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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – January 11, 2021

Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade. 2021 is shaping up to be more of a hangover than a do-over. Now that we are just over 2% into the new year, the road ahead is clearly bumpy. Thankfully, with talk of new promos and the finer points of design choices, we have much brighter news to report than most of what’s been flying (or not flying) around on social media.

In this post–coup d’état edition of the Roundup, we provide a refreshing piece of good news as multiple online brokerages launch new offers and reset the game clock on existing promotions for DIY investors to take advantage of heading into this year’s RRSP deadline. Next, we weigh in on an interesting conundrum for the online investing experience: innovate quickly or stick to the basics? Happily, we’ve got some interesting forum chatter and informative commentary from DIY investors on Twitter to close out on.

Deals Activity Shows Cash Is King

If there’s one thing we could all use right about now, it’s a healthy dose of positive developments. Fortunately, the January deals and promotions section has been filling up with just that – especially for online investors looking to score a deal on an online investing account ahead of the RRSP contribution deadline.

Kicking things off is the great news that RBC Direct Investing has jumped back into the deals and promotions section with a cash-back and commission-free trade offer. After the conclusion of their go-to commission-free trade promotion at the end of 2020, it seems that RBC Direct Investing made a resolution to start off the new year with something bigger and bolder for DIY investors this RRSP season.

Beginning this January and lasting until the end of March 2021, RBC Direct Investing is offering a tiered cash-back promotion. The cash-back amounts range from $50 (for deposits of $5,000) up to $2,000 (for deposits of $1 million or more). In addition to a cash-back amount, all deposit tiers qualify for 10 commission-free trades that are good through to the end of August 2021, leaving ample time for individuals to use this bonus.

We were also eagerly awaiting what BMO InvestorLine would launch early this month. Their previous promotional campaign expired in early January, unlike many of their peer firms’ deals, which expired at the end of December, so it was interesting to see what BMO InvestorLine would do given the clear trend toward cash-back offers from their competitors this year.

Fortunately for DIY investors, BMO InvestorLine has shown up with a relatively competitive offer and significantly dropped the qualifying deposit amount for the lowest tier of the deal from their usual range of $25,000 to $50,000. As with their previous cash-back offer in the fall, the new cash-back offer is a tiered promotion; however, this promo features deposit tiers starting from $15,000 (which offers $150 cash-back) up to deposits of $1 million and more (which offers $2,000 cash-back).

In addition to the launch of new offers this past week, we also saw several offers have their expiry dates officially updated. Notably, there were a couple of offers from Questrade – their five-free-trades offer, as well as their one month of commission-free trading, saw their expiry dates move to December 2021. Also, the refer-a-friend offer from BMO InvestorLine was extended another year, with the new expiry date falling on January 6th, 2022.

If there’s one clear trend this year when it comes to online brokerage deals and promotions, it’s that cash is king.

All of the big five bank-owned Canadian online brokers have a very competitive cash-back promotion now live, with most of them expiring at the beginning of March (RBC Direct Investing’s is the only exception, finishing at the end of March). That said, there are some patterns that emerge in the offers that are worth exploring further.

First, it was interesting to note the trends at the extreme ends of the deposit tiers.

At the lower end of the deposit spectrum (generally under $25,000), all of the big bank-owned online brokerages had some kind of offer in place. RBC Direct Investing had the highest offer, with a cash-back award of $50 and 10 commission-free trades, an offer that their only rival at this deposit level, Scotia iTrade, was well behind (Scotia iTrade offers $25 cash-back). Interestingly, BMO InvestorLine, who lowered their deposit threshold to qualify for a deal down to $15,000 (compared to the $50,000 minimum deposit for their fall campaign), went significantly higher than any of its peers with an offer of $150, which is 50% higher than what TD Direct Investing offered ($100).

Meanwhile, at the higher deposit levels ($500,000+), there appears to be a whole new battleground forming.

To start, almost all online brokerages with cash-back promotions have an advertised offer for deposits of at least $1 million. The one online brokerage that does not, however, is TD Direct Investing. This seems like a remarkable decision given the value of the prospective clients at that level, and while for portfolios of $1 million or more the deal isn’t the first thing that a shopper might consider, all else being equal, three direct competitors are willing to pay $1,000 more for the business.

It bears mentioning that the appearance of $1 million as a deposit tier used to be a headline maker; however, this deposit tier has almost certainly become the new-normal top-end deposit. That said, it was also fascinating to observe that Qtrade Investor created a new top-deposit tier for individuals bringing over at least $2 million. Given that the bonus Qtrade Investor is offering for this deposit tier ($2,000) is the same amount that rival online brokerages are offering for deposits of $1 million, it seems as if this tier was a clever way in which to stand out against their competitors. While the dollar amount for the bonus isn’t higher, the deposit tier is, which makes Qtrade Investor appear to be larger than their bank-owned peers. Further, there are no other non-big-five-bank-owned brokerage competitors to Qtrade Investor at these higher-level deposit tiers.

Aside from extreme deposit tiers, it was also fascinating to observe which segments were sought after by specific brokerages.

For example, neither BMO InvestorLine nor TD Direct Investing saw value in putting offers into market for prospects with less than $15,000. Additionally, in the deposit range between $15,000 and $500,000, BMO InvestorLine is aggressively pricing their cash-back bonus. With the exception of the $25,000 tier (in which TD Direct Investing has the highest cash-back offer), BMO InvestorLine either has the highest amount or is tied for the highest amount of cash-back (at the $100,000 deposit tier with CIBC Investor’s Edge).

With several key names still on the sidelines heading into RRSP season, we suspect that there might be a few offers still to come to market; however, it is unlikely that the current prices will be significantly outbid across pricing tiers. Instead, if an online brokerage is contemplating launching a cash-back offer, it is more likely that they will stick to the average offering in that tier or find a way to combine cash-back with commission-free trades to have a more competitive offering.

Thankfully, the deals and promotions news for Canadian DIY investors is actually improving in 2021 – and that was coming off a strong close to 2020 in terms of offers.

Most of Canada’s largest online brokerages have the most popular offer type (cash-back) available, which makes this an opportune time for anyone considering opening an online investing or online trading account to get the maximum benefit for doing so. Of course, we’re curious what some smaller or lesser-known online brokers are going to do in terms of promotions, but from now through the end of February we expect the focus to be on marketing and advertising.

Mind the Generation Gap: User Experience for Online Investing in the Spotlight

There’s no question that the picture of the world we’re living in exposes divisions nearly everywhere we look. In the world of online investing, although it is not nearly as polarizing, there is a significant challenge for online brokerages to contend with: trying to balance providing the kind of user experience younger (read Millennial and now Gen Z) investors expect with that preferred by the existing (and likely higher-asset-bearing) clientele comprised of “boomers.”

Originally, this second story of the Roundup was going to focus on only one topic – either the myriad of recent legal woes experienced by Robinhood while the Weekly Roundup was on hiatus, or an article published by Rob Carrick in The Globe and Mail at the end of December explaining to baby boomers how they can manage their investments using online brokerage apps. In diving into the comments of the Carrick article, however, it became clearer that the story of Robinhood’s regulatory troubles and the realities of mobile apps for older clients represent two sides of a user-experience coin. Hence, they’re both the focus of this particular story.

Starting first with Robinhood’s journey back into the spotlight at the end of 2020. Without question, for most of 2020, it was an incredibly positive year for the balance sheet of the scrappy “zero-commission” online brokerage in the US. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in North America, and for the better part of the first half of 2020, Robinhood saw its client base skyrocket. Stunningly, Robinhood added more new clients in that timeframe than many of their peers – in fact, arguably adding more clients than most of their competitors. In 2020, Robinhood added 3 million new customers to its ranks in the first four months alone, it grew to 13 million users, and it currently sits at a valuation of more than $20 billion (USD). What has helped Robinhood skyrocket in users over 25x in seven years has been a combination of zero-commission stock trading prices as well as a user experience designed around being mobile-first and appealing to younger investors. Clearly, they are onto something.

That growth, however, was not without missteps. Whether it was the botched roll-out of their “chequing account” or multiple trading platform outages, their hypergrowth in 2020 exposed many of the leaks in the system running at full tilt. There was the tragic news of the suicide of a young investor who, because of the way information was presented on his account page, believed he had lost over $700,000 (USD) from a failed trade; there were security breaches with client accounts getting drained; and there were outages in times of heightened volatility.

This past December, however, there were consecutive regulatory arrows slung at the online brokerage, first in the form of a $65 million (USD) settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for misleading customers about how Robinhood made money from selling order flow to high-frequency trading firms. Also, from securities regulators in Massachusetts in December, the charge that Robinhood resorted to “aggressive tactics to attract inexperienced investors, its use of gamification strategies to manipulate customers, and its failure to prevent frequent outages and disruptions on its trading platform.”

Given the meteoric success of Robinhood coming into 2020, and certainly throughout the year, it has clearly had an impact on the online brokerage industry as a whole in North America and is helping to shape the trading and user experience here in Canada as well. The emergence of Wealthsimple Trade, and their use of tactics similar to the ones that Robinhood used to fuel their own growth, is perhaps the most striking illustration of the Robinhood effect in Canada. More specifically, however, the issue at hand is the interface that users of online brokerages use in order to access their online investing experience, as well as the features they prioritize. Which brings us back to the article posted in The Globe and Mail at the end of December.

As part of the requisite research for the upcoming edition of the popular online brokerage rankings, Rob Carrick dove into the various Canadian online brokerage mobile apps to test-drive what the investing experience was like with all of them. While the article itself provides a useful overview of where mobile apps from Canadian online brokers shine and where they fall short, it was especially interesting to wander through the comments and reactions.

It was clear that “boomer investors” were the intended audience for this piece, and as such, the comments turned up what seemed to be significant resistance to the notion of trading on a mobile app – or to active trading in general – as well as the much greater pain point of the phone experience, which has nothing to do with the online interface and everything to do with customer service staff actually answering the phones at online brokerages in Canada. And therein lies the conundrum for online investing.

When it comes to designing features and capabilities, there has clearly been a shift away from cramming everything that could be done or said on an online investing interface into a more streamlined interface. That is a significant departure for almost a generation of online investors who’ve been accustomed to lots of menu options, features, and information on a landing page and who’ve generally not had a “mobile” interface to contend with, preferring to use a web-based interface instead.

By comparison, the “mobile first” approach to user interface design is highly constrained by the viewing area and behavioural inputs of a smartphone. To put it plainly, designers for phone interfaces need to decide what the most important functions and features to make available on mobile apps are.

Thus, it seems mobile apps reflect the collision course of the newest innovative design aesthetic – something that younger cohorts of investors and clients favour – and the functionality and user experience of managing wealth as a DIY investor. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for Canadian online brokerages.

From a business standpoint, the balancing act between building a technology and user environment for the future versus creating an environment that meets the needs of stakeholders today is what Canadian brokerages need to wrestle with. Based on the feedback accruing from Twitter and DIY investor forums, it appears that neither group – the newer investors nor the established and seasoned ones – is likely to find the perfect experience in one place.

The current slate of lawsuits and regulatory challenges facing Robinhood is likely going to put user experience for investors – especially in mobile environments – under the microscope. At what point does making investing more approachable, plain-language, and enjoyable cross the line into something bad? At what point is change necessary to enable more people to participate in wealth creation? The regulations have been formed, for better or for worse, based on historical notions of what investing ought to be, and, thus, to a degree, what it should look like.

Robinhood, along with the platforms and interfaces that emulate it, represents drastic change. Rules and established norms represent order. There is clearly a middle ground to be struck, but firms that seek to draw a line of best fit through different user groups, instead of building around those groups, risk being “forgettable.”

The real prize, it seems, is achieving more thoughtful customization at scale or accepting being very good at being niche, even if it does mean being “boring.”

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Into the Close

The tragic and shocking events that unfolded in the US in the first few days of 2021 certainly do offer cause for pause. As the fallout from that surreal riot/coup attempt continues to play out, there are still scary headlines about COVID-19 here in Canada. It goes without saying that we could all stand to hear some better news – or at least see a steady stream of cute kittens as a palette cleanser. It’s all about finding the small wins at this point.

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