadian discount brokers. According to the Moneysense review, “Wealthsimple Trade, which has been wrongly labelled by many as an online brokerage firm as it only offers a mobile application with limited functionality, resources, account types, product, market information and services expected of a Canadian discount brokerage firm.”

The view that the ‘mobile first’ approach or limited feature set are not as “traditional” may be true but it is precisely why they are as popular as they are. Further, if these firms are not ‘discount’ brokerages in the truest sense when the commission rates per trade are now as low as possible, then it begs the question – what are they?

Popular media, for better or worse, has already decided these trading apps belong to the same category of financial service as an online brokerage. Clearly, consumers are not shying away from the limited feature set either. Valuations, media mentions, metrics and consumer sentiment are all pointing in the same direction with what Robinhood has produced thus far. For any existing online brokerage or ranking to exclude firms like Robinhood or Wealthsimple Trade from their planning, seems like they do so at their own peril.

Options Education Day Goes Virtual

With September just around the corner, so too is chatter of back-to-school. While the annual ritual of heading back to class is mired in controversy because of COVID-19, there exists a pretty clear alternative to meeting in person for educational activities.

For those looking to learn about options trading, the good news is that the Montreal Exchange is taking their one-day Options Education Day workshop into an online format for the second time this year. Filled with interesting content for beginners and intermediate investors, Options Education Day is typically a great way to learn about options and interact with other like-minded investors. Another standard feature of the event is the opportunity to interact with the sponsors, who in this case, are largely made up of Canadian discount brokerages.

The next session of the virtual Options Education Day will be taking place online on September 12th from 12pm to 3:30pm ET.

Canadian discount brokerages sponsoring this event include:

While most of these sponsors are fairly regular faces at these events, one relatively surprising online broker on this list is HSBC InvestDirect. For the most part, HSBC InvestDirect has flown under the radar when it comes to a lot of the activities that other brokerages typically do, so while this may be a fairly low-profile event, it is nonetheless interesting to see HSBC InvestDirect stepping forward to participate, in particular, at an event focused on options trading.

Given the high levels of investor interest and volatility in the market, options trading – while complex – represents a very profitable revenue source for many online brokerages in terms of trading commissions, even more so than with trading stocks.

With Options Education Day moving to a virtual format, attendees from across the country will be able to connect simultaneously, so in some ways, it will be an opportunity to connect with a larger audience than would be possible in person. Online brokerages stand to save quite a bit of money in terms of travel expenses and materials.

One underreported perk for attendees of these events is that there can be online broker specials offered for new account sign-ups. While there is no guarantee of a deal showing up, there’s a decent bet that the brokerages sponsoring will want to provide something to entice the attendees.

Check out the Options Education Day registration page for more information.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Too Much of a Passive Thing?

A Redditor poses the question of what the impact of the popularization of passive investing might be in this post. Fellow forum users weigh in, discussing what this means for the market and for active traders.

Reimbursting a Bubble

Security is serious business for all Canadian online brokerages. This post on Reddit caught the attention of a lot of readers who were interested to learn about reimbursement fine print at a popular Canadian brokerage.

Into the Close

That’s it for a very heady week in the markets, from markets continuing to push higher and Apple continuing to make trillion-dollar market caps seem normal, to all kinds of showdowns looming on the political front and sports in hyperdrive. Wherever your focus happens to be, here’s hoping you get a better view of where things go next.

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