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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – December 20, 2021

Vixen might be a reindeer name, but Vix’n is just what the active traders wanted to see Blitzen and Dash-in around their screens as volatility, like lockdowns, makes a comeback. Screens and markets might be redder than Rudolph’s nose heading into the end of the year, but like all things market related, there are opportunities for good news if you Comet to finding them.

In this I-can’t-believe-we’re-so-close-to-the-end-of-this-hot-mess-of-a-year edition of the Roundup, we spotted new features being launched by one popular online brokerage just in time for the holiday shopping season, and what they could signal for this brokerage, as well as DIY investors. Next, more savings just got deal-ivered as two (big!) new online brokerage promos crossed our radar this week. Finally, a bonus story about a story – we preview the launch of the Look Back / Look Ahead magazine with an overview of what to expect, including some special features we think will drastically shape the industry in 2022.

Cashing In: Questrade Launches Cash Rewards and Roundup Features

At Sparx, we know a thing or two about roundups. So, you can imagine our joy when we noticed a Canadian online brokerage launch a new product line with “roundup” in the name!

Questrade, one of Canada’s most popular online brokerages, quietly rolled out a pair of new “savings” features for existing clients this past week in what looks like an interesting tactic to encourage low-friction asset gathering, while providing clients with additional value for being a Questrade customer.

The first, the RoundUP automatic savings program, is similar to many well-established services that help encourage saving and investing by rounding up dollar amounts on purchases which then get contributed into investments. Think of it like finding the spare change in your actual couch and automatically adding it to your couch potato strategy.

The second is the new Cashback Rewards program. This new feature appears to offer Questrade clients a way to spend their way to savings via cash back rewards from a variety of retailers. Similar to ebates/Rakuten, purchases made at different online merchants will provide shoppers with a cash back bonus for those purchases. The cash back amount can then be deposited directly into a Questrade account automatically.

In either case, these are timely programs to have arrive just before the holidays and when online shopping season hits a crescendo. More strategically, these new features also help Questrade stand out amongst an increasingly commoditized and crowded field of online brokerage service providers.

Despite an initial mixed reaction from investors and skepticism on the part of clients seeking out lower commission rates, this idea from Questrade is quite savvy even if it is not original. Questrade can lean on the successes from similar programs, such as Acorns in the US and Moka (recently acquired by Mogo Financial) in Canada, all of which are built on a premise of small amounts adding up to material gains. Undoubtedly, it is going to play well with the personal finance discussion groups and influencers who recognize that sometimes being disciplined about saving is hard; anything that makes building the habit of saving and investing easier is likely to win support.

One of the early critiques of the Cashback Rewards program is that Questrade has pulled together a list of merchants offering deals that most online investors don’t find compelling. There are a handful of recognizable names and a heavy concentration of shopping mall gift card-linked offers, so the successful uptake of this program will be correlated to the kinds of offers that Questrade can negotiate in. By comparison, rewards programs offered by Canadian financial service providers, such as RBC Rewards, or even like Rakuten, illustrate just how sophisticated these reward programs are.

As we noted in our coverage of Questrade in the soon-to-be-released Look Back / Look Ahead feature magazine, this year Questrade elected not to provide a submission highlighting what they’ve been working on. Nonetheless, there has clearly been activity and new features being brought forward, so it is curious that even with this new program that the rollout has been quiet out of the gate.

It’s clear that Questrade continues to innovate; however, what also is clear is that they are expanding beyond just the online brokerage space – a trend that other online brokerages in the US have demonstrated is necessary to retain clients from having to access other financial service providers for things like credit cards or bill payments. Their acquisition of Community Trust in 2019 helps to explain why Questrade Financial Group is hiring for roles related to digital banking, and even in roles related to their online brokerage site, they are looking to drive growth in the banking side of their business, the clearest signal yet of where they intend to move into next.

Against the backdrop of broader ambitions in the traditional banking and financial services realm, the latest product launch of RoundUP and Cashback Rewards programs seem aligned with a bigger picture to create ongoing relationships with online investors beyond just the world of investing. Tying real world purchases to the online investing accounts through credit cards and bank accounts gives Questrade important insights into spending patterns of their customers, better enabling Questrade to provide support and content (among other things – like mortgages) to clients in a more meaningful way.

And, if moving into the traditional banking offering is part of Questrade’s roadmap, it also stands to reason that the economics of offering commission-free (or lower commission fee) investing options would change. After all, National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage managed to take a “big picture” approach to what their online investing clients could represent in terms of business opportunities for other lines of business, and if the math made sense to them, it could certainly do so for Questrade.

Deal-ightful News: RBC Direct Investing Promo and Scotia iTRADE Offer Launch

It might have taken some time, but like the thrill of last-minute shopping, promotions from RBC Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE joined the pool of online brokerage offers this past week.

In terms of the latest promotions, however, there are some noteworthy differences from the trend of cash back offers that have been dominant through the launch of RSP season promos. The biggest difference: the reappearance of commission-free trades.

The latest promotion from RBC Direct Investing is a huge 100 commission-free trade offer, with those trades being good for up to two years. This is by far the biggest commission-free trade deal we’ve seen since a similarly sized one offered by National Bank Direct Brokerage (before they went fully commission free), and both the quantity of those free trades as well as the duration of time that clients could use them make it incredibly competitive. To boot, there is no minimum deposit required to qualify for this promotion, which immediately positions this offer at the top of the list for any online investor seeking out deep value for active trading or doing some major portfolio reorganization. It is impossible to say where exactly things will end up in two years’ time; however, the fact that RBC Direct Investing is willing to extend such a long runway for commission-free trades is perhaps a sign of an experiment playing out in real time. Either way, this is an exceptional offer that other online brokerages (who still charge commissions and even those who don’t) are going to be compared against, especially given RBC Direct Investing’s feature set (in particular real-time data).

While at first blush it may seem like Scotia iTRADE is content to rely on their regular playbook of promotion structure, their latest tiered promotion of cash back or commission-free trades shows that they’ve been doing their homework (and reading the Roundup!) when it comes to strategic deposit amounts.

It helps to view the latest cash back promotion from Scotia iTRADE against its bank-owned brokerage peers to see the deposit levels at which Scotia iTRADE is competing the most aggressively for deposits.

The first tier that jumps out is the minimum deposit level. Scotia iTRADE is the only one of the online brokerages to have minimum of $5,000 for a deposit, and the associated cash back amount of $100 is tied with the only other bank-owned brokerage with a cash back bonus at that deposit tier (TD Direct Investing). In fact, Scotia iTRADE keeps pace with TD Direct Investing’s cash back offer through deposit tiers up to $100,000, after which point Scotia iTRADE’s cash back bonus leaps to $500, matching the leader at that tier, CIBC Investor’s Edge. What delivers bonus value to anyone signing up for the Scotia iTRADE cash back promotion, however, is that those individuals also receive a temporary commission rate of $4.99 per trade (flat!!) – effectively, a 50% discount on the standard commission rate – until the end of July 2022.

As we referenced in prior Roundups, Scotia iTRADE has been quietly going through a “rebuilding” mode, as evidenced by their front-end website refresh and winding down of their Twitter channel. This latest offer reveals some signs of activity, however, and that they are willing to keep pace with peer firms when it comes to trying to attract new clients.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of ground to make up by Scotia iTRADE when it comes to client experience.

A quick look at their Google reviews showcases concerns that have been voiced very publicly online, and as such, as competitive as their offering may be, it may hold greater appeal with existing clients rather than new clients who are learning about this brokerage for the first time.  

The latest launch of new promotions at this point in the calendar year is a great indicator of the high degree of competition between online brokerages. The biggest rush of interest to self-directed investing is likely behind us, however there is greater awareness of trading online (especially among younger investors) and it’s clear that the effect that National Bank Direct Brokerage’s move to zero commission rates has had across the board. While most online brokerages aren’t lowering standard commissions to zero (yet), the commission-free trades are getting more numerous, cash back incentives higher and commission rates dropping (even temporarily). Combined, those factors clearly paint a picture of a world in which pricing for self-directed investing will continue to decline.

Preview: Look Back / Look Ahead Magazine

The end of a calendar year is a fitting time to reflect on the events of the past twelve months, while also casting a gaze forward as to what to look forward to. We’re not alone in that activity, as numerous political and business leaders are taking the time to comment on what they thought the most important developments were for the past year.

This week coming up, the latest issue of Look Back / Look Ahead magazine is set to publish, and included in it are some very insightful perspectives by a cross section of senior leaders of Canada’s online brokerages. In this issue, we asked all participants a series of questions about what investors can expect from their firms, what interesting trends they noted, and in particular, what they see coming in the year ahead.

All Canadian online brokerages that we cover on were invited to participate, free of charge, and were given the opportunity to speak directly and freely to Canadian self-directed investors about the challenges and triumphs of 2021.

Naturally, the industry being as competitive as it is, many online brokerages were not going to reveal all of the things they’re working on; however, it was refreshing to see that among all the participants, there were some candid discussions of new features slated to arrive in the new year.

The online brokerages that provided submissions to this year’s issue include:

We also provided coverage of the rest of the field based on what we saw as important and noteworthy developments during the year, and where things could go for those firms in 2022.

Among the big trends that we noted for 2021, multiple online brokerages called attention to the shift in demographics of their client base to a decidedly younger group. Stats vary, but in the order of 20% to 40% of new clients joining online brokerages in Canada this past year were under the age of 35. This has tremendous implications for what online brokerages are focusing on, and we can already see what several brokerages are committing to as a result. One tangible feature that is in focus is investor-oriented content to support new investors.

We also asked about client experience, and how each firm interprets that component of their service offering. While we doubt anyone would talk down their service experience, there were clear and tangible activities shared by online brokerages as to what they intend to do in the area of providing strong service to online investors.

On the topic of zero-commission trading, there were some intriguing answers – especially from the firms that have not yet lowered their commission rates to zero. It’s clearly something that has been discussed, and in fact, will continue to be evaluated as the market continues to evolve.

There were several notable new features coming soon that were discussed by online brokerages in this issue. One, we believe, will be significant (dare we say huge) and will serve as a catalyst for self-directed investors to seriously consider brokerages based on this one big feature. Other features being telegraphed will undoubtedly address certain pain points with mobile and digital experiences that will hopefully contribute to self-directed investors remaining where they are.

Beyond the online brokerages already operating in Canada, we also took a look at the companies that have all provided some indication of interest in launching new online brokerages in Canada in the near future. Names such as Mogotrade, Tradezero, FreeTrade, and, infamously, Tastyworks, are set to make history if they all are able to come to market in such a short amount of time. Realistically, we understand the regulatory process is neither easy nor fast when it comes to launching a new brokerage in Canada; however, none of those firms mentioned are standing still on the issue of going live in Canada as soon as is feasible to do so.

Finally, this issue happens to coincide with the 10th anniversary of’s launch. It’s hard to fathom that a decade has gone by, and through that time, we’ve been covering the ups, downs, and sideways of the online brokerage industry in Canada, as well as in the US. We provide some fun behind the scenes snippets of the journey to this point, and in stepping back to look at the bigger picture of the state of the industry, as well as the needs of online investors, we see our role and mission as more important than ever to deliver on. It’s abundantly clear (to us) that we’ve also grown a sizable community of online brokerage industry stakeholders, followers, and online brokerage enthusiasts, and we’re really excited to reveal what we’ve got planned next for this community in 2022.

Be sure to sign up to our newsletter for recaps and updates (including the first look at the magazine) and follow along on our social media accounts for highlights from the Look Back / Look Ahead.  

Thanks to all the firms that submitted and participated in this year’s magazine, as well as to the readers and supporters of Sparx Trading that have helped us make it to year 10, conveniently X in Roman numerals. Here’s to the next X.

Into the Close

At the time of publication, markets are poised for a bumpy start to a shortened holiday week. And, as financial services firms also sound the alarm to retreat and work from home through the winter to ride out the Omicron blizzard, we’re mindful that this is going to be a turbulent week. Volatility is going to be high, so despite travel bans and lockdowns starting to take effect, anyone who is a student of recent history is going to get a chance to witness a rerun of market turmoil and trading activity spikes. For traders, that’s about as bittersweet as it gets at this time of year but all we can do is buckle up, be kind, and hold on. We’ll be publishing the next edition of the Roundup a little later than usual courtesy of the holidays, but between now and then, thank you for joining us this year, and from all of us at Sparx, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and restful holiday season!