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Look Back / Look Ahead: A Review of Canadian Online Brokerages in 2021 & Preview of 2022

If there’s one thing that all self-directed investors have in common, it’s that they pay attention to trends. This year, we officially crossed the 10-year mark at Sparx Trading, and if there’s one thing that we can speak to after a decade’s worth of data and analysis, it’s being able to spot trends in the Canadian online brokerage industry. 

Taking stock (pun intended) of the past year and a half, it’s fair to say that we’re living through events unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed before. And yet, one of the most striking features of the Canadian online brokerage industry, even in the face of such dramatic events, is the ability of the Canadian market to sustain firms that move at paradoxically different speeds when it comes to innovation. That world, however, is about to change. 

In this fifth iteration of the Look Back / Look Ahead magazine, it’s abundantly clear that the Canadian self-directed investing industry sits at the cusp of a major transformation. 

From the launch of commission-free trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage, to a structural shift in demographics of investors who entered the online trading world, 2021 was a year that online brokerage executives told us challenged them to establish a new normal when it comes to delivering outstanding experiences for Canadian self-directed investors. 

Drastic change was also prevalent at this year. Our choice to completely overhaul our website and lean into refining our brand identity appears to be in line with where leaders in the industry are as well. And we, too, have some incredibly ambitious projects slated for the next year that we can’t wait to share more about, especially the launch of Sparx Trading Pro.

After 10 years of consistently producing content on the Canadian online brokerage landscape, it’s remarkable to reflect on the breadth of audience that we serve. 

Analysts, journalists, executives, enthusiasts, and investors turn to Sparx Trading for in-depth insights and newsworthy developments, as well as puns, gifs, and fun artwork. In today’s parlance, we’ve helped to democratize online investing by providing industry-grade content and insights to all. Today, investors have more technology, platforms, products, providers, and pricing options than they have ever had before, which means our place in the DIY investor ecosystem is even more important today than it was a decade ago when we first launched. 

On behalf of the exceptionally talented Sparx team, I would like to thank our loyal readers, supporters, and, especially, the online brokerage community for 10 years of wonderful memories, and for keeping things interesting. 

Where the next 10 years takes us all, we’re not sure. But we’re excited all the same, especially if where we’re going next won’t need roads. See you in the future!

Click below to learn more about what each individual online brokerage had to say about 2021 and what’s coming up in 2022:

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – October 25, 2021

Halloween is just around the corner, and it’s not just ghouls and goblins that are causing a fright around online brokerage circles. Apparently, the specter of zero-commission trading is a bit of a phantom menace on both sides of the border.

In this edition of the Roundup, we reveal (yet) another new commission-free online brokerage setting its sights on coming to Canada and what that could mean to existing online brokerages’ plans to keep commission rates where they are. Next, we review one US online brokerage’s move to put account funding in the fast lane and dive into what it could mean for active traders here in Canada who want to get going as fast as possible. Finally, we cap off this week’s news with some fascinating commentary from self-directed investors in the investing forums.

TradeZero Coming to Canada

Last week we mentioned the news that TradeZero announced they would be going public. A fun fact about going public is that there is usually a pitch deck for investors to buy into your company, and in the case of TradeZero, there were several interesting nuggets of information about their intent as an online brokerage.

Buried in the TradeZero investor presentation deck was the revelation that TradeZero intends to launch in Canada sometime in 2022. Although they had officially registered in Canada as far back as June of this year, the investor presentation put a timeline and target on what the opportunity for them in the Canadian market could look like. It appears that TradeZero is using its launch in Canada as part of a series of launches in different countries and regions over the next few years.

Perhaps the most interesting angle in terms of their expansion is that TradeZero is positioning itself to compete directly against Interactive Brokers for the ultra-active retail trader. Of all the segments of investors, the active trader is highly prized but comes with the highest expectations for quality of experience, platform stability, capability for complex trading, and competitive pricing.

Although it is unclear as to what they will launch in Canada, it’s a safe assumption that the products will be aligned to active traders, and according to their investor presentation, options, and cryptocurrency trading, are likely candidates alongside equities to be a part of the go-to-market offering. The timeframe to achieve the scale they’re looking for, namely some percentage of the 160,000 accounts, is also unclear. For comparison, account opens cited by other media sources peg Questrade as opening 200,000 accounts per year, and while there very well may be a large number of accounts in the total addressable market in Canada, hitting their target number won’t come easy.

It begs the question, who would TradeZero’s competitors be in Canada?

At the top of the list would be Interactive Brokers; however, based on their target demographic and the active trader profile, there are several other firms whose lunch TradeZero would try to eat. These would include CG Direct (the legacy business from Jitneytrade), Wealthsimple Trade (because of crypto and US equities), and it’s fair that Questrade and TD Direct Investing would be in the mix too because of their active trader offering, especially on the options side.

Then, there is the branding issue. While active traders might be more inclined to trial or check out a new technology or brokerage, being a new online brokerage in the Canadian market is generally met with some suspicion, regardless of the offer. A great case in point is the fact that despite having low standard commissions and offering a lot of the perks of being bank-owned, both HSBC InvestDirect and National Bank Direct Brokerage have yet to see the kind of traction from price sensitive online investors that would have been expected. Even with zero commission trading now available from National Bank Direct Brokerage, it is surprising to read how many investors are willing to stay with their existing brokerage in hopes that commission rates will drop at their broker.

In order to ramp up to the addressable market that TradeZero is targeting for Canada, there will almost certainly be a significant investment in marketing and advertising to let people know who they are and what they do best – perhaps better than the alternatives. And, to make matters more challenging, they will also be doing this alongside at least two if not three other new entrants into the Canadian online trading landscape – the most directly challenging one being Tastyworks.

Of course, Interactive Brokers is also no slouch and is unlikely to simply allow a new entrant to directly compete for high value clients. The product mix, especially with regards to account types such as RRSPs and TFSAs, are crucial to the “convenience factor” even for ultra-active traders. The benefits of TFSAs and RRSPs for wealth creation are simply too high to not try to take full advantage of, hence clients who wish to “trade fast” with TradeZero will have to maintain another relationship with another online brokerage to do the “slow stuff,” thus opening the door to being courted away.

To TradeZero’s credit, despite the hurdles, they are clearly ambitious in their desire to expand their brand globally and into the highly regulated areas of securities trading. The fundamental business case is certainly there; however, so is the competition. There are pain points among users of Interactive Brokers, such as a steep learning curve of the trading platform and lackluster customer service, so TradeZero does have a foothold if they can improve the client experience of active retail traders.

The consequences for the Canadian online brokerage landscape may not be felt right away, especially given the segment that TradeZero will be pursuing. That said, with a name like TradeZero and an offering of commission-free trades, there is almost certainly going to be increased pressure on incumbent online brokerages to drop their commission prices. It is already happening a few times per week in investor forums and discussions and will likely only ramp up as each new commission-free brokerage comes on stream.

Canadian investors and traders alike might just find the pace of change at their own online brokerage slow enough that they’d be willing to at least try TradeZero, and at that point, it’s a slippery slope as to whether they switch brokerages. Those are the odds that perhaps TradeZero is banking on.

Interactive Brokers Puts Payments on Rails

Payments were an interesting thread of discussion at Interactive Brokers this past week. In the first instance, there were some intriguing remarks made by founder and Chairman of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, regarding payment for order flow (PFOF), the (now) controversial practice that enables zero-commission online brokerages like Robinhood to sell the orders their clients place to buy and sell stocks to a third party.

An industry veteran, it is always fascinating to hear Peterffy’s take on the mechanics of online trading, and in an interview last week with Yahoo! Finance, it was his position that despite the increased scrutiny from the US financial regulators, the reality is that the practice of selling orders would likely still persist although under a different pathway. In short, even if PFOF was clamped down on, online brokerages would find another way to monetize the trade execution.

Another interesting talking point about Interactive Brokers this past week was an announcement that they are launching a real-time payment solution that will enable clients to make instant deposits to their accounts. The rollout of this feature in the US is starting with clients who have accounts with Chase; however, given the desire for fast money traders to be able to move money around just as fast, this is a huge step forward.

Getting funds from point A to point B is remarkably longer than it should be in 2021, especially among online brokerages who aren’t bank-owned. The ability for individuals to open an account and essentially fund the account instantly removes a major friction point from being able to quickly jump into hot trading opportunities.

In the case of real-time funding of accounts, among Canadian online brokerages that are not bank-owned, this has been a significant stumbling block to individuals who are looking to get started as quickly as possible. Earlier this year, we reported on Questrade launching instant deposits (up to $3,500) and Wealthsimple (Trade) too, with the latter raising deposit limits significantly since they first launched and tying the ability to send more (up to $1,000) to their premium service. For Interactive Brokers in Canada, the funding time listed on their website states up to four business days for funds to be available, depending on the funding method chosen.  

As the launch of the real time payments option in the US is still in the early stages of a roll out, there is likely some time before Canadian self-directed investors can benefit. That said, it is a sign of a trend already in place whereby the faster an online investor can fund their account, the more likely they are to choose that brokerage to get up and running with. It’s not enough to have instant or fast account approvals if the ability to trade opportunities – especially fast-moving ones – is limited. Clearly, other online brokerages in Canada have figured this out, so it is now a bit of a race for others, including Interactive Brokers, to ramp this feature up quickly or risk being derailed by whatever the next big wave of new trading opportunities brings.

From the Forums

Trade Interrupted

If there’s one thing that all seasoned DIY investors know, it’s that online trading is not without its risks. One active investor learned the hard way about the risk of a platform not working as intended, and shared their experience in this post on reddit. Find out what fellow online investors had to say about what happened as well as the aftermath.

Hold On, For One More Day

Being told to wait is rarely music to any investor’s ears. In this post on reddit, one self-directed investor pointed out that the new hold music (or lack thereof) at TD Direct Investing was an unusual experience. Find out what fellow online investors had to say about this small but interesting detail of the customer service experience.\

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – October 11, 2021

If there’s one thing that Thanksgiving is famous for, it’s making a little extra room for treats. And, fortunately, it seems like online brokerages on both sides of the border were dishing out a healthy portion of good news heading into the Canadian long weekend.

In this edition of the Roundup, we kick things off with some bite-sized updates on new pricing and new naming from a couple of popular online brokerages. Next, we dial into the main course – a deep dive on the latest big feature from Robinhood: phone customer service. And finally, you’ll want to save room for dessert, which consists of some sweet chatter from the online investor forums.

Appetizing Canadian Online Brokerage Updates

BMO adviceDirect Lowers Fees to Attract New Clients

In the ramp up to RSP season, we expect to see a flood of new features and pricing announcements come through from Canadian online brokerages. This past week, BMO InvestorLine announced some interesting enhancements to their adviceDirect service that made it more accessible and enticing to investors with lower portfolio balances looking to trial out this service.

The biggest change is the reduction in the required minimum to open an adviceDirect account, from $50,000 down to $10,000. Of course, in an era of zero-commission trading, there were also some free trades (15, to be exact) thrown in for good measure for accounts with deposits of between $10,000 and $50,000.

One of the biggest challenges for consumers, especially those looking at the cost of “advice” on their portfolio, is paying fees. The minimum annual fee for adviceDirect has also been lowered from $750 to 0.75% on billable assets, with a maximum annual advisory fee of $3,750. For the entry point investor (i.e. someone with $10,000) the annual cost for the service would be $75.

While many online investors are aware of BMO InvestorLine, there are many who don’t know about adviceDirect, and given how long adviceDirect has been around, there are many online investors in DIY circles who’ve simply viewed this option as pricey. So, the move to lower the balance requirement as well as the fee structure is a great opportunity to introduce the new cohort of investors to this product. The challenge, however, will be in changing the narrative and conversation around adviceDirect, which is something that has been heavily shaped by the many years of discussion about it. As such, we expect that going into the RSP season, there will not only be greater advertising of adviceDirect, but more effort into repositioning this solution with the kinds of investors who would value having additional support and advice when making investing decisions.

Another interesting angle to this offering is that adviceDirect standard commissions per trade are $7.75 whereas BMO InvestorLine commission rates are $9.95. The disparity between the two presumably is a result of additional revenues from clients paying an annual fee for services. This, of course, naturally raises a couple of questions around how much BMO InvestorLine would be willing to lower their commission rates to in order to secure minimum activity thresholds.

Peer firms, such as RBC Direct Investing or TD Direct Investing offer discounted commission rates for active traders, but BMO InvestorLine does not. Instead, BMO InvestorLine offers up access to additional features (such as their advanced trading platform) for clients who trade more actively. If BMO InvestorLine were to lower their commissions to zero to match other brokerages, like National Bank Direct Brokerage, then it also could impact the pricing structure for adviceDirect.

Digging deeper into the pricing at this entry point tier, if a new client is being charged $75 for the service and 15 trades, that works out to $5 per trade – far lower than the current $9.95 for the self-directed investing service and the $7.75 for the adviceDirect standard commission.

For now, it’s clear that based on the pricing and the free trades for the new tier created for adviceDirect that BMO InvestorLine is very interested in attracting in new clients to give this service a try. As RSP season heats up, this latest move from BMO InvestorLine signals that there is likely more to come in terms of either features, pricing, or promotions to entice the self-directed investor segment. And, if BMO InvestorLine is any indicator, the other bank-owned online brokerages won’t be too far behind with something big.

Virtual Brokers Now CI Direct Trading

It may have taken some time, but the Virtual Brokers brand has finally seen its sunset. After Virtual Brokers was acquired by CI Financial in 2017, it was unclear as to how the Virtual Brokers brand would co-exist among the other brands managed by CI Financial. Then, in early 2020, there was some clarification that the many brands owned by CI Financial, while strong in their own right, were not building the CI brand directly, and as a result, they were all brought under the umbrella of the “CI Financial” name.

As of the publication of this edition of the Roundup, Virtual Brokers is now CI Direct Trading. It was unclear once CI Direct Investing was created whether Virtual Brokers would fall under that brand or another, especially given how crowded the “direct investing” name has become.

Qtrade, RBC, and TD all have “Direct Investing” in their name, so the “Direct Trading” brand does help them stand out but with the “direct” in the name, they also must contend with CG Direct – something that will almost certainly cause confusion, especially if CG Direct decides to ramp up their marketing to make more investors aware of their offering.

One of the biggest challenges facing CI Direct Trading, however, will be managing the transition from such a well-known name. For example, although the website has changed names, the current site structure and design are still the same. Also, the mobile app links still point to the existing Virtual Brokers mobile app page and naming.

The roll out of a new brand, especially as big of a change as a name, reveals the complexity of an online brokerage in terms of moving parts. Qtrade Direct Investing did an effective job managing their rebrand earlier this year, and when they went live, they also initiated a new marketing campaign to carry the new brand forward with the energy and momentum required to build excitement with their existing stakeholders.

If there are any clues as to where things go for CI Direct Trading, there might be some in the CI Direct Investing user experience. The shift from WealthBar to CI Direct Investing set a high bar for user experience and design for the CI Financial family. So, if the transformation for Virtual Brokers is anything like the look and feel for CI Direct Investing, it seems like Canadian self-directed investors are in for a pleasant surprise.

Robinhood Launches 24/7 Phone Support

One of the biggest stories out of the US online brokerage space this past week was from Robinhood, who announced on their blog that they have rolled out 24/7 phone support. The mixed reaction (or lack thereof) to the news is a unique reflection of where this feature fits into their business and the continued overhang of negative sentiment towards Robinhood from very vocal users online.

Historically, phone service was never really a priority at Robinhood – it was simply too expensive a feature that a zero-commission online brokerage couldn’t effectively support. Instead, for much of its existence, Robinhood fielded customer enquiries digitally, through email and chat and eventually with some limited phone support. In contrast, many peers of Robinhood, such as Schwab, Ameritrade and Interactive Brokers, have robust phone customer service infrastructure, including coverage 24 hours a day for the business week, if not for the whole week.

So, why is rolling out 24/7 phone customer service such a big deal at Robinhood?

For starters, launching a point of contact that is available all day, every day is a signal that Robinhood is trying to improve the customer experience. Events over the past 18 months, in particular the crush of volume of new accounts and the meme stock rush, uncovered issues with how customers of Robinhood dealt with things like outages, trading restrictions, account hacks/breaches, and more. Ultimately, these high stakes situations required many customers to reach out to the Robinhood customer support team.

Thus, 24/7 phone service – while a standard feature amongst other large online brokerages – provides a measure of comfort to clients who want or need to get in touch with a human to help sort through an issue.

A bigger reason why the phone service access matters, however, is because Robinhood also supports cryptocurrency trading – a market that never closes. While there was very little chatter among online investors on the stock trading side about this feature at Robinhood, the crypto community was abuzz with this innovation. There simply is no analogue for customer service at that level from crypto exchanges.

Scaling up to meet the needs of their 22+ million customers won’t be easy – or smooth. Their initial approach to providing phone support will require clients to use the app to request contact from a Robinhood agent. According to an article published in TechCrunch, there are no “guaranteed” wait times, however, the targeted call back time is within half an hour. To meet that commitment, Robinhood will employ in-house customer service reps, as well as contracted outsourced agents. Clients can therefore expect some heavy triaging of calls to ensure that resources be allocated efficiently. Of course, one of the quirks of dealing with individuals in finance is that interactions can’t seem “too rushed” otherwise the experience becomes less enjoyable. As a result, Robinhood customer service will be subject to the same forces that tend to impact their peers when the markets get extremely volatile: longer wait times on the phone.  

As important as this as a development for Robinhood, they are not the only US online brokerage to be shoring up their customer service and customer experience. Interactive Brokers, another brand for which customer support has been a lower priority, had mentioned earlier this year that they are working on something exciting for their customer support experience.

Here in Canada, 24/7 customer service at an online brokerage is a very rare feature. In fact, there is no online brokerage that offers this, but there are two that come close: HSBC InvestDirect and Interactive Brokers. The rest of the online brokerages phone service channels typically operate around business hours on Eastern Time, which is a frustrating thing for clients in Western Canada.

HSBC InvestDirect’s phone customer service hours are 24 hours a day from Monday through Thursday, and from 12am to 8pm ET on Friday. Agents resume phone coverage again on Sunday evening starting at 6pm ET. Interactive Brokers has phone service coverage 24hrs a day, five days a week. Interactive Broker’s phone customer service hours are 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday. For Interactive Brokers, however, the Canadian service operation runs from 8am to 8:30pm ET and outside of these hours calls are answered by an international affiliate of Interactive Brokers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Canadian online brokerages have some work to do to provide a cutting-edge phone customer service experience. To begin with, coverage for Canadian online brokerages is largely limited to business hours, with several big named brokerages only offering coverage during business hours in the Eastern time zone. Then, there are simple features, like call back (instead of waiting on hold) to letting clients know where they are in a call queue with an estimated wait time, which are still not in place at many online brokerages.

What the latest move by Robinhood demonstrates, however, is that eventually customer service and customer experience do matter and that even at a commission-free online brokerage, clients still expect to be able to connect to a human being to solve complicated or urgent issues. It is also instructive to note that any online brokerage that currently deals with a “market that never closes” like cryptocurrency (such as Wealthsimple Trade) or international trading is going to have to support customers with a phone channel at extended hours.

The silver lining for Canadian online brokerages and self-directed investors is that phone support is an area that has been an important focal point for improvement after the mega-delays experienced during the pandemic surge last year. Firms such as BMO InvestorLine and Questrade have been very public about their investments in increasing call centre resources to keep wait times low. Impressively, BMO InvestorLine also publishes wait time numbers on their customer login pages so clients can see how long wait times are.

Despite Robinhood’s launch of the new 24/7 phone support system, cynicism among clients and observers remains high.

The outages and trading restrictions are still fresh in the minds of many online investors who have weighed in on the Robinhood announcement, so getting it right on phone support will be key. The real test will come during times of market volatility, which have benefited them in the past, but going forward, will expose what they haven’t yet thought about as far as customer service.

From the Forums

Zeroing in on Commissions at Questrade

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. For the Canadian online brokerage that long held the title of the lowest-cost online Canadian brokerage, recent developments around zero-commission trading have raised questions from clients as to when Questrade will follow suit. Threads like this one on reddit are reflective of a growing chorus of investors looking for more value in a highly competitive market.

Not So Simple After All

Cryptocurrency trading – the direct way – seems to continue to present opportunity and controversy at one Canadian online brokerage. Wealthsimple Trade, which initially launched under the mantra of supporting “getting rich slowly” announced a recent development regarding cryptocurrency transfers that got online investors buzzing in this reddit post. The pivot for Wealthsimple towards cryptocurrency did not go unnoticed, and was the focus of this article in the Globe and Mail which also had a lot of people weighing in.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this holiday edition of the Roundup. There’s a lot that we didn’t get to this week (but that’s what leftovers are for right?), including a shout-out to World Investor Week. For Canadian self-directed investors, it might be a short week ahead but there’s no shortage of new developments on the radar (including a few generated by us!). However, between Squid Game, football, new movies starting to trickle out, and the unemployment rate dropping to pre-pandemic levels, it’s going to be quite the battle for attention regardless of what screen you’re watching from.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – June 14, 2021

Taking a Moment

There’s a lot that goes into the production of a Weekly Roundup that many readers don’t see. Looking back on the week that was is as much a habit as knowing which letters to capitalize in an online brokerage’s name. Despite the hundreds of times having done this, occasionally something happens in a week that forces a pause from business as usual.

This past week there was a terrible tragedy that took place in London, Ontario. Four members of a family were murdered simply for looking and being different than what someone decided was appropriately Canadian. They were murdered because they were Muslim.

Like many Canadians, it is hard to find words to capture how thoroughly awful and traumatic this event was. And so, we are left with yet another heavy but necessary exercise: to not turn away from the terrible news but this time to watch and engage.

The news cycle will move on before the people will. A young boy will be left to figure out the rest of his life without his parents and sister beside him. Muslims and other religious and ethnic communities across Canada will forever be slightly less trusting that everything will be OK.

Before getting back to business as usual, I wanted to call attention to Islamophobia and the responsibility all of us bear to call out prejudice when and where we see it.

Please take a moment and either watch or read about this family.

All of us have a part to play in looking out for each other.

A Tale of Two Tables: 2021 MoneySense Online Brokerage Rankings Released

It’s hard to believe, but the DIY investor datapalooza (or datastravaganza?) that is characterizing 2021 continues to chug along well into June.

Earlier this month, a popular Canadian investment publication, MoneySense magazine, published their 2021 Canadian online brokerage rankings, essentially capping off the last of the major discount broker rankings for the summer.

Even though the fall feels far away, online brokerages are undoubtedly at work planning for their ramp up at the end of the year. These latest Canadian online brokerage rankings will ultimately prove to be a big part of what will help online investors shape their perceptions and decisions around which online broker they choose to go with, and ultimately impact how online brokerages market and talk about themselves for the rest of the year.

Why is this Online Brokerage Ranking Important?

Now in its ninth year, the MoneySense rankings have become a go-to resource for many DIY investors curious about the online brokerage marketplace in Canada. As the landscape evolves for online brokerages and self-directed investing, so too do these rankings.

Helping MoneySense stay on top of those changes is Surviscor, a financial services research firm that evaluates Canadian online brokerages across a number of different parameters.

Frequent readers of the Weekly Roundup will already be familiar with the research and in particular, the online brokerage rankings, produced by Surviscor. For a timely throwback, be sure to check out our Look Back/Look Ahead series featuring Glenn LaCoste, President and CEO of Surviscor, and the author of this year’s MoneySense online brokerage rankings.

With yet another online brokerage ranking appearing this year, it’s a lot for online investors to digest. The MoneySense rankings in particular offer an interesting way to see the importance of defining what’s “best” when it comes to online brokerages. Also, in digging through the data, we uncovered an interesting relationship between a major driver of investor decision making, cost of services, and the performance on measures of investor experience – like service.

There’s lots to dig into, so grab some caffeine and get ready to scroll.


Online brokerage rankings and evaluations help to make sense of the often-confusing question: “which online brokerage is best?”

With several Canadian online brokerage rankings available for online investors to consult, it is important to come back to a familiar concept – that each online brokerage ranking measures the idea of what’s best in a different way.

The MoneySense online brokerage rankings are often cited as a resource to evaluate almost all of Canada’s online brokerages. Like most of the other comprehensive rankings, information is published annually, and as a result, the data takes a snapshot of the past year or so in the world of DIY investing at Canadian online brokerages.

It is important to note that the data for the MoneySense online brokerage rankings comes from financial services research firm Surviscor. Specifically, according to the methodology, the MoneySense rankings are based on a combination of the following Surviscor reviews:

1. Online experience

2. Mobile experience

3. Cost of services experience

4. Service experiences

Points were assigned to each online brokerage according to a points-based system in which each brokerage received a score based on its ranking within the seven sections of the review:

1st = 5 points

2nd = 4 points

3rd = 3 points

4th = 2 points

5th = 1 point

The overall score was the sum of the awarded sections and reported as points.

In addition to reporting on the points earned by each brokerage as part of this review, the MoneySense rankings also reported the “Best online brokers” by category. The breakdown is as follows:

  • Best online broker for fees
  • Best online broker for customer service
  • Best online broker for ETF investing
  • Best online broker for stock investing
  • Best online broker for financial literacy
  • Best online broker for market data
  • Best online broker for customer onboarding
  • Best online broker for mobile experience

Within each of these categories, the top two firms were reported.

Strengths & Limitations

One of the strengths of the review is that there is lots of data reported for investors to consider, and it has been published in a way that identifies the top two firms in each of the stated categories. This saves a lot of time for investors or readers who simply want or need a quick answer from a reputable source.

A big plus this year is that there is a companion publication on the Surviscor blog which dives into detail on the scores and provides more context on the process.

In terms of limitations, presenting this volume of information can be a challenge. For example, the methodology stated:

“Each firm was assigned a score based on its ranking within the seven sections of review (5 points for first; 4 for second; 3 for third; 2 for fourth; and 1 for fifth), and the overall score was the sum of the awarded sections.”

Given that there are eight reported categories (noted above), it was not immediately clear which seven sections of the review were being referred to, and as a result, validating the math or seeing how scores varied across sections would have added important context to rankings.

For example, one of the immediate questions that jumps to mind with the points system is what the maximum possible score would be?  Without that information, it is hard for the reader to get a sense of just how good a particular brokerage is. And, when the scores are close, or tied, the value of points and how they get calculated becomes even more important to contextualize results.


The results for the 2021 MoneySense online brokerage rankings are shown in the following table.

FirmMoneySense PointsMoneySense Rank
National Bank Direct Brokerage312
TD Direct Investing253
Qtrade Direct Investing224
BMO InvestorLine95
Scotia iTRADE66
RBC Direct Investing57
Desjardins Online Brokerage48
Wealthsimple Trade48
Virtual Brokers48
Canaccord Genuity Direct48
CIBC Investor’s Edge212
HSBC InvestDirect113
Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage014

Questrade took the top spot in this year’s rankings with a total of 36 points, followed closely by National Bank Direct Brokerage (31 points), and TD Direct Investing in third place (with 25 points). Again, without a maximum score, it is difficult to know exactly how well any one brokerage could have done.

The methodology states that there are seven “sections” and a five-point maximum which would imply a maximum score of 35. However, Questrade has clearly exceeded that score, hence some confusion.

Data outside of the top five brokerages was not published in the MoneySense rankings, however, it was available on the Surviscor site, which helped identify additional context on how the entire field of online brokerages performed this year.

One of the first noteworthy items is just how sharp the drop off is from fourth to fifth place in these rankings. Qtrade Direct Investing placed fourth with 22 points. However, BMO InvestorLine, with just nine points, managed to make it into the top five.

Even though on a relative basis, a top five finish may not sound so bad, in the case of this year’s ranking, the distance between fourth and fifth is materially different.

Another interesting observation about the data is the number of firms who tied for eighth place. CG Direct, Desjardins Online Brokerage, Virtual Brokers, and Wealthsimple Trade are very, very different firms, and yet each tied for eighth place with four points.

Somewhat stunning are the positions of CIBC Investor’s Edge and HSBC InvestDirect, who placed 12th and 13th respectively. In the case of the former, being a “Big Five” bank-owned brokerage should in theory enable it to have the resources to score better, but with a score of two points, it implies that Investor’s Edge was rarely a top five brokerage in any of the evaluated categories. Similarly, HSBC InvestDirect scored one point, and it too barely placed in a top five finish in any of the categories measured.

Surviscor’s “behind the scenes” look at the MoneySense rankings also provided some additional context and important takeaways when it came to this year’s analysis. The following five statements were made in reference to the data and the items that online investors (and online brokerages) should pay attention to.

  • Beware the marketing when it comes to fees
  • Firms never get a second chance to make a first impression
  • Financial literacy is weak
  • Mobile experience is still not where it needs to be
  • $0 commission is not always worth it

With so much data to crunch, it can be a challenge for DIY investors and industry analysts alike to form a “big picture” of what’s going on in the online brokerage space.

Surviscor’s multiple studies to measure online brokerages got us curious, so we compiled the ranking data from each of the four online brokerage analyses cited in the MoneySense rankings, and crunched the numbers to see what the correlation would be between the combined rankings of each evaluation and the MoneySense ranking data.

Methodology, Part Deux

First a(nother) note on methodology. The rankings in each of the four different Surviscor evaluations used in the MoneySense ranking were averaged out and reported along with a standard deviation. The computed rank is one that we generated based on the average rank across each of the evaluations.

 To try and get as close to an apples-to-apples comparison of how different online brokerages ranked against each other in each of the four evaluations, it was necessary to make some minor adjustments to the data.

In the Service Experiences, Interactive Brokers was actually evaluated, so for the sake of consistency across comparisons, they were excluded from the data and the ranks of other brokerages adjusted upwards by one. Wealthsimple Trade was assigned the lowest value for not having been able to be measured. For the actual service experience scores, check the link here.

Adjustments were also made in the Online Experience and Mobile Experience rankings. Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage and CG Direct were assigned the lowest rank since they did not offer anything that could be evaluated using those tools.


One of the first things to stand out is that the top four brokerages in the 2021 MoneySense online brokerage rankings are the same four online brokerages when computing scores across the four Surviscor evaluations, however, the order in which they appear is different.

In the computed rank, the measure that we calculated, Qtrade Direct Investing came in first, followed by National Bank Direct Brokerage, Questrade, and TD Direct Investing, respectively. What also stood out in the top three is that the average rank between Qtrade Direct Investing, National Bank Direct Brokerage, and Questrade is very close, ranging between 4.0 and 4.8. Having the standard deviation handy (shout out to the stats profs who drove home the point about standard deviations) as a measure of consistency, however, adds a bit more nuance to the top three online brokerages.

Specifically, Qtrade Direct Investing has a relatively low standard deviation (2.3) indicating their ranking is relatively consistent from one evaluation to the next. By comparison, Questrade has the highest standard deviation of the group (5.7), which points to the remarkably poor ranking they received in the Cost of Services evaluation (they ranked 13th). Having the context of all the data helps to illustrate where exactly the top three online brokerages excel relative to each other, and to see how consistently (or inconsistently) online brokerages are scoring.

Consistency cuts both ways, however.

RBC Direct Investing had the lowest standard deviation (1.2) of all of the rankings, implying a fairly consistent score across different evaluation studies. Their average rank was sixth, and the computed rank put them in fifth place overall.

By comparison, Virtual Brokers also had a very low standard deviation score (relatively speaking) at 2.1, but their average rank of 9.8 landed them with a computed rank of 13th overall. This implies that Virtual Brokers has consistently performed poorly on the four Surviscor evaluations for 2021.

It was also intriguing to note that after about eighth place in the MoneySense ranking, the divergence between these scores and the computed rank became more pronounced. In particular, CIBC Investor’s Edge ranked 12th in the MoneySense ranking but ninth in the computed ranking, only slightly behind Scotia iTRADE and Desjardins Online Brokerage.


Being able to step back and take a big picture view of the data provides a unique window into how the different evaluations generated by Surviscor come together, and how they compare to the MoneySense rankings.

When placed side by side, the combined Surviscor studies used in the MoneySense ranking show that firms that are strong on experiential factors, such as online, mobile, and service, tended to do better overall in the rankings.

Interestingly, with the exception of National Bank Direct Brokerage, firms that tended to do well on pricing had a negative correlation to performance on the MoneySense or combined Surviscor rankings. This points out that perhaps there is an inverse relationship between the cost of services and the experience of online investing.

Thus, having the additional data presented in a big picture format does help illustrate what exactly online investors would have to trade off. For example, in choosing between Questrade and National Bank Direct Brokerage, investors can see that the tradeoff might be one of “cost of services” versus “online experience.”

Clearly there is lots of data to explore, which can be both a pro and a con for online investors looking for a quick answer to “which online brokerage is best?”

The reality is that rankings help to compress a lot of the analysis into an easy to digest number. However, as illustrated above, how one defines “best” – even when using the same underlying data – can impact how specific brokerages are perceived and reported on by media, online brokerages themselves, and other DIY investors.

What is evident in looking at the big picture of this data is that the field of Canadian online brokerages is crowded, and with even more new entrants poised to add to the numbers, keeping on top of the evolving space is an ongoing challenge. For those that want to avoid the spreadsheets and comparisons, rankings offer a quick shortcut. But like everything else when it comes to investing online, it pays to do your homework.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this week’s Roundup. It’s been a difficult week but here’s hoping we can look for, find, and create the good in the week ahead.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – April 19, 2021

Apparently, stock markets are not sheepish about sounding like a broken record, especially when they’re breaking records. Yet another week has gone by, and with it, stock markets continue to press higher, appeasing the bulls, unnerving the bears, and delighting online brokerages.

In this edition of the Weekly Roundup, we take a deep dive into the big news from the past week: a major rebrand of one of Canada’s most popular online brokerages: Qtrade. Dig in to learn about the updates to the brand, and what it means for DIY investors and online brokerages in Canada. Also on the menu for this edition, interesting chatter from the investor forums.

Qtrade Charts a New Course for DIY Investors

This past week, a lot of things changed about Qtrade, one of Canada’s most popular online brokerages. Specifically, they launched a major brand overhaul, which included a new logo, new colour and design schemes, and an update to their website. They also changed their name to Qtrade Direct Investing.

While these substantial changes are visually apparent, there are also subtle changes that have taken place. When analyzed in conjunction with one another, these big and small changes paint a very interesting picture of the new direction for Qtrade, and potentially for the Canadian online brokerage industry as a whole.

New Logo, New Identity

Though there are over a dozen different online brokerages in Canada, they all face the same problem: standing out.

Advertising and marketing have been important tools to help online brokerages in Canada get onto the radar of investors, however, the reality for many DIY investors is that price often becomes the most important differentiator between online brokerages. Now that most online brokerages offer trading commissions at about the same price, communicating what makes an online brokerage special or unique is becoming increasingly important.

Beyond pricing, one common way to segment the Canadian online brokerage space is into “bank-owned” online brokerages and “independent” online brokerages.

Why this matters so much for Canadian online brokerages is because the same thing that is an advantage for bank-owned online brokerages, which is the affiliation with the larger parent bank brand, is also a limitation when it comes to leading change and innovation. The criteria, such as convenience or perceived security, that bank-owned online brokerages tend to have associated with them are not necessarily things that can be evolved quickly.

As a result, the larger online brokers have many more moving parts to coordinate, so change can almost by definition only happen slowly and, in many cases, reactively.

For independent or non-bank-owned online brokerages, however, the advantage to being small(er) and potentially more focused on online investing is that innovation and change can happen more frequently. Accordingly, the features can be tailored specifically towards DIY investors without running afoul of other considerations of the parent brand – such as banking or lending products, or even other investment services (such as mutual funds).

As such, for Qtrade, the launch of a new brand identity – including a new logo – is an opportunity to reaffirm to the market of DIY investors what is special about their brand, and to position themselves for a new vision of the future.

Breaking Bored

In an industry that is increasingly viewed as a commodity, standing out is not only important, but arguably vital. Big bank-owned brokerages are associated with boring because that’s generally what older online investors have valued: stability. What new entrants, like Wealthsimple Trade, and even edgier independent online brokerages like Questrade have shown, however, is that a newer DIY investors are paying attention to innovation.

Loyal, excited clients have to see the value in the brand and they have to connect emotionally with the brand. Typically, however, this kind of excitement is driven by online brokerages who can deliver a stable trading experience and strong value (read: low trading costs).

In the current landscape of Canadian online brokerages, it is hard for most DIY investors to be aware of more than a handful of providers, let alone know what the corporate branding looks like or get emotional about it.

Instead, most online investors tend to be aware of online brokerages by name only – whether that be by parent brand affiliation (such as a bank-owned online brokerage) or the name of the online brokerage directly.

With those challenges in mind, the new Qtrade logo and brand identity appear to position them to look bold and distinct. Their choice of colours, and even the logo itself, are very different to what is “traditionally” seen among their competitors. This makes Qtrade immediately striking.

The new Qtrade logo focuses on their core brand name, Qtrade – something we’ll touch on in more detail below – which is crucial to existing clients and existing DIY investors who would or should know the name. Gone from the logo, however, is the word “Investor,” which has also been dropped as part of their new name update.

Another interesting feature of their logo is that it progresses up and to the right – something that is very noticeably different than other online brokerage logos which move horizontally from left to right. The direction of moving up and to the right is incredibly meaningful to online investors, as that is the general direction that most investors want to see the progress of their investments move in.

Finally, the fact the new logo presents the word Qtrade in all caps instead of just capitalizing the first letter the way the previous logo did, ties together the whole brand name and subtly elevates the word “trade” to new prominence.

The new Qtrade logo communicates confidence and is thoughtfully designed with features that speak to the online investor experience. No longer is it just about the “Q”, which encircled the previous logo, but rather where the brand can potentially take an investor.

It is this last point that really drives home the power of what a logo can communicate without needing to deconstruct it in a (*cough*) long post. The visual medium communicates information more quickly and impactfully than processing words can. And, in a world where interactions take place in fractions of a second, the new Qtrade logo is able to communicate a lot because of the way it has been designed.

New Colours

Another related component to the new Qtrade brand identity is the colour palette. If it was Qtrade’s goal to stand out from their peers with the use of colour, then it’s safe to say they have achieved it.

Their use of vibrant colours sets them apart completely from many of the colours that dominate their financial service competitors, and the colours that comprised their previous brand identity.

Most of the colours used by Canadian online brokerages are green, red or blue, however Qtrade’s use of dark pinks, mandarin orange, and lime green against the dark backgrounds (blues and grey) instantly communicate something bold and noticeable.

While there is a lot that could be said about psychology of colour that would be relevant to this rebranding of Qtrade, the most important point is that the new colour palette differentiates Qtrade from their online brokerage competitors and on a more subtle level, the vibrancy of colour choices is not meant to communicate “calm” but rather something quite opposite – and rare in finance – “excitement.”

New Website

The next major components to unpack are the changes to the Qtrade website.

If the new site feels like the difference is “night and day,” it’s because the updated website has a dark mode feel to it, in stark contrast to the previous site, which used white as a background.

Some noteworthy items dropped from their previous website include:

  • removing the photos and imagery
  • removing the financial data ticker with different market indices

But the most interesting change, aside from the visuals, is the absence of pricing. There are no longer commission prices or commission-free ETFs prominently displayed (or displayed at all) on the homepage.

Instead, the focus of the new homepage is on the key value drivers they want to present going forward. The top three for now (presumably because they are mentioned on the homepage) are:

  • Industry-leading tools
  • Award-winning platform
  • Canada’s best support

Further, there are short but meaningful explanations for investors of different experience levels that are featured prominently on the homepage.

Compared to the websites of their peers and against the previous version of their own site, the new Qtrade website has struck a balance between having fewer items on their website that don’t directly communicate what they do, the features/benefits of their platform, and wandering entirely into the minimalist design. Again, psychologically, it seems like a great deal of thought went into positioning Qtrade as a brand that exudes and communicates confidence, and the new website ties this together really well.

Another notable difference is the age and diversity of the individuals in the imagery chosen for their photos. While there is still a reliance on stock photographs, it appears that these images are more reflective of the diversity of their client base as well as from an age point of view, an indication of who they are hoping to resonate with: a younger investor.

What’s in a Name?

The new look and feel of Qtrade also features a new name. Qtrade Investor has now officially become Qtrade Direct Investing.

While changing colours and logos are big decisions on their own, changing the name of the brand is also a very big decision, especially given the fact they’ve had their name for 20 years and have earned a significant amount of media coverage with it. Thus, dropping or changing the name Qtrade to something else seems like it would be a tough sell.

That said, Qtrade has also, for better or worse, often been confused with Questrade, the other online brokerage in Canada that starts with a Q and has “trade” in the name. So, despite the rebrand efforts, abbreviated discussions (like the kind that happen on social media or reddit) will likely still result in some confusion.

Choosing to drop “Investor” and replace it with “Direct Investing” is a curious decision from a branding perspective, however.

On the one hand, “Investor” does imply a certain type of personality – perhaps a “buy and hold” type – something that is at odds with the future direction that Qtrade wants to move towards. That future, it seems, would favour individuals who have the confidence to “trade” rather than those investors who might remain passive and “do nothing.”

On the other, if there was some brand confusion before, adding “Direct Investing” to the mix may also run the risk of confusing DIY investors since there are already two big bank-owned online brokerages (TD Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing) that use the “direct investing” label, as well as smaller brands CG Direct (Investing) and CI Direct Investing (that’s also going to be very confusing for DIY investors when that shift takes place for Virtual Brokers).

Thus, while Qtrade’s brand refresh is intended to have them stand out, by virtue of their name, it seems like Qtrade is going to be sometimes confused with other “direct investing” providers and still with Questrade. As an aside, the move to “direct investing” as a name to describe what online brokerages do, also suggests a continued move away from “discount brokerage” or “online brokerage,” which is potentially something we may see other online brokerages adopt – especially now given Qtrade’s name update.

Why Qtrade’s Rebranding Matters

Clearly, rebrands are a big undertaking with significant investment required to make the kinds of changes that Qtrade Direct Investing has. The simple question, it seems, is why? In particular, why now and why to this degree?

One possible answer is competition.

While competition among Canadian online brokerages is not as fierce as it is in the United States, there are, nonetheless, several firms that are consistently active when it comes to updates and improving their position in the market. Qtrade is definitely one them.

Regardless of their platform or website front end, Qtrade has been one of the few online brokerages in Canada that has kept itself in the spotlight, primarily by winning or earning recognition from various online brokerage reviews.

Given that rebranding is a decision with a timescale of years, however, it seems that winning top billing in the limited number of online brokerage reviews in Canada isn’t going to be enough to carry the brand forward into the future.

With so many online brokers in Canada, and even more on the way, the reality is that one of the biggest challenges to the online brokerages is figuring out how to stand out.

By changing their name and visual identity, Qtrade Direct Investing is signaling they are embarking on a new direction for their business. Their bold colour palette, excited tone, and increased inclusion both from a diversity standpoint and with younger investors in their imagery, means that Qtrade is focused on appealing to a new cohort of investors who represent the future of Qtrade Direct Investing.

The decisions to include emotion and excitement in the world of finance is a signal that financial services brands need to appeal to novelty rather than history. It doesn’t seem to matter to younger investors that an online brokerage may be new, but rather that the client experience be easy and fast.

The first impression of the digital touchpoint will be formative, so the new front end of the brand needs to be striking and memorable just to establish relevance in otherwise noisy world.  The fact is, a lot of online investors will start their journey either with their own bank-owned brand (out of convenience) or will look to the conversation online, especially in forums and social media more so than in traditional media – such as a magazine or newspaper (even an online one). As such, rankings and ratings won’t be enough. Investors will need a reason to get excited about Qtrade Direct Investing (or any other online brokerage).

Despite the amount of time and effort that has already been invested in crafting the next chapter of the Qtrade story, the reality is that a lot more work lies ahead of this online brokerage to win the attention and accolades of online investors in the places that those investors consume content.

It seems clear that for the time being, Qtrade wants to shift the conversation away from pricing and towards features and client experience, two areas in which they are competitive. To do so successfully, however, Qtrade will have to put itself on the radar of those DIY investors for whom those other features matter. For that reason, we expect to see a ramp up of activity across content and marketing channels to reach investors and amplify the new brand direction of Qtrade.

There is a lot more to dig into with regards to the Qtrade Direct Investing rebrand, however, given their perennial appearance in the online brokerage rankings, it is safe to assume that their competitors are paying close attention to this development at Qtrade.

The shift in tone and design towards building a more emotional connection with users is something other online brokerages will undoubtedly look to emulate as a result of this latest brand relaunch by Qtrade. As such, there will certainly be more to say about the consequences of this rebranding effort, including how DIY investors and competitors ultimately react to an online brokerage that is turning the energy level up.

From the Forums

Off the Charts

Active DIY investors are always on the lookout for charting tools, however, not all Canadian online brokerages offer them at a competitive price. In this reddit post, some DIY investors have found a clever solution to get their chart fix.

One Trade to Rule Them All

When it comes to passive investing, the ideal approach is “set it and forget it.” In this post, one online investor was looking for a single investment to make that would take the work out of DIY investing, and it seems that redditors were able to provide a suggestion.  

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on a big week. Markets aren’t the only things flying higher and online brokerages aren’t the only ones launching things: the first ever helicopter flight is set to take place on Mars. While we’re certainly facing our own share of struggles here on Earth, it’s great to have a reminder that there’s still lots of opportunity to celebrate. Hope your week is out of this world!

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – December 21, 2020

The phrase that’s been a mantra for many of us in 2020 – aside from “You’re on mute” – has been “Is it over yet?” Finally, it’s a lot closer to being true than at any previous point in the year. Thank goodness. In keeping with the sentiment of a very long year, this end-of-year edition of the Weekly Roundup is itself longer than usual. Unlike 2020, however, it is intentionally long because so many interesting things took place.

Packaging so many big developments into one post was a challenge. So, for this final edition of the Roundup for the year, we offer up an homage to a movie franchise that seems to go on just about as long as 2020 has. This Fast and Furious edition of the Roundup recaps the year one quarter at a time. Keep reading for high-octane stories that powered the Weekly Roundup for the past year, including important feature releases, interesting trends, and the stories that were kind of a big deal.  In true Weekly Roundup form, we roll the credits on 2020 with DIY investor chatter from Twitter and the forums.

Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Q1 2020: Everything Was Normal Until It Wasn’t

Looking back on the beginning of the year, the start to 2020 in the Canadian online brokerage space seemed pretty “normal” by most accounts.

One theme early in the year was pricing drops. Desjardins Online Brokerage, for example, significantly dropped their commission rates, especially for active investors, to under $1 per trade. Similarly, HSBC also teed up an offer for active investors: zero-commission pricing between April and December 2020. Although these two firms aren’t as well known in the Canadian online brokerage space as other mainstream firms or the big-five bank-owned online brokers, it was clear that commission pricing in 2020 would continue to be under pressure as smaller firms looked to gain market share. These moves were also timed around the start of the year because of the heightened interest in RSP accounts, and, as such, there would be a much larger audience of investors willing to consider these new pricing features. Interestingly, the rest of the Canadian online brokerage industry did not immediately move to lower commission prices. As it turned out, once the tsunami of investor demand for online brokerage accounts took hold, commission prices stayed largely untouched until the latter part of 2020.

Another important theme early in the year (prior to COVID-19 hitting with full force) was the release of online brokerage reviews and rankings. Both The Globe and Mail and Surviscor released their respective rankings of Canada’s online brokers in order to coincide with the time in the calendar when many DIY investors hunt out new online investing accounts and offers.

What stood out about the 2020 edition of The Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings (which happened to be the 21st edition of these rankings) was that a number of firms scored a respectable grade (B or better), but of the top three firms by letter grade, two of them were bank-owned online brokers: TD Direct Investing and Scotia iTrade. The firm that reappeared at the top of these rankings was Qtrade Investor, which earned an A+ rating overall. Ironically, TD Direct Investing suffered from a trading interruption (something that would become a lot more commonplace across the industry in 2020), and Scotia iTrade continued to face challenges responding to clients in a timely fashion over the phone.

In the Surviscor rankings, Qtrade Investor also took top spot, edging out Questrade and TD Direct Investing. Not to be outdone, Questrade earned a DALBAR award for client service, providing additional points for their brand in a year that started off strong in terms of rankings progress.

Of course, the major story during the first quarter of 2020 was COVID-19, and specifically how it roiled markets and caused a massive shock to trading systems, online brokerages, and DIY investors. For some, it was catastrophic, but to others, the opportunity of a lifetime. It was this latter group that won the day, however, as new investors jumped at the chance to invest in household-name stocks at incredible prices. Further, the “Robinhood effect” was cited as another reason the volatility seemed to skyrocket. The US online brokerage had moved to a largely commission-free model, and, as such, investors could “scalp” trade – making small and frequent trades – with no real downside (in terms of commission pricing). It turned out, however, that most online brokerage systems were not equipped to handle the surge in interest in trading combined with market volatility.

Some weird things happened. Among them, Wealthsimple Trade having to effectively halt new clients from being able to trade on their platform.

Major online brokerages also suffered trading platform downtime, slammed telephone reps, and the biggest surge in online brokerage account opening since the bitcoin craze in 2018. Oh, and they had to contend with all of this while being transitioned to a work-from-home model.

Also strange, people deciding to hoard toilet paper.

Q2 2020: Outages & Outrage

The start of the second quarter picked up right where the first ended, as things went from weird to certifiably insane. Volatility and trading volumes managed to take down trading systems at multiple Canadian bank-owned online brokerages, but that would not even be the weirdest thing to take place in April. As it turns out, prices for commodities, like barrels of oil, could not only fall to zero but also go negative.

Unfortunately for traders – and especially for Interactive Brokers clients – the oil contract price going negative wound up impairing (if not wiping out) a significant number of traders, and that was because of a programming glitch on Interactive Brokers’ platform that didn’t account for prices of contracts being able to turn negative. All told, Interactive Brokers ended up taking a $90 million loss because of the exceptionally rare move to reimburse traders caught offside by this issue. Of course, while embarrassing for Interactive Brokers, these were truly unusual times, and there were other traders who didn’t see it coming.

Nonetheless, Interactive Brokers also had a huge silver lining after the oil futures contract fiasco: They experienced record-breaking new-account growth. As the canary in the coal mine, Interactive Brokers telegraphed exceptionally strong account openings (+22% year over year) and revenue gains from the sheer volume of activity taking place. In fact, there were more accounts opened at Interactive Brokers in April 2020 than in the last six months of 2019 combined.

Against the backdrop of market volatility, another online brokerage ranking was published, this time from J.D. Power. The Self-Directed Investor Satisfaction Study was revealing in that even before many of the issues that came to light during the heavy volatility in the markets, the Canadian online brokerage industry was starting to slip in terms of investor satisfaction. The report card showed that online brokerages fared worse in 2020 than they did in 2019 when it came to overall satisfaction.

Questrade managed to take top spot in the rankings for 2020, an accolade that is the result of a long journey of constant improvement. Conversely, the bottom four online brokerages in Canada, according to J.D. Power, were from the big five: RBC Direct Investing, TD Direct Investing, CIBC Investor’s Edge, and Scotia iTrade, respectively, were the firms that scored the lowest on the 2020 edition of this ranking. One telling stat was that website stability and accessibility were areas where online investors felt underserved, with 46% of those polled experiencing a problem with their provider’s website.

Finally, the major development in the second quarter of 2020 (outside of COVID-19) was the death of George Floyd and the igniting of social justice movements in North America (and across the world) to a point not seen since the US Civil Rights movement. Though the stock markets were largely insulated from the headline risk, major names in the public markets (like Nike) took very public stands on the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. One potentially coincidental shift that we noted in the websites of two online brokerages at this time was the use of more inclusive and diverse imagery. What a DIY investor was “supposed to look like” changed in terms of the imagery used on the websites of Interactive Brokers and Virtual Brokers. Other online brokerages in Canada had already made the shift to more inclusive imagery, so it was nice to see these online brokers take a step in the right direction when it comes to representation.

Another important note on Virtual Brokers emerged during this time, which was that the parent company, CI Financial, had opted to consolidate the “Virtual Brokers” name under CI Direct Investing along with another key name in the digital investing space: WealthBar. Although no definitive timetable was published on this move, it means that a long-standing name in the online brokerage space will disappear, and DIY investors will have to learn another new name. To make matters even more challenging, the new online brokerage that formed from the acquisition of Jitneytrade by Canaccord is named CG Direct. These two names are bound to confuse DIY investors even more than the current challenge of sorting out Qtrade Investor and Questrade.

Q3 2020: Sun and Shade

With the nicer weather and relative calm in stock markets, it seemed like an opportune moment for several online brokerages to make big announcements and feature enhancements/changes. And there were a few.

Starting in June, TD Direct Investing announced updates to its mobile app that focused on enhancements to investor education. Interestingly, as it came to be seen later in the year, this move toward bolstering investor education was both a timely one, given the number of new investors coming into the stock market, and a well-calculated one, supporting the big reveal that would come in Q4. The trend of improvements to mobile trading experiences was something that surfaced several times in the year, notably with RBC Direct Investing as well as Virtual Brokers.

One of the biggest announcements to cross the tape was that Wealthsimple Trade would be launching cryptocurrency trading in Canada. Offering trading in both Bitcoin and Ethereum, this move by the “zero-commission” online broker in Canada was yet another step to appeal to a younger, more tech-savvy audience who wanted both an easier way to access these digital currency instruments and a more user-friendly way. This pilot program will ultimately help to inform whether cryptocurrency trading can be properly regulated by financial authorities in Canada. In 2020, Wealthsimple Trade continued to lean into its identity as a “Robinhood Canada,” given the success of the US online brokerage in winning over new investors to its platform.

One big feature roll-out that didn’t quite go as planned was from CIBC Investor’s Edge. Unfortunately, the feature upgrade’s first attempt resulted in trading interruptions that, in turn, prompted the online broker to offer commission-free trades to those who were impacted by the outage. Eventually, however, a new online trading experience was rolled out – in part – and set the stage for further improvements to the user experience.

After a very quiet stretch, signs of life in the deals and promotions section started to appear. National Bank Direct Brokerage launched a sizable commission-free trade offer, and, interestingly, Wealthsimple Trade launched a contest with a draw for $5,000 in cash. What made the latter offer stand out is that it was an early signal that despite offering zero-commission trades, Wealthsimple Trade also had to undertake some further effort to entice new clients to their platform (something that showed up again in Q4).

Q4 2020: A Few Good Mends

It’s hard to believe that the fourth quarter was actually just one quarter, given how much happened. The resurgence of COVID-19 via the “second wave,” the huge rally in the stock market to set new highs, and the US federal election all would have been massive stories on their own but, combined, they made it nearly impossible to keep from watching the news.

Despite all of the negative headlines, what did emerge for online brokerages and DIY investors was an interesting convergence of events.

While the first portion of the year showed unprecedented strength of interest by online investors to open up accounts and trade, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, things had levelled off somewhat. Nevertheless, Canadian online brokerages, much like their US counterparts, were seeing elevated trading activity and, unlike their peers in the US, were generating significant revenue as a result. The fourth quarter in the year is also the time when online brokers in Canada typically start their ramp-up to campaigns for RSP season. What resulted from these events taking place simultaneously was that the deals and promotions activity in November just exploded. Offers came to market from all major online bank-owned brokerages as well as most other Canadian online brokers in one way or another. Even Wealthsimple Trade managed to jump into the deals and promotions fray, once again taking their cues from Robinhood and launching a promotion to give away cash in an amount equivalent to a particular popular stock.

Deals were just one part of what the fourth quarter of 2020 had to offer. Also on deck for the end of the year was a huge announcement from TD Direct Investing, which launched their new commission-free ETF trading platform, GoalAssist. While the platform only allows commission-free trading for TD-branded ETFs, it is a huge step in moving the needle forward on commission-free trading for Canadian DIY investors. Already ETFs are free to buy (at Questrade and Virtual Brokers) or free to buy and sell (all ETFs at National Bank Direct Brokerage and a limited selection at Scotia iTrade and Qtrade Investor). So, for TD Direct Investing, one of the biggest names in Canadian DIY investing circles, to launch this product (and in a mobile-only format to boot) means that they are directly going after the commission-free trading offering by Wealthsimple Trade.

Ironically, it appears that in the fourth quarter, Wealthsimple Trade was already at work to challenge the traditional Canadian online brokerage offering of a “desktop experience.” Prior to this year, Wealthsimple Trade had been available in mobile-app format only – something that ultimately ended getting Wealthsimple Trade disqualified from being included in some of the Surviscor online brokerage rankings.

As of the fourth quarter, however, Wealthsimple Trade has launched a desktop version of their web platform that is being tested by users. Given that fewer people are actually going into an office or are on the go to and from an office, more and more users are spending time on their laptops or desktop computers. So, this highly sought-after feature is another shot across the bow aimed at the online brokerage industry indicating that Wealthsimple Trade is getting up to speed on the features that online investors want.

New features didn’t stop there for Canadian online brokerages, however. BMO InvestorLine rolled out a 2.0 version of their online trading experience, which significantly streamlines their existing web interface, though it is still being updated in terms of features. At first blush, it looks like the trend among online brokerages has shifted away from completing all features before launch, moving instead to an “agile” model of shipping features out and enhancing/optimizing over the product lifecycle. Another big announcement from an online broker regarding features was from National Bank Direct Brokerage, which officially rolled out OptionsPlay as part of their offering to clients. This platform is intended to assist individual investors in manoeuvring through trading options.

Finally, one more noteworthy milestone took place in the quarter, as the Sparx team launched the fourth edition of the Look Back/Look Ahead series. This publication featured in-depth coverage of several of Canada’s most popular online brokerages, which offered a unique glimpse at how 2020 unfolded for them as well as what features and trends they’re looking to in 2021. In addition to the online brokerage space as a whole, the magazine also offered a sneak peek at the new website coming in 2021.

Even summarizing it a quarter at a time, this year had lots of other stories that we didn’t get a chance to highlight in the Roundups as well as in this ultimate year-end review of stories that shaped 2020 in the Canadian (and US) online brokerage industry.

2020 being what it is, there’s still room for some kind of unplanned surprise that could impact investors – whether it’s a new deal or feature launch – however, the good news is that with just a few more days until the official end of the year, online brokerage employees are going to be in holiday mode, too. As such, we don’t anticipate more feature releases going live just yet.

So, on that note, we’ll be doing something different and signing off for the Weekly Roundup for 2020 for the final stretch of December. We will be rebooting in early January, with a few other surprises to mention right out of the gate, as well as more exclusive content. Unless, of course, 2020 drops a story too big not to cover in the online brokerage space.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

A Sure Thing?

In this post, one investor asks for recommendations of stable, secure American companies to invest in for the next 10 to 15 years. The advice pours in, covering ETFs, the couch potato strategy, Canadian versus American stocks – and why you should avoid taking advice about specific stocks from random people on the internet.

Live and Learn

An investor who knows very little about their own investments asks about the best way to learn about the topic. Redditors share their favourite books, websites, courses, podcasts, and more, along with their personal financial journeys.

Into the Close

That’s it for the final Roundup for 2020. With vaccines now in place and hope on the horizon, there is lots to look forward to in the coming months. The next few weeks will be the most challenging; however, to pull a (final) line from the Fast and Furious franchise, “We do what we do best, we improvise.”

Stay safe, healthy, and connected, and see you again in 2021.

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Look Back / Look Ahead: A Review of Canadian Online Brokerages in 2020 & Preview of 2021

After making it through 2020, there are few things that would count as truly surprising anymore. Between COVID-19, the wild US presidential election and everything else that has unfolded this past year, 2021 can’t come fast enough for many of us.

For Canadian DIY investors and Canada’s online brokerages, despite a wild year of volatility, volume and very rapid change the macro picture appeared to be a positive one. Record account opening, revenues from trading and after a sharp selloff, a strong rebound in stock markets have favourably positioned Canadian online brokerages heading into the new year.

In the latest edition of Sparx Trading’s exclusive Look Back / Look Ahead series, Canada’s online brokerages provide a unique snapshot of the past year at their respective firms, as well as provide an enticing view to 2021 – yet one more reason the new year can’t come quickly enough.

This edition is one of the most fascinating yet. If for no other reason, hearing about what 2020 was like at Canada’s online brokerages during such historic times is worth tuning into. There is, however, so much more worth finding out about.

Also included in this issue is a fascinating preview of what Canada’s online brokerages have in store for DIY investors in 2021. Further, our unique Q&A feature zeros in on what beginner and active investors can expect from each online broker as well as what sets each online brokerage apart from their peers.

There is lots more content that DIY investors can dig into, so be sure to check out the featured brokerages that provided detailed submissions of the year that was and what’s coming up.

In the meantime, we’ve put together three key themes that emerged from this year’s series that provide some food for thought when assessing the Canadian online brokerage space.

Theme 1: Agility

COVID-19 forced massive change on everyone, online brokerages included. Withstanding a pandemic-level impact was only one of the major challenges Canada’s online brokerages had to move quickly to address, however.

Compounding the challenge was the sheer volume of interest from DIY investors to open up and fund their online investing accounts. Ultimately it came down to agility, technical capability and operational resilience.

Online brokerages who already had invested in online account sign ups were able to more readily handle the challenges that accompanied the immense interest in opening accounts than those who had to route investors through paper-driven sign up processes.

The key takeaway for DIY investors is that COVID-19 showed which online brokerages were more ‘change ready’ and which features matter during times of heightened market volatility.

Theme 2: Communication

With so much of our lives now digitized, instant access to what’s going on is now the norm. A great example is Uber Eats – where you can find out in real time where your food order is.

In that world, DIY investors will be hungry for more information from their online brokerages. It might be price, it might be service experience, it might be platforms or even promotions. One thing that stands out about online brokerages in 2020 is that those who prioritized connecting and communicating with investors are now better positioned to have their story and message heard.

With so many online brokerages available to service DIY investors in Canada, those that are able to create special content or deliver engaging investor education experiences or simply have a solid, regular communications strategy in place can ensure DIY investors have something worth tuning into.

Theme 3: User Experience

This was one of the more fascinating trends to dive into in this issue of the Look Back Look Ahead feature.

For DIY investors, it was reassuring to see online brokerages define user experience in terms of customer experience. That said, one of the challenges created by 2020 is that there are lots of novice investors who have entered the markets on a whim and for whom the markets only appear to be making new highs.

Providing this new crop of investors with the right tools and resources to navigate the journey of online investing will be important. Further, the balancing act continues between older clients who may not be as tech savvy or inclined towards mobile features, and younger investors who are demanding different aesthetics to websites and apps. Interestingly, there will be several notable upgrades in platforms and online investing experiences coming throughout 2021 so we’ll be curious how different online brokerages tackle the challenges in the new year.

Click the links below to learn about what each Canadian online brokerage had to say about 2020 and what to look forward to in 2021.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – October 5, 2020

So, if things seem like they might have gone from bad to worse this past week, with non-stop coverage of the US election chaos, the good news is that the stock market happened to shrug it off. While there’s a lot for everyday people to digest in terms of news flow, thankfully the online brokerage space offers up some good news to tune in to, especially for DIY investors.

In this edition of the Roundup, we check in on the latest deals and promotions activity to kick off October and highlight some early signs that suggest DIY investors are going to see even more offers from Canadian discount brokerages before the end of 2020. Next, we take a closer look at some trading metrics that reveal just how popular September 2020 was for trading, and we fish out some bonus news from Twitter chatter that is going to be very important to the online brokerage space in Canada in 2021. As always, we’ve got chatter from DIY investors on Twitter and the investor forums to close out on.  

Tricks or Treats? October Discount Brokerage Deals Activity Seems Tempting

If there’s anything that 2020 has taught us to be aware of, it’s pending change. The start of a new month is when we take the opportunity to check on the current slate of deals and promotions offered by Canadian discount brokerages to see what’s changed and, more importantly, what DIY investors can look forward to in the weeks ahead.

Despite the many dour social, economic, and political headlines, the stock market has managed to stay remarkably buoyant. 2020 has been an unusual year for investor behaviour online, and likewise for the deals and promotions market. Since March of 2020, there has been a significant contraction in the number of offers and the number of online brokerages coming to market with compelling incentives to win over DIY investors.

At the beginning of this month, however, it looks like deals activity is coming back to life. Although there were no new deals to start the month, the small but encouraging development is that one of the current offers, which was set to expire at the end of this month, has been extended through to the end of November.

National Bank Direct Brokerage, which is currently one of three online brokerages offering a commission-free trade offer, has extended their 100 commission-free trades offer until the end of November. Regular watchers of the online brokerage promotion space recall that a few months ago, the only online brokerage in Canada with an advertised commission-free trade offer was Questrade. Late in the summer, however, HSBC InvestDirect jumped into the deal pool, followed shortly thereafter by National Bank Direct Brokerage.

The early pattern emerging from the restart to activity in the deals and promotions space is that smaller or less popular online brokerages are leading the charge to bring new offers to market. No big-five-bank-owned online brokerage has launched an offer (at the time of publication), but there is a strong likelihood that, over the next 60 to 90 days, things could ramp up dramatically for investor promotions. There is simply too much at stake heading into the rush for RRSP season, and online brokerages don’t want to risk being left behind.

As such, it makes sense that the smaller players will be racing to get their offers out and advertised as soon as possible. When one of the larger brokerages in the space launches an offer, the typical response is that it generates a lot of interest and conversation.

There’s little doubt that the next few months will see a contentious battle for attention among Canadian online brokerages, so every extra bit of exposure helps – especially when it comes to deals and promotions.

Another interesting trend so far in the restart to deals activity is the lack of cash-back offers. There are commission-free trade offers that have come to market – some with expiry dates of up to a year – however, the most popular kind of offer, the cash-back, hasn’t made an appearance. There’s certainly a strong likelihood that this is something that could change heading into the thick of the RRSP season race, but for now, investors interested in cash-back offerings for opening an online trading account will have to rely on referral offers.

Although deals activity is muted by historical standards, data from online brokerages in the US shows the pace of account opening has plateaued, signalling the need to restart promotional offers to keep momentum strong. Also, according to discussions with several online brokerages, there are already plans underway to launch offers in the very near future.

It’s difficult to guess just how extreme the volatility predicted in the stock markets will be over the next several weeks, but it is likely that amateur and professional active traders alike will be looking to take advantage of the uncertainty. With their increased presence and activity fueling the conversation online about trading opportunities and online brokerage experience, and by virtue of the fact that this group of online investors is incredibly highly prized, it seems reasonable to expect that online brokerages will not be waiting on the sidelines for too long before coming into the market with some attractive offerings.

Investors and non-investors alike will be collectively on edge this month. Here’s hoping that in the run-up to the US presidential election, Canadian discount brokerages offer up some positive changes in the form of compelling offers for investors to smile about.   

In Data We Trust: Interactive Brokers’ September Metrics Reveal Heavy Trading

Despite the world having a sense of chaos at the moment, the steady marker of a new month in the form of trading metrics from Interactive Brokers helps to add a little bit of order back into things. This past week, the popular-with-active-investors online broker released their regular trading metrics for the month of September.

One of the great features of Interactive Brokers when it comes to reporting performance is their transparency and disclosure of trading activity stats.

Among the highlights from their most recent month’s trading metrics was that client account growth remains very strong. Interactive Brokers grew the number of accounts they have to 981,000, which is 4% higher than the previous month and 47% higher than the same point last year. By implication, it means that October 2020 is likely the month that Interactive Brokers hits 1 million total accounts. Although the number of accounts pales by comparison to competitor firms (including Robinhood), the number of trades and the revenue per trade at Interactive Brokers is nothing to sneeze at.

Another interesting data point that jumped out from the Interactive Brokers press release on trading metrics was the volume of trading on their IBKR PRO platform. Recall that Interactive Brokers launched a zero-commission platform in late 2019 (IBKR Lite), which ultimately catalyzed other big online brokerages into following suit and triggered an avalanche of consolidation (e.g., Schwab acquired Ameritrade; Morgan Stanley bought E*Trade). The paid-commission version, IBKR PRO, reports its metrics.

In September, Interactive Brokers reported that there were 14.21 million trades placed on the IBKR PRO platform, with 8.12 million being buys and 6.09 million being sell orders. For context, the total number of trades in September was only slightly lower than in March (14.52 million) and June (15.07 million), a signal that September was a very busy month for traders working via the pro platform. Interestingly, even though the total volume was very high compared to the past several months (volume was higher 11.7% m/m), the size of orders in terms of number of shares purchased (2.6B shares) or sold (2.5B shares) was actually at the lowest point since February, a signal that traders are making smaller-sized trades.

The takeaway from these figures is that trading volumes in the US were very strong in September, a pattern that likely was true here in Canada, too. Interestingly, Interactive Brokers doesn’t show many signs of slowing down in terms of account growth. With the prospect of even greater volatility and uncertainty in the lead-up to the election, it appears that will be a catalyst for more account growth at Interactive Brokers but more cautious trading for its clients.  

Interesting Chatter on Twitter

It’s an understatement to say that there’s a lot happening on Twitter these days, much of it dramatic and filled with vitriol. As with anything on social media, however, filtering through the noise can provide some interesting results.

First, this past week Questrade celebrated their 21st anniversary as an online brokerage in Canada. They have had a storied journey but today enjoy the position as one of the most popular online brokers in Canada, through a combination of ultra-competitive pricing, savvy operations, and clever marketing.

Another very big piece of news is that online brokerage Tastyworks telegraphed more information about their plans to launch in Canada and, most importantly, provided some sense of timing and which account types they will be making available (or hope to) at launch. In a tweet from Tastytrade Co-CEO and President Kristi Ross, the plan to come to Canada was confirmed, with the anticipated arrival date pegged at Q1 (which we assume to mean early 2021).

This throws yet another log on the fire for zero-commission trading to become a greater reality as Tastyworks – the online brokerage – offers zero-commission trading in the US for stock trades and ultra-low pricing for options. Whether the pricing will remain similar to the US operations is unclear. However, what is clear is that in addition to Tastyworks potentially coming to market here in Canada, there are some important changes slated for CI Direct Investing and CG Direct (and potentially E*Trade) that will increase the level of competition among brokerages.

With a dynamic US online brokerage setting its sights on Canada, the incumbent online brokerages are going to have to get ready to move faster and with more exciting features in 2021.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Take the Bull by the Horns?

DIY investors weigh in on whether or not to hold onto a stock that’s currently on hard times. Some forum users laud this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, while others are less certain in this post.

(Re)New and Old

A Redditor turns to the forums in this post for advice on which renewable-energy ETFs others are investing in.

Into the Close

On the plus side, October is Investor Education Month, and there’s a pretty good chance that investors of all stripes will be subject to some kind of lesson-learning. For all of the perils that misinformation has laid bare, it’s probably wise to check out some of the many investor-education activities planned, starting with this list from the Ontario Securities Commission. Alternatively, there’s always one more thing on the list of things that you never saw coming in 2020: the latest TikTok craze, for 1977’s “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – May 25, 2020

It’s likely a sign of the times, but what we see and hear on the news is so vastly different depending on where we live. And, even though we are all living through the collective experiment of lifting restrictions, we are starting to learn more about the unforeseen consequences of COVID-19 as well as the fact that in spite of it all, the world continues to move and people in it continue to want to push forward.

In this edition of the Roundup, there is a lot of news to digest. Up first is a continuation of the wave of information that continues to wash ashore treasures of data that reveal why online brokerages in both Canada and the US may be busier than they’ve ever been, in spite of the economic mayhem playing out on both sides of the border. Though that is a hard act to follow, there is even bigger news that broke this past week in the Canadian online brokerage space, as two new brands get set to enter the discount brokerage pool, making it ever harder for Canadian online brokers to safely keep their distance from one another. As always, we’ll close out by highlighting chatter from across the DIY investing forums and from Twitter.

Chequing the Data: Why Discount Brokerages are So Busy

After being sheltered in place for several weeks, cities and economies across North America are cautiously venturing back into a “new normal.”

While most organizations and individuals are looking forward to getting things back on track, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the experience of social distancing was not evenly experienced across the economy. Although many companies found themselves having to shut down, there were others that were able to continue via “remote work” and which fared much better than expected.

For online brokerages, it has been busier than ever during the market turmoil and accompanying shutdowns. The reopening of many economies may represent the end of historic participation by investors in the markets, and as a result, trading levels may drop off. Of course, what led to this level of activity is starting to become clearer, although the consequences remain to be fully understood.

While it is difficult at the best of times to know exactly what drives investors into the market, in the recent market run-up from March lows, a theory gaining steam is that the jump in investor participation is a combination of more people working from home (or being forced to stay home), a lack of major sporting events to bet on, and, perhaps most ominously, government support cheques.

Data gathered by a story published in the Financial Times explains much of what we have been covering over the past several weeks: that online brokerages in the US have seen record growth in the number of new accounts as well as in trading volume. What was especially interesting in this article, however, was what appeared to be motivating individuals trading in the markets in both the US and Canada.

On the US side of the border, the FT article cited examples of prominent sports-betting personality Dave Portnoy, who founded Barstool Sports, jumping into stock trading with E*Trade. The fact that he commands a significant social media following and was also featured on CNBC serves as an indicator for a much more common persona of “investor” at this time. The portrait of the “everyday” investor stuck at home with nothing else to do and making lots of money is a tempting (and familiar) trope of the stock market.

It was a mention of what was happening in the Canadian market, however, that is likely to raise more than a few eyebrows.

Below is the excerpt from the FT article. What stands out from this passage is that there are Canadians who are jumping into online trading and potentially using government stimulus to do so. To boot, the online brokerage happened to be RBC Direct Investing.

In fact, this article isn’t the first or only source to suggest this. Another reference to this behaviour was cited in an article by popular financial personality Garth Turner several weeks ago.

It’s not just in Canada, either, that stimulus cheques are being used to jump into the stock market. A recent report mentioned on CNBC about where stimulus cheques received by Americans ended up getting spent found that individuals with incomes between USD $35K to $75K increased their spending on stock trading by over 90% compared to the week before they received their stimulus cheques. The article went further to state:

“Exact reasons for that surge in interest is unclear. Most analysts chalk it up to the attractiveness of the market comeback, but it appears the stimulus money at least played a part.”

Regardless of the source of coverage, there seems to be a consensus that there have been investors participating in the stock market who might not have the same depth of understanding of risk management as traditional investors would. As a result, the “experts” forecast greater volatility ahead as either more investors pile into a rally at its later stages or retreat at the first sign of weakness.

For online brokerages on either side of the border, COVID-19 has generated a substantial level of trading activity and interest in trading online. The unintended consequences of the emergency relief funding provided by governments have resulted in a number of DIY investors in both countries opening new accounts or funding existing accounts.

While there have been cycles in the past where stock market run-ups have attracted fast money (in particular from younger investors/traders), it does beg the question as to what online brokerages will be doing to prepare for the inevitable fallout.

Almost 20 years ago, day trading met its match in the dot-com bubble. Ten years ago, there was an enormous financial crisis that ingrained skepticism among a generation of investors. This time may not be different in terms of investors getting ahead of fundamentals, but there will almost certainly be tough lessons to learn considering who has been drawn into the market and what they have been drawn into it with.

Newish Kids on the Block: More Discount Brokerages to Choose From

The Canadian online brokerage space is undoubtedly a crowded one when it comes to providers for online trading. With 13 brokers serving a relatively small population of investors, the business case for online brokers is a challenging one. It is likely the reason why, outside of one or two online brokerages in Canada, the current suite of providers are subsidiaries of much larger financial firms. In the online brokerage business in Canada, scale is essential to survive.

These past few months, it has been interesting to observe who among the online brokers in Canada was actively attending to the “growth” functions of their business and who was not.

For example, we’ve been watching who has been launching new features, updating their website with important messaging related to COVID-19, advertising online as well as creating content for investors. Despite the calm and perhaps lack of movement on the front end, this past week revealed a lot about why activity appeared to have dwindled at a couple of Canadian online brokers.

The first big story announced this past week was that CI Financial is going all in on acquiring the popular roboadvisor WealthBar (in which they had already held a 75% stake). CI Financial acquired BBS Securities, parent to Virtual Brokers, in 2017 and since then has been working on an important digital-transformation business initiative, which means the development of the front end and brand of Virtual Brokers has been slower than has historically been the case. Interestingly, the reason for the reduced pace of activity may now become clearer as the announced acquisition also revealed that CI Financial will be launching CI Direct Investing, which will ultimately replace Virtual Brokers.

Taking what has been a household name (Virtual Brokers) and rebranding it into a new entity will be a challenge and likely require a considerable investment of marketing resources. However, with a diverse wealth-management offering that now includes the roboadvisor and direct-investing services in combination with a significantly sized parent company, bank-owned brokerages will undoubtedly have to adjust course. Slides from an investor presentation earlier in the month reveal the new look and organization of the self-directed investing arm at CI Financial as well as motives as to what drove the decision.

Another big story that broke last week was the news that Morgan Stanley will be launching a wealth-management business in Canada that will include, among other services, a self-directed investing platform – aka discount brokerage.

Earlier this year, Morgan Stanley also made a bid to acquire online brokerage E*Trade Financial, and while still awaiting regulatory approval, this could set the stage for the return of this online brokerage to Canada. Interestingly, as part of its strategy to broaden its wealth-management offering in Canada, Morgan Stanley will be working with Canaccord Genuity as its local platform provider that will be delivering clearing, custody, and wealth-management solutions. It is worth noting that Canaccord Genuity acquired online brokerage Jitneytrade last year and launched a rebranded online brokerage Canaccord Genuity (CG) Direct.

With new online brokerage brands in play in the Canadian discount brokerage market, it is going to once again push existing online brokers to accelerate their plans to innovate and to create experiences and incentives to attract DIY investors’ attention (and loyalty).

Though CI Financial is certainly a formidable wealth-management entity, there will be challenges to break into the DIY investor market, especially via the Virtual Brokers brand and experience. On the other hand, the return of an iconic online brokerage brand like E*Trade would make a huge splash in DIY investor circles.

Many Canadian DIY investors, young and old, have heard of both E*Trade and Morgan Stanley, which will pose a serious challenge to existing Canadian online brokerages – including the bank-owned brokers. And, it is worth mentioning that E*Trade offers commission-free trading, which, if they do come to the Canadian market at that price point, would be a watershed moment for commission pricing for Canadian DIY investors.

Despite what appeared to be a slowdown in activity on the front end of certain online brokers, there clearly have been major developments taking place behind the scenes. For existing online brokerages, the race is now on to contend with at least two new incarnations of serious competitors. Of course, it doesn’t stop there, either. Morgan Stanley’s moves won’t go unnoticed in the US wealth-management space, and there will be a number of other providers who may be running their own assessment of competing against the financial giant on Canadian soil. So, as big a story as this is, these new developments could spark an even more volatile time for the Canadian online brokerage space. Talk about a new normal.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums


In this post, a curious DIY investor looks to the big picture to determine whether or not gold is a solid investment, and fellow forum users weigh in on the story that the numbers might be telling.

Just Deserts

A Redditor turns to the forum to ask the question “What would be your desert island ETF?” in this post.

Into the Close

With all that has already happened in just a few months of 2020, it’s hard to believe that there are any more surprises left. And yet, here we are. Just a few days away from the end of May, and even against the backdrop of pandemic lockdowns, the online brokerage space in Canada is poised to radically transform yet again in the year ahead. While the news is certainly focused on what’s taking place in the near term, there are already rumblings of a second wave. Given everything that has surfaced about the DIY investor market this past week, the only advice at this point is to enjoy whatever calm takes place. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to last for too long.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – February 3, 2020

After the ‘big game’ in the NFL, it’s now time for the championship race between Canadian online brokerages to kick into high gear. With just a few weeks left until the deadline for RSP contribution, it will be an all-out sprint by Canadian online brokerages to land new accounts and assets from Canadian DIY investors. It won’t be easy though, with more choices than ever before and jittery markets because of fears about the corona virus, DIY investors are bound to be cautious, which means when it comes to choosing an online brokerage, the juice has to be worth the squeeze.

In this edition of the Roundup, we review the latest discount brokerage promotions that are available as of the beginning of February (great news there are lots!). From there, we launch into even bigger news with another less popular online brokerage cleverly finding a way to get attention by dropping their commission prices to zero well ahead of their peers. Finally, the third big story this week is the launch of the 2020 Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings, which offers another perspective on the different features available from Canadian online brokerages. As always, we’ll cap things off with a review of DIY investor comments (including reactions from the outages) from the forums and Twitter.

New Month, New Deals

On the heels of the Lunar New Year celebration, the start of the new month (and new year) shows that promotional efforts by Canadian discount brokerages are well under way.

The tail end of 2019 and the first weeks of 2020 have been filled with new promotions and pricing announcements at several prominent online brokerages – so much so that news of new feature releases or website redesigns have taken a back seat to the focus on cost.

At the start of February, almost all Canadian discount brokerages have made adjustments of one kind or another to try and win the attention (and assets) of Canadian investors. Many of these brokerages have opted for highly competitive cash back offerings to make it worthwhile for DIY investors to at least consider opening a new account or transferring an account to them. Even so, there are a couple of online brokerages that have remained on the sidelines despite the busy season for DIY investors.

One interesting observation about the state of deals and promotions heading into the final stretch for RSP season is that all of Canada’s large bank-owned brokerages have a promotion in play. Ideally, smaller online brokerages would leverage more aggressive pricing or promotional offers to win attention of investors away from larger bank-owned competitors. This year, however, that isn’t really the case, so it is noteworthy to see bank-owned online brokerages jockeying for investor attention with promotional offers and several smaller brokerages stand aside.

Of the big five bank-owned online brokers, only RBC Direct Investing is offering a purely commission-free trade offer, with the rest of its peers offering up cash back promotions. Typically, cash back promotions are most popular among investors, and even though commission-free trade offers might present significant value, the reality is that cash is still king.

The amounts of cash back offers and requirements to qualify for them this year reveal which kinds of customers brokerages are most interested in trying to appeal to. For example, Scotia iTRADE and TD Direct Investing have minimum deposits of $5,000 and $15,000 for their offers, respectively. This lower threshold means that less established investors – even  beginner or younger investors – may see either of these brokerages as a viable option to open online investing account with. By comparison, offers from CIBC Investor’s Edge and BMO InvestorLine require a minimum deposit of $25,000 and $50,000 respectively, which suggests a more established investor would pay more attention to the offerings by these bank-owed brokers.

Another interesting observation among all the cases of big-bank owned brokerage promotions (except RBC Direct Investing) is that the promotions are tiered offers that offer greater amounts of cash back with higher deposits. This tiered structure also reveals some interesting competitive dynamics among certain brokerages. For example, for deposits exceeding $250,000, it is essentially a race between three big bank-owned discount brokerages: BMO InvestorLine, Scotia iTRADE and TD Direct Investing for cash back incentives to this financially elite club.

Outside of the big bank-owned brokerages, popular online brokerages, such as Qtrade Investor and Questrade, have cash back offers (and in the case of Questrade also commission-free trade offers and a very competitive transfer fee coverage offer) that they hope will help them to stand out from the bank-owned crowd.

Qtrade Investor, which has a cash back offer (also tiered), is up against some stiff competition for new business and assets, as three big bank-owned brokerages are directly competing against Qtrade’s offer. At the other Q-named online brokerage, investors looking for a promotion can find a wide selection of offers. Questrade’s long-standing commission-free trade deal is an option and all of their most popular offers have very low barriers to access or qualify for them, which is ideal for younger investors. In addition, younger investors can benefit from special pricing and commission free trades from National Bank Direct Brokerage, which offers up 10 commission-free trades per year each year the account is open.

With most brokerages now on the deals board, it is curious to see other discount brokerages stand on the sidelines this year.

For instance, neither Virtual Brokers nor HSBC InvestDirect have commission-free trade or cash back promotions this year (as of the time of publication) – an interesting option given the fierce competition for assets. Also interesting is that newcomers to the discount brokerage space, Wealthsimple Trade and CG Direct, opted not to take advantage of RSP season with a new promotion. Passing up this cycle of investor interest means that they are giving up valuable airtime when DIY investors are most actively shopping around.

Ultimately, however, the news is great for DIY investors this month. There are several really strong deals from reputable Canadian discount brokerages. Timing to try to take advantage of these offers couldn’t be better; however, for investors, just be prepared to spend some time waiting on hold or with slow account processing.

Commission Price Drop: HSBC InvestDirect Launches Zero Commission Pricing

The zero-commission spectre has surfaced at yet another Canadian online brokerage. HSBC InvestDirect, one of Canada’s lesser well-known online brokerages, has announced they are prepared to offer zero commissions for clients who qualify as active investors, i.e. anyone who makes 150+ trades per quarter, for a limited time from April through December of 2020.

As has been mentioned in previous Roundups, it will only be a matter of time until larger, more popular Canadian online brokerages are forced to figure out how they are going to adopt zero commission trading.

Fortunately for most competing online brokerages, HSBC InvestDirect is a relatively small and unknown online brokerage to many Canadian investors. Much like what happened when HSBC InvestDirect dropped their prices down to sub $7 per trade (making them the cheapest bank-owned online brokerage as far as standard commissions), the market as a whole effectively overlooked this announcement and went on its merry way.

Even though existing Canadian online brokerages are navel gazing and potentially looking for additional information on their clients to improve monetization, competitors such as Wealthsimpe Trade have already taken what felt like a giant leap.

Wealthsimple Trade has already led the way in this offering and as of late last year, the first ‘household’ name in online brokerages has drastically reduced their per trade commission. National Bank Direct Brokerage reduced their standard trade commissions for active investors (who they define as X trades per month) down to $0.99 per trade. Earlier this year, Desjardins Online Brokerage countered by dropping their commission rates (also for active traders) down to $0.75 per trade.

With HSBC InvestDirect now taking trading commissions down to $0 for active traders, there is clearly a trend taking shape where active traders are likely to be the first benefactors of the reduced pricing from some of the larger, established online brokerages.

The standard commission rates for trading at HSBC InvestDirect are 6.88 for North American ETFs or equities, which makes them among the lowest cost per trade (currently) for bank-owned online brokerages standard commissions.

That said, the cost to qualify for this new pricing means having to trade 150 times in a quarter which at that online brokerage can cost a hefty $1,032. It also means that clients have to continuously trade that kind of volume to maintain their commission-free status – which will be a challenge for all but the most dedicated or active traders. What will make this even more challenging is the user interface and client experience for very active traders, who need (typically) streaming quotes, level 2 preferably and multiple market data, as well as a trading platform that has advanced charting capabilities and rapid order entry. Even at a modest constant pace, the platform will need to handle 2.5 trades per day – which could be reasonable except that there is no robust market trading platform in place to do essential research.

The fact that this new offer hasn’t made the kind of splash we envisioned it would is not surprising given lack of visibility of this online brokerage within the Canadian DIY investor community. HSBC InvestDirect is not that well known among Canadian DIY investors, however their new pricing structure offers a valuable ‘canary in the coal mine’ for the brokerages as a whole and this latest move in pricing might be enough to prompt a larger brand to take a bolder step ahead of other brokerages.

For active traders, the new pricing structure at HSBC InvestDirect (and several other brokerages) is tempting – however, the platform will need to compare with and do better that it is now. Nonetheless, if HSBC InvestDirect was looking for at least a long shot kind of promotional event to generate some noise and coverage, then mission accomplished. Though we have yet to see major media outlets pick up the story, commission-free trading with the convenience of a bank is a secret that can’t be kept much longer.

Globe & Mail 2020 Online Brokerage Rankings

This past week, the 21st edition of Canada’s longest running evaluation of Canadian online brokerages was published by Rob Carrick at the Globe and Mail. Along with the changes in the online brokerage industry in Canada, this analysis of the industry continues to evolve.

This year, there was a familiar structure to the rankings, with letter grades being assigned to each brokerage as well as brief commentary provided from Carrick on the merits and drawbacks of each online brokerage, mostly from the point of view of the ‘everyday’ investor. There were also comparisons of all brokerages analyzed on 10 key questions or components, namely:

  • How do online stock trading commissions compare?
  • Is there a simplified fee for all accounts with small balances?
  • Is commission-free ETF trading available?
  • Foreign exchange charges
  • Are U.S.-dollar registered accounts available?
  • Can you buy high-interest savings ETFs?
  • Can clients send secure e-mails to get personal account questions answered, or use online chat?
  • Are there comprehensive tools to help clients assess their returns over the short and long term and against benchmark indexes?
  • How does the client website experience rank on a scale of 1 to 5?
  • Is there a security guarantee saying clients will be reimbursed fully for losses in their account due to unauthorized transactions?

The grades this year were generally decent, with 8 out of 12 of the online brokerages evaluated scoring a letter grade of B or better. This is an encouraging sign that, generally speaking, the online brokerages in Canada are starting to do a better job of catering to DIY investors’ needs according to this ranking. The top score (A+) was achieved by Qtrade Investor, while the lowest score (D+) was received by HSBC InvestDirect.

The most popular grade (B+) was achieved by four online brokers: Interactive Brokers, Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, and Virtual Brokers. This collective is a very interesting combination because they are comprised of mostly independent online brokerages and one bank-owned online broker. Conversely, of the three discount brokerages that scored A- or higher (Qtrade Investor, Scotia iTRADE, and TD Direct Investing), two thirds of those are bank-owned online brokers. What the latest Globe and Mail online brokerage ranking points to, as far as the experience for the ‘everyday investor,’ is that going with a non-bank owned online brokerage is generally going to be a safer or better bet than going with a large bank-owned brokerage.

As with the previous rankings, the full access to this ranking is for subscribers to the Globe and Mail, which means details on the comparisons section and full commentary are visible only to folks prepared to pony up for the Globe, as well as to readers of forums where this information has also been posted.

BMO InvestorLine B-
CIBC Investor’s Edge C
Desjardins Online Brokerage C
HSBC InvestDirect D+
Interactive Brokers B+
National Bank Direct Brokerage B
Qtrade Investor A+
Questrade B+
RBC Direct Investing B+
Scotia iTRADE A-
TD Direct Investing A
Virtual Brokers B+


It bears reiterating, with each ranking or rating mentioned here, that the grades are the product of the ranking system itself. As such, it is important for readers to understand the strengths and limitations of this kind of grading system at helping them arrive at a fair assessment of which online brokerage is ultimately best for them.

The detailed methodology for the online brokerage rankings did not accompany this year’s rankings so it was not clear what, if anything, had changed about the way in which online brokerages were assessed. Nonetheless, the scoring as well as the commentary reflect the informed opinions and expertise of the author, who in this case, has extensive experience in this area.

Overall, rankings from different organizations or entities point to a general improvement in the provision of online investing services for Canadian DIY investors. The difference between online brokerages in Canada from both a pricing, as well as a features, point of view isn’t so drastic, generally speaking, that they would feel compelled to move unless it were for features that weren’t available at their current online broker.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Time in the Market is Better than Timing the Market

The perennial question of “the markets are so high, should I buy now?” comes to a head when a Redditor brings forward an article from “Of Dollars and Data” that digs into the numbers for this very question in the US markets. Fellow forum users debate the merits of this argument and break down the numbers even further here.

Inherited Stress

A user asks for advice on which self-managed brokerage account to put some newly-inherited wealth. Users put some fears to rest and offer brokerage options in this post.

Into the Close

Another week is in the books and the start of the month feels decidedly shakier than the start of the previous one. For DIY investors, this is an interesting moment to either scale in or start looking for some protection. Here comes the news cycle ready to report on the scare trade – and as every seasoned investor knows – now might be the time to look for places where things are getting a little too emotional.