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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – December 21, 2020

The phrase that’s been a mantra for many of us in 2020 – aside from “You’re on mute” – has been “Is it over yet?” Finally, it’s a lot closer to being true than at any previous point in the year. Thank goodness. In keeping with the sentiment of a very long year, this end-of-year edition of the Weekly Roundup is itself longer than usual. Unlike 2020, however, it is intentionally long because so many interesting things took place.

Packaging so many big developments into one post was a challenge. So, for this final edition of the Roundup for the year, we offer up an homage to a movie franchise that seems to go on just about as long as 2020 has. This Fast and Furious edition of the Roundup recaps the year one quarter at a time. Keep reading for high-octane stories that powered the Weekly Roundup for the past year, including important feature releases, interesting trends, and the stories that were kind of a big deal.  In true Weekly Roundup form, we roll the credits on 2020 with DIY investor chatter from Twitter and the forums.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Q1 2020: Everything Was Normal Until It Wasn’t

Looking back on the beginning of the year, the start to 2020 in the Canadian online brokerage space seemed pretty “normal” by most accounts.

One theme early in the year was pricing drops. Desjardins Online Brokerage, for example, significantly dropped their commission rates, especially for active investors, to under $1 per trade. Similarly, HSBC also teed up an offer for active investors: zero-commission pricing between April and December 2020. Although these two firms aren’t as well known in the Canadian online brokerage space as other mainstream firms or the big-five bank-owned online brokers, it was clear that commission pricing in 2020 would continue to be under pressure as smaller firms looked to gain market share. These moves were also timed around the start of the year because of the heightened interest in RSP accounts, and, as such, there would be a much larger audience of investors willing to consider these new pricing features. Interestingly, the rest of the Canadian online brokerage industry did not immediately move to lower commission prices. As it turned out, once the tsunami of investor demand for online brokerage accounts took hold, commission prices stayed largely untouched until the latter part of 2020.

Another important theme early in the year (prior to COVID-19 hitting with full force) was the release of online brokerage reviews and rankings. Both The Globe and Mail and Surviscor released their respective rankings of Canada’s online brokers in order to coincide with the time in the calendar when many DIY investors hunt out new online investing accounts and offers.

What stood out about the 2020 edition of The Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings (which happened to be the 21st edition of these rankings) was that a number of firms scored a respectable grade (B or better), but of the top three firms by letter grade, two of them were bank-owned online brokers: TD Direct Investing and Scotia iTrade. The firm that reappeared at the top of these rankings was Qtrade Investor, which earned an A+ rating overall. Ironically, TD Direct Investing suffered from a trading interruption (something that would become a lot more commonplace across the industry in 2020), and Scotia iTrade continued to face challenges responding to clients in a timely fashion over the phone.

In the Surviscor rankings, Qtrade Investor also took top spot, edging out Questrade and TD Direct Investing. Not to be outdone, Questrade earned a DALBAR award for client service, providing additional points for their brand in a year that started off strong in terms of rankings progress.

Of course, the major story during the first quarter of 2020 was COVID-19, and specifically how it roiled markets and caused a massive shock to trading systems, online brokerages, and DIY investors. For some, it was catastrophic, but to others, the opportunity of a lifetime. It was this latter group that won the day, however, as new investors jumped at the chance to invest in household-name stocks at incredible prices. Further, the “Robinhood effect” was cited as another reason the volatility seemed to skyrocket. The US online brokerage had moved to a largely commission-free model, and, as such, investors could “scalp” trade – making small and frequent trades – with no real downside (in terms of commission pricing). It turned out, however, that most online brokerage systems were not equipped to handle the surge in interest in trading combined with market volatility.

Some weird things happened. Among them, Wealthsimple Trade having to effectively halt new clients from being able to trade on their platform.

Major online brokerages also suffered trading platform downtime, slammed telephone reps, and the biggest surge in online brokerage account opening since the bitcoin craze in 2018. Oh, and they had to contend with all of this while being transitioned to a work-from-home model.

Also strange, people deciding to hoard toilet paper.

Q2 2020: Outages & Outrage

The start of the second quarter picked up right where the first ended, as things went from weird to certifiably insane. Volatility and trading volumes managed to take down trading systems at multiple Canadian bank-owned online brokerages, but that would not even be the weirdest thing to take place in April. As it turns out, prices for commodities, like barrels of oil, could not only fall to zero but also go negative.

Unfortunately for traders – and especially for Interactive Brokers clients – the oil contract price going negative wound up impairing (if not wiping out) a significant number of traders, and that was because of a programming glitch on Interactive Brokers’ platform that didn’t account for prices of contracts being able to turn negative. All told, Interactive Brokers ended up taking a $90 million loss because of the exceptionally rare move to reimburse traders caught offside by this issue. Of course, while embarrassing for Interactive Brokers, these were truly unusual times, and there were other traders who didn’t see it coming.

Nonetheless, Interactive Brokers also had a huge silver lining after the oil futures contract fiasco: They experienced record-breaking new-account growth. As the canary in the coal mine, Interactive Brokers telegraphed exceptionally strong account openings (+22% year over year) and revenue gains from the sheer volume of activity taking place. In fact, there were more accounts opened at Interactive Brokers in April 2020 than in the last six months of 2019 combined.

Against the backdrop of market volatility, another online brokerage ranking was published, this time from J.D. Power. The Self-Directed Investor Satisfaction Study was revealing in that even before many of the issues that came to light during the heavy volatility in the markets, the Canadian online brokerage industry was starting to slip in terms of investor satisfaction. The report card showed that online brokerages fared worse in 2020 than they did in 2019 when it came to overall satisfaction.

Questrade managed to take top spot in the rankings for 2020, an accolade that is the result of a long journey of constant improvement. Conversely, the bottom four online brokerages in Canada, according to J.D. Power, were from the big five: RBC Direct Investing, TD Direct Investing, CIBC Investor’s Edge, and Scotia iTrade, respectively, were the firms that scored the lowest on the 2020 edition of this ranking. One telling stat was that website stability and accessibility were areas where online investors felt underserved, with 46% of those polled experiencing a problem with their provider’s website.

Finally, the major development in the second quarter of 2020 (outside of COVID-19) was the death of George Floyd and the igniting of social justice movements in North America (and across the world) to a point not seen since the US Civil Rights movement. Though the stock markets were largely insulated from the headline risk, major names in the public markets (like Nike) took very public stands on the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. One potentially coincidental shift that we noted in the websites of two online brokerages at this time was the use of more inclusive and diverse imagery. What a DIY investor was “supposed to look like” changed in terms of the imagery used on the websites of Interactive Brokers and Virtual Brokers. Other online brokerages in Canada had already made the shift to more inclusive imagery, so it was nice to see these online brokers take a step in the right direction when it comes to representation.

Another important note on Virtual Brokers emerged during this time, which was that the parent company, CI Financial, had opted to consolidate the “Virtual Brokers” name under CI Direct Investing along with another key name in the digital investing space: WealthBar. Although no definitive timetable was published on this move, it means that a long-standing name in the online brokerage space will disappear, and DIY investors will have to learn another new name. To make matters even more challenging, the new online brokerage that formed from the acquisition of Jitneytrade by Canaccord is named CG Direct. These two names are bound to confuse DIY investors even more than the current challenge of sorting out Qtrade Investor and Questrade.

Q3 2020: Sun and Shade

With the nicer weather and relative calm in stock markets, it seemed like an opportune moment for several online brokerages to make big announcements and feature enhancements/changes. And there were a few.

Starting in June, TD Direct Investing announced updates to its mobile app that focused on enhancements to investor education. Interestingly, as it came to be seen later in the year, this move toward bolstering investor education was both a timely one, given the number of new investors coming into the stock market, and a well-calculated one, supporting the big reveal that would come in Q4. The trend of improvements to mobile trading experiences was something that surfaced several times in the year, notably with RBC Direct Investing as well as Virtual Brokers.

One of the biggest announcements to cross the tape was that Wealthsimple Trade would be launching cryptocurrency trading in Canada. Offering trading in both Bitcoin and Ethereum, this move by the “zero-commission” online broker in Canada was yet another step to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy audience who wanted both an easier way to access these digital currency instruments and a more user-friendly way. This pilot program will ultimately help to inform whether cryptocurrency trading can be properly regulated by financial authorities in Canada. In 2020, Wealthsimple Trade continued to lean into its identity as a “Robinhood Canada,” given the success of the US online brokerage in winning over new investors to its platform.

One big feature roll-out that didn’t quite go as planned was from CIBC Investor’s Edge. Unfortunately, the feature upgrade’s first attempt resulted in trading interruptions that, in turn, prompted the online broker to offer commission-free trades to those who were impacted by the outage. Eventually, however, a new online trading experience was rolled out – in part – and set the stage for further improvements to the user experience.

After a very quiet stretch, signs of life in the deals and promotions section started to appear. National Bank Direct Brokerage launched a sizable commission-free trade offer, and, interestingly, Wealthsimple Trade launched a contest with a draw for $5,000 in cash. What made the latter offer stand out is that it was an early signal that despite offering zero-commission trades, Wealthsimple Trade also had to undertake some further effort to entice new clients to their platform (something that showed up again in Q4).

Q4 2020: A Few Good Mends

It’s hard to believe that the fourth quarter was actually just one quarter, given how much happened. The resurgence of COVID-19 via the “second wave,” the huge rally in the stock market to set new highs, and the US federal election all would have been massive stories on their own but, combined, they made it nearly impossible to keep from watching the news.

Despite all of the negative headlines, what did emerge for online brokerages and DIY investors was an interesting convergence of events.

While the first portion of the year showed unprecedented strength of interest by online investors to open up accounts and trade, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, things had levelled off somewhat. Nevertheless, Canadian online brokerages, much like their US counterparts, were seeing elevated trading activity and, unlike their peers in the US, were generating significant revenue as a result. The fourth quarter in the year is also the time when online brokers in Canada typically start their ramp-up to campaigns for RSP season. What resulted from these events taking place simultaneously was that the deals and promotions activity in November just exploded. Offers came to market from all major online bank-owned brokerages as well as most other Canadian online brokers in one way or another. Even Wealthsimple Trade managed to jump into the deals and promotions fray, once again taking their cues from Robinhood and launching a promotion to give away cash in an amount equivalent to a particular popular stock.

Deals were just one part of what the fourth quarter of 2020 had to offer. Also on deck for the end of the year was a huge announcement from TD Direct Investing, which launched their new commission-free ETF trading platform, GoalAssist. While the platform only allows commission-free trading for TD-branded ETFs, it is a huge step in moving the needle forward on commission-free trading for Canadian DIY investors. Already ETFs are free to buy (at Questrade and Virtual Brokers) or free to buy and sell (all ETFs at National Bank Direct Brokerage and a limited selection at Scotia iTrade and Qtrade Investor). So, for TD Direct Investing, one of the biggest names in Canadian DIY investing circles, to launch this product (and in a mobile-only format to boot) means that they are directly going after the commission-free trading offering by Wealthsimple Trade.

Ironically, it appears that in the fourth quarter, Wealthsimple Trade was already at work to challenge the traditional Canadian online brokerage offering of a “desktop experience.” Prior to this year, Wealthsimple Trade had been available in mobile-app format only – something that ultimately ended getting Wealthsimple Trade disqualified from being included in some of the Surviscor online brokerage rankings.

As of the fourth quarter, however, Wealthsimple Trade has launched a desktop version of their web platform that is being tested by users. Given that fewer people are actually going into an office or are on the go to and from an office, more and more users are spending time on their laptops or desktop computers. So, this highly sought-after feature is another shot across the bow aimed at the online brokerage industry indicating that Wealthsimple Trade is getting up to speed on the features that online investors want.

New features didn’t stop there for Canadian online brokerages, however. BMO InvestorLine rolled out a 2.0 version of their online trading experience, which significantly streamlines their existing web interface, though it is still being updated in terms of features. At first blush, it looks like the trend among online brokerages has shifted away from completing all features before launch, moving instead to an “agile” model of shipping features out and enhancing/optimizing over the product lifecycle. Another big announcement from an online broker regarding features was from National Bank Direct Brokerage, which officially rolled out OptionsPlay as part of their offering to clients. This platform is intended to assist individual investors in manoeuvring through trading options.

Finally, one more noteworthy milestone took place in the quarter, as the Sparx team launched the fourth edition of the Look Back/Look Ahead series. This publication featured in-depth coverage of several of Canada’s most popular online brokerages, which offered a unique glimpse at how 2020 unfolded for them as well as what features and trends they’re looking to in 2021. In addition to the online brokerage space as a whole, the magazine also offered a sneak peek at the new website coming in 2021.

Even summarizing it a quarter at a time, this year had lots of other stories that we didn’t get a chance to highlight in the Roundups as well as in this ultimate year-end review of stories that shaped 2020 in the Canadian (and US) online brokerage industry.

2020 being what it is, there’s still room for some kind of unplanned surprise that could impact investors – whether it’s a new deal or feature launch – however, the good news is that with just a few more days until the official end of the year, online brokerage employees are going to be in holiday mode, too. As such, we don’t anticipate more feature releases going live just yet.

So, on that note, we’ll be doing something different and signing off for the Weekly Roundup for 2020 for the final stretch of December. We will be rebooting in early January, with a few other surprises to mention right out of the gate, as well as more exclusive content. Unless, of course, 2020 drops a story too big not to cover in the online brokerage space.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

A Sure Thing?

In this post, one investor asks for recommendations of stable, secure American companies to invest in for the next 10 to 15 years. The advice pours in, covering ETFs, the couch potato strategy, Canadian versus American stocks – and why you should avoid taking advice about specific stocks from random people on the internet.

Live and Learn

An investor who knows very little about their own investments asks about the best way to learn about the topic. Redditors share their favourite books, websites, courses, podcasts, and more, along with their personal financial journeys.

Into the Close

That’s it for the final Roundup for 2020. With vaccines now in place and hope on the horizon, there is lots to look forward to in the coming months. The next few weeks will be the most challenging; however, to pull a (final) line from the Fast and Furious franchise, “We do what we do best, we improvise.”

Stay safe, healthy, and connected, and see you again in 2021.

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