With Tom Brady seemingly defying the laws of aging by announcing his take back on retiring, it goes to show that age is truly just a number. It’s a fitting theme, especially at online brokerages in Canada and the US, as firms in this space are only just beginning to wrap their heads around the surge in young investors who’ve embraced self-directed investing.
In this edition of the Roundup, we attempt to wade into multiple pools of data about young investors entering into the world of self-directed investing and the impact this group is having on online brokerages in Canada and the US. We cap things off with a quick scan of post-RRSP season commentary from the investor forums.
Young Investors Making Waves
One of the interesting things about tsunamis is that when they first begin, they don’t appear to be very big at all. Over distance and time, however, their size and force are undeniable.
Although not a new story by any means, the “rise of the retail investor” is one whose effects are now gathering in intensity, and impacts are becoming increasingly more visible across the self-directed investing landscape, in particular, at online brokerages.
Tracking this wave has not been easy, especially in Canada, but a slate of recent publications and feature launches from Canadian online brokerages, combined with data and developments from US online brokerages, paint a picture of an industry that is quickly trying to understand and cater to this new generation of investors.
A Sea of Change
Earlier this year, TD made a splash of its own by launching TD Easy Trade, the successor to GoalAssist. There are certainly many interesting things to comment on here; however, at the top of the list of features that got many people talking was the 50 commission-free trades per year that come standard with the platform.
At first blush, it certainly seems like this “mobile-first” trading experience was engineered to supplant Wealthsimple Trade; however, the reality is more nuanced. Yes, Easy Trade and Wealthsimple Trade (even from a branding perspective) are comparable in design and features, but the launch of Easy Trade this year is less likely the result of Wealthsimple Trade per se and more likely because of the seismic shift in self-directed investor demographics during the pandemic. After all, TD Direct Investing is widely cited as having the largest market share in Canada of online brokerage accounts, and as popular as Wealthsimple Trade has become, it is still likely far behind other online brokerages either in terms of number of clients or assets under management, or both. As such, Wealthsimple Trade, now a competitor to be considered was not really a “threat.”
The press release of the TD Easy Trade launch was, perhaps, the most telling. Specifically, the quote by Tony Ierullo, TD Direct Investing’s Vice President, New to Investing and Emerging Investor Solutions. Ierullo stated:
“During the pandemic, we saw a significant increase in demand for online investing, with more people trying DIY investing from home, and for the first time. As a result, trades and new account openings hit record highs. This growth in new accounts and trading volumes was driven largely by new and younger investors, which is why it was important to us to launch an app that is easy-to-use, with low trading fees and available support to ensure investing is accessible to this emerging, fast growing investing segment.”
Rather than competition driving the change, it was customers. And lots of them.
Though TD’s release was short on specifics about this group of new investors, another bank-owned online brokerage, RBC Direct Investing, published the results of a survey they commissioned (no pun intended) to understand young investors.
RBC Direct Investing’s President & CEO, Lori Darlington, sat down with Sparx Trading to dive into the data on new self-directed investors (check out the full interview with Lori Darlington) and it was fascinating to see the extent to which younger investors are now shaping the conversation and direction of established online brokerages. As telegraphed in the latest edition of the Look Back / Look Ahead series, RBC Direct Investing had experienced a significant influx of younger investors during the pandemic.
Their latest survey, however, revealed a more precise figure: nearly half of new clients at RBC Direct Investing that joined during the pandemic were under the age of 35.
Although RBC Direct Investing was the one who published a more concrete number, the reality is that these results are likely typical at most Canadian online brokerages. And, in many ways, this survey offers some very compelling takeaways for all Canadian online brokerages, as well as those watching the industry closely.
One interesting nuance of the data, however, shows just how important the sampling frame – or when the sample was collected – is to the conclusions to be derived from surveys.
In April 2021, just after the meme-stock mania hit a crescendo, the Ontario Securities Commission (OSC) published their survey of self-directed investors in Canada. Though timely, the survey of 2,000 Canadian investors was fielded between November 17 and December 6, 2020. In that survey, only 19% of respondents indicated that they had an account opened for a year or less. In contrast, in the RBC Direct Investing poll, 1,530 investors were surveyed between October 26 and November 5, 2021, with 900 of those being DIY investors and 630 “interested in” DIY investing. The figures from the latest RBC Direct Investing research point to a much higher proportion of new investors stepping into the markets in 2021 than was the case in 2020.
To help compete the picture though, another bank-owned online brokerage, BMO InvestorLine, shared numerical data on the numbers of new account in the Canadian online brokerage segment all the way back to 2014. Although the source of the data should be treated with a grain of salt (i.e. unlike data that comes from publicly traded online brokerages in the US, the Canadian data is based on voluntary disclosure, and thus cannot be independently verified), the picture does line up with data from online brokerages in the US. New online brokerage accounts surged to unprecedented levels in early 2021.
Why this matters so much is because when new investors step into a market largely forms a crucial first impression of what constitutes normal.
For an overwhelming majority of new investors, in particular young investors, volatility and opportunity for once-in-a-generation (maybe?) price disruptions were a catalyst to opening new trading accounts and trading stocks online. Meanwhile, older and seasoned investors saw volatility as a reason to seek out safety (or sensibly “do nothing”). And therein lies a crucial difference between the new cohort of investors compared to established investors. New investors are clearly willing to trade – even under circumstances where risk (i.e. volatility) is extreme. And their entry into the world of self-directed investing happened against the contextual backdrop of enormous global disruption and economic distortion.
The places and people that new investors turned to for direction during the pandemic, as well as what they invested in and how they invest, were all very different for younger investors who stepped into the market in the past 18 months compared to the previous almost 18 years.
How Can Online Brokerages Ride the Wave?
There’s lots more than can (and will be) said about the rising influence of younger investors among Canadian online brokerages. Thematically, however, it is immediately clear that focusing on “price and device” underpins the first leg of a strategy for online brokerages.
In the device category, as recently as this past week, Interactive Brokers announced the launch of their new trading app IBKR GlobalTrader, a simplified version of their trading experience tailored specifically towards newer investors. It happens to be a mobile app, with fewer features (i.e. less complexity) than the typical Trader Workstation, and thus is expected to be easier to use.
The fact that bank-owned online brokerages as well as active-trader-focused brokerages are looking at gaining market share of the same segment of users is indicative of the importance of winning market share with newer investors.
In the price category, in addition to lower standard commission prices, making the process of regular investing behaviour frictionless would be appealing.
Features like fractional shares or commission-free ETFs (like the ones that people want, not just the ones that brokerages are willing to make available) have curb appeal for newer investors. It’s no accident that Amazon decided to split their stock recently which then made the stock seemingly more accessible to stock and options traders.
Other than prices and devices, however, Canadian online brokerages appear to be leaning hard into investor-oriented content. From magazines to videos to podcasts, there is a growing ecosystem of content that online brokerages are making available to self-directed investors that is partly educational and partly contextual. With so much information about investing available online, however, it will be a challenge for online brokerages to balance providing a “streamlined” user experience and a wealth of content around investing topics.
New investors are reshaping the online brokerage industry the world over. For many online brokerages, navigating this new normal is a serious exercise in rapid adaptation.
The sudden surge in self-directed investors overwhelmed existing systems because those systems were designed around “traditional” thinking, and the past two years have shown that, going forward, online brokerages need to rethink what investing online could look like.
As the wave of change continues to evolve, one of the biggest challenges to face online brokerages won’t be getting new online investors to pay attention, it will be to keep it.
From the Forums
Fee-ling’s Not Mutual
Although there is a lot of conversation among self-directed investors about ETFs and stocks, mutual funds are still a very popular vehicle used by Canadians to build wealth. In this post from Reddit, however, one investor is re-thinking using mutual funds because of a recent fee change at one big bank-owned online broker.
Savvy vs Saasy
Subscriptions are all the rage, especially with tech companies. But will paying a monthly fee for services pan out for self-directed investors? One Canadian online brokerage seems to think so as they explore a monthly fee for more premium features. Investors in this post on Reddit, however, beg to differ.
Into the Close
That’s a wrap on another in-the-middle-of-the-week edition of the Roundup. Perhaps the only upside to Daylight Savings is that St. Patrick’s Day shows up an hour earlier. Here’s to channeling lots of green in stock charts and tree branches, as well as a cheers to new beginnings and signs of spring. We definitely need all of it.