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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – June 21, 2021

Welcome to the official start of summer. With the weather getting nicer, and folks making plans to get out and about, you might be pondering some big thoughts, like where a cow goes on vacation – it’s to the moovies. Yes, pun intended. Here’s hoping all the dads and father figures enjoyed Father’s Day.

Blockbuster features continue to surface this year, and in this summer-ized version of the Roundup, we review an interview with the founder of Interactive Brokers who talked about meme stocks (like the movie chain AMC) and several new features that are slated to be game changers for this innovation-focused brokerage. Also in the new features column, a potentially big new feature – fractional shares – possibly being tested. Find this and DIY investors encountering trading outages in the stories from the forums.

New Feature Spotlight: Interactive Brokers Reveals Big Features Coming Soon

There’s an old trader’s adage that says don’t fight the tape. Most people understand this in terms of the saying “the customer is always right,” or “listen to what the market wants.” In looking at the online brokerage industry, it seems that catering to what the customer wants might be setting the financial and social infrastructure of the world down a dangerous path – or so one executive at an online broker might have us believe.

Heading into the summer, we’ve already observed a flood of new features being announced at Canadian online brokerages, as well as at their US counterparts. Earlier this month, for example, we’ve noted that, at Canadian online brokers, faster account funding has started to surface as an incremental innovation. In the US online brokerage space, this year we’ve seen some interesting developments come from Robinhood in the form of early access to IPOs (likely as a lead up to their IPO), and just announced this month from Interactive Brokers, the launch of cryptocurrency trading by the end of the summer.

News of the announced rollout was delivered by Thomas Peterffy, the founder of Interactive Brokers, at the most recent Piper Sandler Global Exchange & FinTech Conference on June 9.

The interview itself was very intriguing. Contextually speaking, it was fascinating to hear Peterffy’s pessimism with the global state of affairs and disbelief at people buying digital coins on the one hand, while later announcing the launch of cryptocurrency trading (of those very same coins) on the other.

Although he has formally stepped down as CEO of Interactive Brokers, he is still actively campaigning on behalf of the brand, and his lack of enthusiasm about the cryptocurrency product was evident.

Normally, Peterffy brings a clear passion for all things trading. But in this case, it seemed like capitulation to what customers and the market was asking for that led to the decision to launch a cryptocurrency trading offering. One of the formal challenges he cited was ensuring that the trading of cryptocurrencies would be 100% safe – something he deferred providing details into until the product launch at the end of the summer.

While the news of a new product offering launch is big, Peterffy also dropped a hint of another feature announcement that is “coming soon.”

When asked about the way in which the impact of the global pandemic affected customer service, Peterffy revealed that automation was the key to solving many problems, but it could not solve all of them. His answer to discussing customer service was positioned from the perspective of the business itself, breaking down the need for customers to access speaking to an agent in terms of dollars per hour spent on servicing a client.

In the final analysis, Peterffy’s view was that it should not cost more to service the client than the client is worth to the firm. And, it was at that point that he revealed that Interactive Brokers is working on something interesting related to client service, and potentially something that could bring down the cost of servicing clients.

There were several other really interesting nuggets revealed by Peterffy as to the direction and position of Interactive Brokers on a number of fronts, but the final one to highlight was his response to new account growth and what the future may hold for Interactive Brokers.

Specifically, as we’ve noted in the Roundup last month, there has been a consistent and significant downward trend in the number of new accounts being opened this year at Interactive Brokers since the numbers peaked in January. The graph below illustrates this trend, and based on the numbers from May, this is the fourth consecutive month over month decline in the net new account growth. Although there were just over 26,000 net new accounts opened at Interactive Brokers in May, this represented just shy of a 24% decline compared to the number of new accounts opened in April, and reflects a drop of just about 78% from the number of net new accounts opened in January.

Peterffy’s take on what drives new account growth was especially noteworthy. In his response, he stated that the biggest source of new clients at Interactive Brokers is through referrals – somewhere in the neighbourhood of 33%. Regardless of what channel a new client comes in from, the fascinating thing, according to Peterffy, is that the percentages from the sources remain about the same. So, what ultimately drives online investors into opening an online brokerage account is the “buzz” around what’s hot in the markets, and as it turns out, consumers will choose or consider an online brokerage that they’re familiar with. The implications of this revelations are really important – it suggests that online brokerages would be better off continuously advertising. However, the real advantage for doing so would emerge when a “hot” story drives online investors to market.

Although the interview with Peterffy was relatively short, there was a wealth (pun intended) of insights related to investing online. The pessimism about the global and financial state of affairs for online investors was palpable, and summarized by the following statement he made:

“We’ve completely lost our grounding, we’ve become unhinged, nobody knows what our values are, we are floating and hope we land right side up.”

The context of these comments generally center around what investors today are piling into – such as meme stocks – and that the shortcomings of the regulatory frameworks that are currently in place for investors are being laid bare by online investor “armies” that have shown the ability to push back against larger institutional players. This pessimism is worth paying attention to, however, as the domino effect of losses in the meme stocks has a possibility (and a likely one suggested by Peterffy) to be catastrophic.

In the meanwhile, the big picture takeaway from Peterffy’s comments is that whether or not he likes it, everyone, including online brokerages, will have to confront a brave new world of “investing.” That means preparing technical systems for wild volatility. And for other online brokerages hoping to push their own growth agenda, it means being ever visible in anticipation of when the next big thing hits. Because, when it does, that’s when investors will really start to pay attention.

From the Forums

Wealthsimple Testing Fractional Shares?

Online brokerages continue to push new features out this year, however, some may be dropping hints before they go completely live. If this new feature from Wealthsimple Trade turns out to be true, it is yet another possible game changing feature that will undoubtedly capture the interest of DIY investors. According to this reddit post, Wealthsimple Trade is apparently piloting fractional share trading on select securities. While it may be too early to trade in fractions of a share, the presence of a fractional trading tag is raising more than a few eyebrows among DIY investors. And, if true, it will undoubtedly push other Canadian online brokerages to move even faster to deliver innovative offerings for investors.

Stability Now

It’s been a tough month for system and trading outages at Canadian bank-owned online brokerages. Earlier this month, TD Direct Investing had an outage during market hours, and this past week, CIBC Investor’s Edge users suffered a trading outage during market hours. Angry clients took to social media to vent their frustration and provide a clear picture of what DIY investors think when an online brokerage system goes offline during the trading day. Check out what investors had to say in this reddit post.

Into the Close

This week, we’d like to call special attention to Indigenous People’s Day which recognizes the heritage, diverse cultures, and achievements of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is our hope that readers make some time to reflect on the history of the Indigenous peoples in Canada, as hard as it may be, and be an advocate for a building a better future. An important starting point is the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.