What a difference a few days makes. It’s hard not to pay attention to or be thinking about the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. Despite there being many important turning points with the arrival of March, the one the world is focused on is the end of the conflict in Europe.
For online investors, this war has also shed light on the role that finance plays in the conduct of nations, including during conflicts. In particular, the steady drumbeats of war over the past few weeks have reintroduced uncertainty and volatility back into stock markets – something that could once again challenge online brokerage systems heading into the RRSP deadline.
In this edition of the Roundup, we put commission-free trading into the spotlight, in particular, the launch of a commission-free trading platform by TD. Also, we’re rebooting investor comments, which this week reflect the perennial question around low cost trading and the spillover of politics into choosing an online brokerage.
Easing into Commission-free Trading in Canada – TD Easy Trade
It’s no secret that Canadian self-directed investors are betting on the widespread deployment of commission-free trading among Canada’s discount brokerages. What investors may not have bargained for is what form that commission-free trading experience will take.
Just over a month ago, TD made an interesting move into the commission-free trading world by launching their “Easy Trade” app and offering up 50 commission-free trades per year on that platform. This new investing service replaces the TD GoalAssist platform (launched in 2019) and now offers yet another platform by TD for investors to execute trades on – albeit with limits.
With all the attention that commission-free trading has received, courtesy of its widespread adoption in the US online brokerage market, the launch of Wealthsimple Trade, and the launch of commission free trading at National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage, it seemed a given that when a larger player moved to provide commission-free trading that others would quickly follow suit and investors would rejoice.
The fact that neither of those seem to have happened yet point to commission-free trading taking a different turn here in Canada.
If a Commission Falls
For some context, let’s rewind to 2014. Commission prices for trading at Canadian discount brokerages (as they were still called) were routinely just shy of $30 per trade ($29+ at TD Direct Investing) when RBC Direct Investing lowered their standard commission pricing to $9.95 per trade. The shockwave was immediate. And it wasn’t very long before most other Canadian online brokers – but especially the bank-owned online brokerage peers – followed suit by lowering their commissions to about the same price (except for Scotia iTRADE which waited until February 2019 to drop from $24.99 to $9.99 per trade).
The reason was clear: when a big player on the field does something material, expectations change.
Against this backdrop, the latest moves to lower commission pricing by a big name like TD – while clearly garnering attention – haven’t prompted the kind of response that we saw in 2014.
When National Bank Direct Brokerage lowered their commission fees to zero in August 2021, it wasn’t too long until Desjardins Online Brokerage followed suit. Both firms are fierce rivals, and so action was swift.
But since then, we haven’t seen much activity or appetite to lower standard commissions to zero by any other online brokerages, let alone bank-owned brokerages, despite the surge in interest and recommendations by self-directed investors towards National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage.
Instead, what we have witnessed is Canada’s online brokerages taking a “wait and see” approach to commission-free trading during the RRSP season, offering up a concession, rather than a capitulation.
Heading into this RRSP season, for example, RBC Direct Investing offered up 100 commission-free trades which are good for two years. Both the duration and the magnitude of this offer is higher than in years past. And to boot, this promotion is set to expire at the end of March, well after the deadline for RRSP contributions. In contrast, many other online brokerage promotions are timed to expire at the beginning of March.
Scotia iTrade, on top of running a promotion for RRSP season, has bundled commission-free trades (5 to 10 per year) with their premium banking packages, and BMO InvestorLine now offers limited commission-free trading of ETFs.
Unlike in 2014, the response to TD’s latest move, according to many (many) self-directed investor forum posts and user comments, has been lukewarm. While there is clearly praise for providing a “commission-free” choice for up to 50 trades, there are a number of sticking points – including gripes from some of TD Direct Investing’s very large customer base.
Even though TD Easy Trade is clearly a multipronged response to the challenge of commission-free trading, as well as the “mobile first” mindset of Wealthsimple Trade, the expectations that come with such a successful and financially flush brand as TD are significantly higher.
Early Reactions to TD Easy Trade
Now over a month into the new service, the early response from across the investor forums paints a mixed picture of self-directed investors welcoming the price point but feeling constrained by the limitations of the app (especially around ETF purchases) and inconvenienced by having to separate the TD Direct Investing online brokerage experience from the TD Easy Trade experience.
An area where a bank-owned brokerage cannot be seen to fall short, however, is with convenience. That is the pillar of the value proposition of going with a bank-owned brokerage, and it is one feature younger and older investors agree upon.
In reviewing hundreds of forum, social media, and user comments on TD Easy Trade, aside from the points mentioned above, it was fascinating to see which online brokerages were (and were not) mentioned as alternatives to the new app.
National Bank Direct Brokerage was by far the most frequent alternative (followed by Desjardins Online Brokerage) cited to TD Easy Trade, despite a lack of a “mobile app” experience from National Bank Direct Brokerage (for now). This seems to suggest that investors are still very much conscious of the commission pricing. And although TD’s offering isn’t “unlimited,” many commenters concede that 50 commission-free trades should suffice for most passive investors.
Wealthsimple Trade, while also a part of the discussion, did not fare as high as it likely should considering it is the closest in feature and user experience to TD Easy Trade. Along with commission pricing, access to ETFs was also mentioned. User interface was a part of this discussion; however, the mobile experience – including biometric login – was a pain point for users contemplating on using TD Easy Trade
The “kicker” it seems is the restriction on ETFs – since TD Easy Trade only allows for commission-free trading of TD ETFs. That constraint seemed to open up other brokerages into the discussion, such as BMO InvestorLine as well as Scotia iTRADE.
Names that weren’t mentioned as often, however, were also a sign of shift in value perception among self-directed investors. One name that did not receive as much mention as it typically has prior to the zero commission launch by National Bank Direct Brokerage was Questrade.
This is an important development since Questrade has long been perceived as a low-cost leader. They have also been actively campaigning (including mass media buys) to win over the same clients as Wealthsimple Trade. Based on the conversation, however, Questrade appears to have lost ground to both the commission-free brokerages and is now facing pressure from TD Easy Trade.
And on the topic of campaigning, anyone watching the Super Bowl from Canada also likely saw the barrage of commercials from TD Easy Trade, a move that is a change in tactic from the big bank. Typically content to watch from the sidelines, the big sporting event advertising has been a mainstay of Questrade’s awareness campaigns, but this year TD Easy Trade came out swinging, dwarfing commercial presence of Questrade and BMO.
If I see that TD Easy Trade ad one more time during this Super Bowl, I’m gonna go full Samuel L. Jackson on someone. “Go on! Say TD Easy Trade one more time!!” #TDEasyTrade #superbowlads #NFL #SuperBowl pic.twitter.com/Ti3D52CruC— 🇺🇦Don Bradshaw🇨🇦 (@DonBradshawNTV) February 14, 2022
What People Say Matters
Early adopters of the National Bank Direct Brokerage experience have shown that despite some delays in getting accounts open and funded, overall, the feedback has been positive, especially when people have been posting their savings on commissions per trade. That kind of social proof is compelling, and when done at scale, can carry substantial influence among communities of investors who rely on the experiences of others when making decisions around potential online brokerages to use.
Given the size and prominence of bank-owned online brokerages, however, the expectations to get things right is also higher. There are simply fewer missteps or shortcomings that consumers are prepared to tolerate when Canadian banks are earning record profits.
Anything short of a best-in-class online trading experience begets a wave of complaints. And for a firm like TD, with two million online brokerage account holders, creating a parallel product to TD Direct Investing that has a considerably lower price point definitely ruffled some feathers. So while Canadian online investors may not leave a particular brokerage right away, they are clearly open to exploring other options and giving new entrants the opportunity to win business.
The takeaway for self-directed investors is that there isn’t really one Canadian online brokerage that is hitting all the marks when it comes to the trading experience and commission structures.
In terms of the balance of features and value, our analysis of the most influential Canadian online brokerage rankings shows that according to the reviews, there is more than just price to consider when choosing an online brokerage. And despite commission price clearly playing a role, consumer sentiment in the reaction to TD Easy Trade confirms that features such as commission-free ETFs and convenience weigh heavily. What this likely amounts to for Canadian self-directed investors is multiple accounts with multiple online brokerages.
For online brokerages, the lesson is also clear. Offering zero-commission trading is no guarantee to success; however, it does provide mass market visibility when it comes to being considered. Key features, and, in particular, the feeling of convenience are potentially more highly prized than commission pricing alone.
With our everyday lives increasingly dominated by apps that remove so much friction from the user experience, financial services, and online investing in particular, online brokerages have yet to perfect the delicate balance between keeping things functional and reliable with making the process of managing wealth as easy as possible. Hence, though the naming of the platform was a deft move, Easy Trade has set the bar high for themselves to make the process of managing wealth as a DIY investor – including the entry point investor – feel easy.
From the Forums
Which Online Brokerage is Cheapest?
Although it is a perennial question, whenever the topic of which online brokerage has the lowest cost comes up, it is fascinating to see which online brokerages are mentioned (and those that aren’t). In this recent reddit post, the conversation about low cost brokerages highlights who is top of mind for self-directed investors.
In Case of Emergency Act
Take your pick of political news having economic fallout. With the war in the Ukraine now dominating the headlines, the previous few weeks also showed that when Canada enacted the Emergency Act to deal with “freedom protestors”, financial firms and assets were also in the crosshairs to restore order. In this reddit post, one user wanted to know which online brokerage(s) better aligned with their personal political beliefs.
Into the Close
That’s a wrap on another “catch-up” edition of the Roundup. Suffice to say there is a lot on deck now that we’re at the official start of March and the official end to RRSP season for 2022. In the fullness of time, this seasons results will come to light but in the meantime, like everyone else, we’re watching what’s unfolding in the Ukraine and hoping that peace comes as soon as possible.