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Online Brokerage Weekly Roundup – April 10, 2022

Change is certainly life’s only constant. And even though, historically, change has been relatively slow to take effect among Canadian online brokerages, when it does show up, the effects tend to endure. As we steer into the season of change, it seems like both the pace and breadth of change are starting to accelerate, with some remarkable developments.

In this (we’ll call it “toddler time-distorted”) edition of the Roundup, we look at an unusual pattern emerging in the deals and promotions activity at Canadian online brokerages and what it could signal for promotions going forward. Next, we highlight a new look that one online brokerage is sporting for spring, and whether it is dressed in what the cool kids are into these days. Finally, we’ll wrap up with some timely topics self-directed investors are chatting about online.

It’s Reining in Deals

And now for something completely different. At least from this month’s deals and promotions activity.

Usually around the start of each month we go through the latest deals and promotions to see what new offers have shown up and whether there are any interesting developments in the ongoing race to garner attention (and assets) from self-directed investors. This month, however, there was a signal of continued unusual activity among the Canadian online brokers that suggests there are some interesting changes coming to the way in which online brokerages create and launch promotions.

Of course, “change” is a relative term, so, before diving into what seems to be evolving with online brokerage deals and promotions, it’s useful to get a sense of what is “typical.”

Although many online investors now know that Canadian online brokerages offer deals and promotions, especially during RRSP season, that hasn’t always been the case. There was a time many years ago that most Canadian online brokerages were reluctant to use promotions and incentives to attract in new self-directed investors. Interestingly, as commission prices began to drop in a meaningful way, roughly around 2014, so too, it seemed did the resistance to trying out using offers to encourage new users to try out a brokerage.

At that time, one of the most active Canadian online brokerages when it came to special offers or promotions was Questrade – who aside from much lower commission prices than their peers – was a constant name to watch because they ran so many promotional offers. The kinds of promotions they ran ranged from various commission-free trade offers to promotions featuring a free iPad.

It was not long after other online brokerages lowered their commission prices, that one of the first big shifts in the deals and promotions activity took place: Questrade stopped offering so many promotions.

Instead of offering so many different promotions, Questrade decided to consolidate their offers and focus their promotional offers on their affiliate program and referral bonuses (and later launching TV ads). Many of the same promotions, such as their five free trades or first month free, are still available today. Regardless of the season – including RRSP season – Questrade’s strategy was still the same when it came to promotions. Namely, stick to their core offers.

It’s difficult to characterize just how significant of a shift that was at the time; however, by the time Questrade did ramp down, other online brokerages, notably BMO InvestorLine, had picked up the practice of regular promotions outside of RRSP season. In fact, since that time, BMO InvestorLine has effectively carried the torch for launching “new promotions” just about every season.

So, if there was one online brokerage in Canada that we did not expect to see a break in promotional cadence, it was BMO InvestorLine. And yet, this month that is exactly what’s taken place.

To be fair, BMO InvestorLine hitting pause on deals is not without precedent. That said, the last time they did so was near the start of the pandemic, when BMO InvestorLine’s unprecedented investor interest overwhelmed systems.

This time, however, there isn’t a rush of investors flooding the systems of BMO InvestorLine with new applicants, which begs the question, what would cause BMO InvestorLine to pause offering an already live tiered cash back promotion at a time when major rivals still have open offers?

It’s difficult to know exactly why, however, it seems that shuttering an active deal is likely the result of something abrupt instead of something planned, especially given the timing being so close to the launch of their latest cash back promotion.

Perhaps the economics of a tiered cash back offer simply don’t work for BMO InvestorLine, or perhaps the costs of running a campaign to acquire new clients exceeded the benefit those clients would bring. The latter point is one of the drivers behind online brokerages typically choosing to launch promotions during RRSP season instead of during the whole year. When online investors are “in market” for a new online brokerage or seeking to park new assets in an account, as is the case during RRSP season, online brokerages want to be as visible as possible.

That said, instead of stopping promotions outside of RRSP season, one of the strategies BMO InvestorLine has employed in the past was to raise the deposit threshold at which an individual investor could qualify for a promotion. Thus, instead of requiring a minimum deposit of $15,000, BMO InvestorLine could raise the minimum deposit to $50,000 so that only those individuals who bring the kind of value BMO is seeking qualify for incentives.

So, though speculative, if costs of a program suddenly get put under the microscope to the point that they lead to a decision to cut loose a promotion in midstream, then a good candidate reason why would be a “cost cutting” program. And for that to take place at BMO InvestorLine, a bank-owned brokerage, that is very interesting timing indeed. If, after all of the years of running this program, something fundamentally has changed (or is about to) for promotions-led acquisition, it does beg the question as to what BMO is encountering now that makes the math for promotions untenable at this time.

Though the online promotion of the deal is now gone, self-directed investors interested in the cash back promotion at BMO InvestorLine may be able to access the offer via customer service touch points (e.g. in branch) on a case by case basis. When a client is of sufficiently high value (what that value is, we don’t yet know), then they might be offered a cash back incentive.

The latest move by BMO InvestorLine to shutter an active offer is a step change for an online brokerage that has almost consistently leaned into “always on” promotions and bears a resemblance to the structural shift in promotional strategy that Questrade undertook many years ago. Unlike that decision, however, BMO InvestorLine does not have the same magnitude of affiliate channels nor social media community support that Questrade had when it decided to shift its promotions strategy.

Instead of being a leader among Canadian bank-owned online brokerages when it comes to promotional activity, it seems BMO InvestorLine is more content to run with the pack. With no other big bank-owned online brokerages currently offering cash back promotions right now, all attention for self-directed investors looking for a cash back deal on a new trading account is being directed to Qtrade Direct Investing.

The bigger consequence to bowing out of the post RRSP season promotions race may not be felt for some time but will almost certainly resurface again next RRSP season. One of the biggest benefits of an always on campaign is to continuously attract attention of investors and to be among the list of names those investors consider when the need for a solution arises. In this case, BMO stepping back simply opens the door to another lesser known or not historically active name to fill that void.

An alternate view is that online brokers may also be more willing to be agile when it comes to promotional activity. A case in point is the current cash back promotion from Qtrade Direct Investing.

Qtrade did something highly unusual at the beginning of this year by revising upward the amount they were willing to offer to new clients. They did not “set it and forget it” with the deal that launched last year but rather saw that their offer was not nearly as competitive as their peers and adjusted accordingly.

The fact that BMO InvestorLine was the only big bank-owned online brokerage in market with a cash back promotion perhaps made them realize they were overspending to acquire new clients. That they were willing to do so mid-campaign is maybe a sign of different kind of structural change: online brokerages are becoming nimbler.

This year alone we’ve seen Qtrade Direct Investing change deal amounts, BMO InvestorLine effectively shut down an already live deal, and RBC Direct Investing move around the expiry date on an unprecedented commission-free trade offer. If there was ever a case for expecting the unexpected, Canadian online brokerages seem to have made it their theme for 2022.

CI Direct Trading Sporting a New Look

Spring seems like the opportune moment for new beginnings. This month, CI Direct Trading, the brand formerly known as Virtual Brokers, officially rolled out their new public-facing website. Gone is the familiar combination of red, black and white, and instead, the new website reflects the last stage in the integration of Virtual Brokers with the CI Financial common look and feel.

While a “new” website isn’t necessarily a big step change, building a new online brokerage website in an ultra-competitive environment does present an opportunity to intentionally lean into the brand identity. Secondarily, for seasoned observers, it offers a glimpse into where the priorities are for a particular provider.

In the case of the new CI Direct Trading website, there are a number of interesting observations to comment on; however, the biggest theme that jumps out is integration.

Unlike Virtual Brokers, which was effectively a standalone online brokerage, CI Direct Trading’s new site was intended to fold the online brokerage into the CI Financial ecosystem. And, at first blush, it appears they’ve done so – perhaps too well.

In fact, in the drive to create a common look and feel between brands, the point at which CI Direct Trading starts and where CI Direct Investing stops is very blurry.

Navigating between the CI Direct Investing and CI Direct Trading is so seamless that as a user, you wouldn’t know where you are unless you look at the logo on the page, and even then, you’d have to really pay attention to the small text under the word “direct” in the logo. Recall that one of the principles of user-centred design is to answer a simple question: am I in the right place? On the new CI Direct Trading website, the answer for DIY investors in particular is unclear.

On a more nuanced note, the decision to use the names “CI Direct Investing” and “CI Direct Trading” is confusing because almost no other online brokerage in Canada uses the term “Direct Trading” in their names. Three big names in the “Direct Investing” space jump out, for example:

  • Qtrade Direct Investing
  • RBC Direct Investing
  • TD Direct Investing

Virtual Brokers used to be a direct competitor to these particular providers; however, CI Direct Investing (rather than Direct Trading) seems like it would be the place where a user would look to find a service similar to Qtrade Direct Investing, TD Direct Investing or RBC Direct Investing. Except, they would be incorrect. CI Direct Investing is more akin to a roboadvisor solution, not a DIY one.

Although it seems like semantics, in reality, the “DIY investor” industry has been undergoing its own identity crisis for the past decade. Ten years ago, the entire space was almost uniformly calling themselves “discount brokerages,” then it shifted to “online brokerages,” and now they are positioning themselves as “direct investing” solutions providers.

Why this matters so much is because when it comes to being found online, something that is exceptionally important in a hypercompetitive environment, individual investors are going to search based on what they know and think is the term they need to use in order to access the category of service providers. When the category shifts, so too does the audience searching for it.

Another interesting theme is that the new website leans heavily into the “less is more” look. There are fewer options and less text as well as clear headings so that there is less information to have to parse through on the front page. From a visual perspective, there is also a heavy presence of mobile screens, a decision that undoubtedly is intended to relate to a generation of “mobile first” traders.

In a tinge of irony, the screenshots of the CI Direct Trading iPhone app show the symbol of a well-known Canadian bank (TD) instead of using the opportunity to have the publicly-traded CI Financial ticker (CIX) on there.

Even in the app store, the Virtual Brokers legacy association is still visible too, a reminder that all brand touch points need to be considered in the rebrand process. Of greater consequence, however, is that the legacy star ratings for the app experience are likely to impact user impressions on the brand. With a 2.5 star rating on the Apple App Store for CI Direct Trading, there is much work to be done to improve the perception of the mobile app as being an enjoyable way to engage with the service, especially with the mobile-first crowd.

When Virtual Brokers was acquired by CI Financial in 2017, it was unclear what direction the popular online brokerage would go in. Fast forward to today, it is now clearer that the successor to VB, CI Direct Trading is offering many of the same features and pricing as Virtual Brokers but is wrapping itself into the CI Financial ecosystem.

It has been a relatively quiet four years since the integration was first announced but now it seems the real work will begin for CI Direct Trading to be able to tell its story to online investors (traders?) and establish its niche in a very crowded field.

If the new design is a signal they’re looking to court a younger generation of investors, simplifying the website is a step in the right direction. Clearly, though, there is much work to be done in the seasons ahead to evoke the same kind of emotion, curiosity, and enthusiasm that their direct competitors have already managed to successfully achieve.

From the Forums

Transferrable Skills

Moving day is always a chore. When it comes to moving mutual funds, however, it’s a problem that needs more than pizza to solve. One reddit user reaches out to the community of investors in this post for some guidance on how to navigate transferring away from Manulife and into a popular online broker.

Under the Influencer

A big theme among online brokerages heading into this year has been investor education. An interesting discussion emerged in this reddit post about seeking out “education” on investing and trading from a relatively well-known Canadian personal finance influencer.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another edition of the Roundup. If news among the online brokerage space is anything like the weather in April, it’s going to be a mixed bag of activity throughout the month. For the loyal readers that have managed to make it this far, we’re also going to be sharing more updates in the weeks ahead on the new special SparxTrading Pro and other tools we’ve been working on, so be sure to tune in for sunnier news coming around the corner. Until then, keep your powder and yourselves dry, you never know what might come up as an interesting buy.

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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 – September 20, 2021

With the Canadian federal election finish line in sight, whatever the decision, there’s likely to be a shakeup for self-directed investors and wealth management in general. It’s a toss-up, though, on whether any candidate will get more votes than Ted Lasso at the Emmys.

In this edition of the Roundup, we kick things off with one US online brokerage that continues to gain traction by listening to clients and is poised to grow with the launch of a new feature that is the envy of other brokerages. Next, we look at one Canadian online brokerage poised for a name change and potentially much more heading into the fall. Finally, we close out with some interesting chatter from self-directed investors about US-themed topics.

Interactive Brokers Positioned for Growth

Earlier this month, Interactive Brokers reported their activity metrics for August, and though they continue to show strengthening core performance stats, one figure in particular caught our attention: continued growth in new accounts.

Given that Interactive Brokers typically targets and appeals to active traders, the continued growth in new accounts despite month/month declining volume of trades presents an interesting picture. There is clearly an appeal to individuals seeking out Interactive Brokers despite them having a paid commission structure. To be clear, Interactive Brokers also has a zero-commission option called IBKR Lite; however, the majority of their trading accounts come from their paid commission structure.

As Canadian online brokerages contemplate the shift towards zero-commission trading, there might be a clear lesson to being able to provide clients with a quality trading experience that they would be willing to pay for.

New Account Growth Momentum Continues

As the chart below clearly illustrates, new account growth at Interactive Brokers has been on a bit of an upswing after bottoming out in May.

One of the reasons that traders might be turning to Interactive Brokers is because of market volatility. When markets are volatile, it tends to attract in active traders and “fast money” seekers. While it may not be predictive of a volatile turn in the market (especially since the data was from August), there’s a sense that some kind of big market downturn is nearing. Recent comments by founder of Interactive Brokers Thomas Peterffy about upcoming “compression” in the markets is also a sign that certain online brokerages are thinking about a market downturn as well.

Another factor driving new account growth could be driven by Interactive Brokers eliminating inactivity fees in July.  By preventing clients from leaving, the hurdle to positively impact net new accounts is lowered. Though Canada makes up a very small portion of the Interactive Brokers business, chatter from online investors in Canada nonetheless shows that bringing over less active accounts, such as TFSAs and RRSPs, makes more sense now that those additional accounts won’t incur inactivity fees. This fits with the view that accounts are continuing to be opened despite trading activity falling.

Cryptocurrency Trading a Catalyst for Customer Growth

Another catalyst for account growth at Interactive Brokers will likely come from their latest decision to launch cryptocurrency trading.

As we reported two weeks ago, the roll out was interestingly quiet. However, this past week, the PR machinery kicked off with the official announcement and appearance by Peterffy on CNBC.

The shift in messaging by Interactive Brokers regarding cryptocurrency trading has been interesting to watch. For quite some time, there was a notable skepticism about digital “currencies,” however, it seems that now there is a different thesis emerging: a small but important risk associated with individuals losing faith in traditional currencies.

While a billionaire is hardly representative of the mass market, it seems that he, like the clients of advisors using Interactive Brokers, wanted direct exposure to cryptocurrencies. Despite Peterffy’s deep skepticism on digital currencies, he’s savvy enough to recognize that some exposure to them is now a requirement to hedge against the scenario that confidence in traditional currencies falters. Intriguingly, Peterffy admitted that he’s been a holder of bitcoin in his portfolio for at least three years.

Interactive Brokers launching cryptocurrency trading is a very big deal for the online brokerage space.

While regulatory uncertainty may still prevent other brokerages from following suit right away, that Interactive Brokers figured out a way forward will expedite other brokerages wanting to seriously figure out how to deliver this as well. Robinhood already does; however, they have not yet figured out how to grow without attracting significant regulatory scrutiny. The experience in navigating regulatory hurdles, however, is something that may work in favour of larger and more established brokerages.

The source of interest in cryptocurrency has now gone beyond the “fast money” and extends to the “smart money” that is using exposure to cryptocurrency as a hedge. And, if Peterffy is an indicator of “smart money” then he has already validated the thesis on crypto.  

For Canadian online brokerages looking at the US market is a little bit like peering into the future. Now that the zero-commission trading trend, which emerged in meaningful way in the US in 2019, has arrived in Canada, figuring out how to generate revenues outside of commissions on equities trading will be a priority. While the focus for revenue drivers from active traders will likely still be options trading (for those brokerages that offer them) in the near term, the convenience (and temptation) of crypto exposure and trading is on the horizon.

It will likely be some time before Wealthsimple Trade, the only online brokerage in Canada that has an associated product to trade cryptocurrency, faces competition from other online brokerages on the crypto trading front. Exactly how long, however, will be tough to tell. As was the case with National Bank Direct Brokerage launching commission-free trading, competition for online brokerage market share can come from unexpected places.

Looking at the latest stats for Interactive Brokers and the launch of cryptocurrency trading as well, we anticipate there to be continued strength in new accounts heading into the end of the year. Any kind of spike in cryptocurrency prices or volatility will. The lesson to Canadian online brokerages is clear on a few fronts. Despite what personal feelings executives may harbour about crypto, the reality is clients from entry level retail investors to sophisticated ultra-wealthy clients are looking for access to cryptocurrency. And, as Interactive Brokers has shown, listening to and delivering on what clients want is a great way to keep them.

Virtual Brokers Rebranding Moving Ahead

This past week Virtual Brokers sent out a notice to clients that they will be updating their branding…soon. It’s been in the works for a while but back in May of 2020, we reported that the parent of Virtual Brokers, CI Financial, announced that they would be consolidating brands they owned (including Virtual Brokers) to a streamlined CI-containing name: CI Direct Investing. When it comes to branding, the “direct investing” label has grown in popularity, replacing terms like “discount brokerage” and “online brokerage.”

Since the mention of the rebranding in 2020, advertising and marketing from Virtual Brokers has been notably quiet. Prior to their acquisition by CI Financial, Virtual Brokers was a visible presence online and especially in the Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings.

Now that a new moniker seems imminent, we expect that regaining the spotlight will also be a part of the plan.

What the CI-branded online brokerage has in store for a big splash could be interesting, especially given the timing. While traditional advertising and marketing might generate some curiosity, in a marketplace where zero-commission trading is now a reality at National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage and, to some extent, Wealthsimple Trade, getting noticed is going to have to come along with a hefty promotional offer and/or lower commission pricing.

In terms of timing, CI will not want to miss the opportunity to challenge other online brokerages this RSP season, the marketing ramp up to which typically starts in October and November. Already it’s shaping up to be a busy season.

Earlier this year, Qtrade Direct Investing also launched a significant rebranding effort and heading into RSP season they will likely be looking to make a bolder move to advertise to Canadian investors. We noted in an interesting reference to Qtrade Direct Investing’s new marketing strategy that their new agency, King Ursa, has a campaign scheduled for launch in November.

And, on the deals and promotions front, Wealthsimple Trade recently announced that they’re not doubling but tripling down on their referral program, offering triple the stock rewards to encourage new accounts to sign up.

While Virtual Brokers was a well-known name to the investors and traders, CI Financial’s move to rebrand under the parent entity makes a lot of sense for the long run. For their part, CI has been aggressively growing and it’s clear they’re not afraid to think big or punch heavy. With $320 billion dollars of assets under management and annualized revenues of $2 billion dollars, the CI brand brings with it much more financial horsepower than the Virtual Brokers brand alone ever could have.

There’s also another picture emerging too, based on the strategy to globalize their brand, which could see CI setting itself up to take some of its digital and direct investing/trading capabilities further than just Canada. Their aggressive moves to acquire US wealth management firms could be setting the stage for a wider push beyond Canada, and the digital platform could set CI Financial up to challenge online brokerages there too. After all, PayPal recently reaffirmed its commitment to roll out stock trading to its clients in the US, so there are still financial services providers willing to bet on direct investing as a way to gain or keep market share.

It won’t be too long before we see what the formal roll out for the new Virtual Brokers will be. Based on the recent developments across the self-directed investing space in Canada, we’re betting we won’t be able to miss the launch, and neither will Canadian online brokerages.

From the Forums

Taste Tested

The rumour mill keeps swirling around US-based online brokerage Tastyworks coming to Canada. In this post on reddit, find out what investors had to say about the potential arrival and the long wait.

Wealthsimple Trade USD…Coming Soon?

Also from the rumour pile, this post from reddit caught our attention regarding a highly sought-after feature from Wealthsimple Trade: USD accounts. Along with a potential update on the timeframe, the fact that the post was written by someone already transferring away from Wealthsimple was fascinating – especially in seeing what Wealthsimple is doing to get people to stay.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another eventful week. Technically this past week did feature an official announcement from Desjardins Online Brokerage lowering their commissions to zero, so the conversation around prices dropping for self-directed investors continues. It’s going to be a wild week of earnings announcements and now that the dominoes have started to fall with regards to commission pricing, it’s going to be anybody’s guess as to what online brokerages in Canada start doing heading into the end of the month. Hold on tight.

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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 – August 17, 2020

It’s just past the middle of August and, wow, have things heated up all over the place. From hot weather across Canada to action in the online brokerage market, to new market highs, there’s definitely no shortage of action under way.

In this week’s Roundup, we decided to shake things up a bit and cover several of the smaller stories that have taken place among Canadian and US online brokerages this month. Think of it like the salad bar edition, where the stories are crisp, fresh and offer a healthy dose of interesting insight into the online brokerage market dynamics.

Keep reading for updates about one offer that has snapped the dry spell for online brokerage deals; good news coming for active traders using thinkorswim; how one online brokerage is making waves by launching crypto trading; and how a recent merger will present challenges to staying “on brand” for a popular Canadian discount broker. As always, we’ve collected some of the chatter from DIY investors on Twitter and in the forums.

HSBC InvestDirect Launches New Commission-Free Trade Offer

The long dry spell in the Canadian discount brokerage deals and promotions section is finally over, courtesy of an unlikely source, HSBC InvestDirect.

While this online brokerage does launch promotional offers from time to time, the bigger story here is that nearly all of Canada’s discount brokers have been on the sidelines all summer (and as far back as late spring). As such, seeing a number of larger name online brokerages (such as TD Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE) start to advertise online lately and now HSBC InvestDirect launching a new offer signals that brokerages are positioning for the annual ramp up in activity that takes place towards the end of the year.

The offer, which officially launched on July 27th and runs until October 30th of this year, is for 60 commission-free trades of North American equities or ETFs. The deadline to use these trades is 60 days from the time of account opening. This deal is open to new and existing clients of HSBC InvestDirect.

Although most Canadian discount brokerages recognize the small market share of HSBC InvestDirect in the online brokerage space, this could work out in HSBC’s favour – at least until other online brokerages start ramping up their own advertising efforts.

For the moment, HSBC InvestDirect only has to share the spotlight with Questrade when it comes to brokerage offers. And, while HSBC InvestDirect’s commission-free trade offer is good, the bigger benefit will be online investors, who are interested in promotional offers, kicking the tires (so to speak) on the HSBC suite of services more broadly.  

Just Keep Swimming

For many, there is no better way to stay cool during the summer than with a nice dip in a pool or lake. For DIY investors who are big fans of the thinkorswim trading platform, the recent acquisition of TD Ameritrade by Charles Schwab raised some questions on what exactly the new user experience would be in the new entity.

With the acquisition now cleared from a regulatory standpoint, many investors will be watching exactly how these two titans in the online brokerage space will integrate. The length of the integration period is forecasted to take between 18 and 36 months. One of the most popular features to active traders and investors, the thinkorswim platform, is being eagerly monitored.

Earlier this month, Schwab released a statement confirming that thinkorswim (and thinkpipes), as well as the accompanying educational offerings for retail investors, will be integrated in the new Schwab experience.

For Canadian investors who like (and use) the platform, this is welcomed news. The thinkorswim platform is currently available to Canadian customers via TD Direct Investing, although approval for a US margin account is required to access it.

Wealthsimple Moves Forward on Crypto Trading

Speaking of pools and making ripples, Wealthsimple, the parent to Wealthsimple Trade, announced earlier in the summer that they were going to enter the crypto trading space and allow clients to trade Bitcoin and Ethereum.

This month, Wealthsimple provided an update on the status of their cryptotrading venture. The Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) have approved Wealthsimple to join the “regulatory sandbox” which essentially provides a regulator-approved framework to test this new service. There are many interesting details from the Wealthsimple filing, however a few that piqued our interest include:

– how Wealthsimple intends to make money from crypto trading (via the spread)

– whether or not investor assets are protected (assets are not protected by CIPF nor by CDIC)

– how transactions will actually take place (closed loop system)

Timing-wise, it is an interesting move for an online brokerage to pursue trading in cryptocurrencies considering the dramatic pullback in interest compared to 2018. Clearly, the same frenzy does not exist now, but the fact that Wealthsimple Trade will be the first Canadian online brokerage to offer direct trading in cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin and Ethereum, means that the portion of the DIY investor market that is interested in these cryptocurrencies will now have a venue to do it on.

What is probably most interesting from a competitive standpoint is that many DIY investors who have been on the fence about Wealthsimple Trade might see this as the feature that they cannot access anywhere else. As such, the launch of cryptocurrency trading at Wealthsimple is as much about facilitating a way to trade these financial instruments as it is a way to try and win over new clients from other online brokers.

Given the regulatory framework under which this program is governed, and the nature of the crypto assets being traded, there will be considerable scrutiny on crypto trading at Wealthsimple. While the future of the program itself is uncertain, for the near term, this latest feature will give DIY investors (and other online brokerages) another big reason to pay attention to Wealthsimple Trade.

Staying on Brand: CI Direct Investing Continues to Take Shape

The big brand consolidation taking place at CI Financial took another big step forward this month, with the official announcement that WealthBar has officially transitioned over to CI Direct Investing.

The announcement itself was light on details other than to assure users that the investing experience won’t change. The only changes will include small (important) details, like the new website URL and the mobile app updating to the new branding. With WealthBar now taking on new branding, next on the list will be Virtual Brokers.

As announced in their Q1 2020 earnings call back in May, CI Financial will be looking to consolidate both WealthBar and Virtual Brokers under the CI Direct Investing banner. This could be an interesting moment in the online brokerage space in Canada for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Virtual Brokers, for multiple years, has earned top marks with the coveted Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings. The move to a new name will certainly stir up some degree of confusion among DIY investors; however, more than that, one of the reasons why Virtual Brokers has scored so well on the most influential online brokerage ranking in Canada is because it prioritized features that appealed heavily to younger investors and, of course, it was among the lowest-cost online brokerages in Canada.

With a new parent brand, especially one that has so much more of a premium feel to it, how Virtual Brokers transitions its ‘frugal’ roots to this new home will be interesting to watch. The decision to go with the marketing term of “direct investing”, compared to “discount brokerage” or “online brokerage,” is already a signal that CI Direct Investing would prefer to compete more directly with the bank-owned online brokerages who’ve both silently and overtly started referring to DIY investing as “direct investing.”

Of course, to help ensure that investors know who the CI Financial brand is, there will likely have to be a significant marketing campaign by CI Direct Investing to ensure investors know that this online broker exists and what kind of experience and pricing they can expect. This will be of particular interest to watch heading into the fall season, as this is typically the time of year when many online brokers release important new features.  

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Exit Strategy

An older forum user asks what the best course of action is for a couple with a remaining 10-year life expectancy in this post. Commenters provide their thoughts on capital preservation for inheritance and offer short-term plans with maximum benefits.

Should I Stay or Should I VGRO?

In this post, a Redditor turns to the forums to get a basic understanding of where to hold an ETF. Fellow forum users engage in a lively discussion on the subject.

Into the Close

If you’re feeling the heat, you’re probably not alone. With temperatures across the country soaring, stock markets reaching all-time highs and what feels like a volatile situation (to say the least) across the border, there are plenty of reasons to break a sweat this week. Fortunately, the heat also means that it’s fair game to find fun ways to stay cool. The big restart taking place in sports appears to have begun – so whether you own a big fan or are one, here’s hoping for an easy, breezy weak ahead. Oh and don’t forget to stay hydrated!

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – June 1, 2020

For anyone watching any kind of news or social media, it is difficult to fully process what is unfolding in cities around the world. With so many of us in Canada and around the world still under restrictions to stay close to home, the window to the outside world has become a digital one. Despite even greater access to technology and almost limitless amounts of information, collectively we are struggling to make sense of something so senseless.

So, although we will run this edition of the Roundup, the most important story, the one that needs to be heard, will be first. Take a moment to watch it, hear it, and let it sink in. From there we will take a pause, catch our breath, and do our best to continue to move forward. Keep reading for a deep dive into the latest Canadian online brokerage rankings and what they reveal about the state of the industry, including what it needs to get right with the next generation of DIY investors. Finally, we close out with chatter from DIY investors on Twitter and in the financial forums.

George Floyd

Latest Online Brokerage Rankings Show Room for Improvement

If there’s one thing that’s synonymous with the end of the school year, it’s report cards. For Canadian discount brokers, the grades are in from a noteworthy financial services research firm and it’s clear that for many of them, improvement is needed.

Though seemingly straightforward on the surface, online brokerage reviews and rankings are challenging endeavours. So much about rating online brokers depends on how the rankings are defined and what is actually being measured, which is why it is often hard to compare different online brokerage rankings. They simply measure different things about the Canadian discount brokerage industry.

This past week, the financial services research unit of J.D. Power released their annual evaluation of the Canadian online brokerage industry with their Self-Directed Investor Satisfaction Study. Though the name and the study have changed slightly over the 12 years this evaluation has taken place, at its core, it continues to measure “investor satisfaction” and uses that to determine which Canadian discount broker is “best.”

Before diving into this year’s results, it’s worth mentioning a few points about the study itself, to better contextualize what it does (and does not) measure.

The first and probably most important factor to note is that the Investor Satisfaction Study measures just that: investor satisfaction. In this study, investor satisfaction is comprised of seven components:

  1. Account information
  2. Commissions and fees
  3. Firm interaction
  4. Information resources
  5. Investment performance
  6. Problem resolution
  7. Product or service offering

Given that investor satisfaction is somewhat of an abstract concept, it is useful to have these categories in place to help structure how to think about the ultimate question when it comes to any client experience: were clients satisfied with the product or not?

Of course, while it would be nice to get a simple “yes” or “no” answer, the reality is that these are complex concepts and there are things that brokerages do differently, perhaps better or worse than others. Further, how investors interpret things like “customer experience” may be highly subjective and as such make it a challenge to measure. Nonetheless, the scale that the Investor Satisfaction Study is built on is a numerical one that scores all brokerages out of a maximum possible 1,000 points.

With that context in mind, it was interesting to see what the 2020 version of the study uncovered in terms of Canadian DIY investor perspective. More interesting, however, was the comparison of this year’s results to the previous year’s, as it uncovers important differences and shifts in the industry that have taken place since the last time this study was conducted.

At a high level, one of the first things that stands out about the 2020 results is the drop in average investor satisfaction compared to the 2019 study. The average for the industry this year was 717, but last year it was 726 – a sign that the industry did worse when it came to investor satisfaction.

Averages, however, only convey part of the picture. What was also interesting to take note of is that the spread between scores narrowed.

Last year the difference between the best ranked online brokerage (with a score of 753) and the lowest ranked brokerage (with a score of 698) was 55 points. This year, that range dropped to 33. In fact, with the exception of 2019, since 2013 and 2014 (where the range was 64 points) the spread between “the best” and “the worst” in terms of investor satisfaction had been decreasing.

The compression of this range seems to suggest that DIY investors are finding the experience increasingly similar between Canadian online brokerages, a signal that commoditization is taking hold and that online brokerages are not doing nearly enough to differentiate or out-innovate one another.

Nowhere is this more evident in the 2020 results than in how close the top four online brokerages were from one another.

The difference between first (Questrade) and second place (BMO InvestorLine) was five points, and the difference between second (BMO InvestorLine), third (Desjardins Online Brokerage), and fourth place (National Bank Direct Brokerage) was each one point, respectively.

As poorly as the Canadian discount brokerage industry as a whole performed relative to 2019, however, there was one exception. National Bank Direct Brokerage was the only discount brokerage to see a surge in investor satisfaction scores, rising 31 points from 2019 to 2020, and moving from last place in 2019 to fourth place in 2020.

Despite dropping four points on a year-over-year basis, Questrade managed to rise in the rankings from third place last year to take top honours in 2020 with a score of 736. At the other end of the spectrum, Scotia iTRADE ranked last this year, falling to a score of 703.

One online brokerage that stands out as having a significant shift downward is CIBC Investor’s Edge. This popular low-cost online brokerage fell 40 points compared to last year and slipped from a second-place finish to a seventh.

Importantly, not all Canadian online brokers were measured or reported publicly. Popular brands such as Qtrade Investor, Virtual Brokers (soon to be CI Direct Investing), Interactive Brokers, and HSBC InvestDirect did not have data published about their level of investor satisfaction in this year’s results.

So, what’s driving the decrease in investor satisfaction among Canadian DIY investors? One of the biggest areas where Canadian discount brokerages appear to be struggling is website stability and accessibility.

Somewhat shockingly, 46% of DIY investors reporting an issue with an online brokerage chalk it up to a problem with the website, and 29% of investors surveyed were unable to access their online brokerage website at least once during the prior 12 months.

It is difficult to determine how representative the sampling of this survey is for all DIY investors across Canada, but these numbers are concerning, considering that investors put their nest eggs or significant savings in the hands of online brokerages. These results, however, do help to validate the scores of complaints DIY investors have logged on Twitter about Canadian online brokerage websites going down during trading sessions. And, keep in mind, these survey figures were generated prior to the COVID-19-induced market meltdown, which saw unprecedented surges in trading volume and account sign-ups.

Not being able to access a trading account when you’d like to is frustrating enough; however, not being able to do so when market opportunities open up – that certainly leaves an impression.

Perhaps the most intriguing number reported in the online brokerage rankings was that 26% of millennials (or younger) indicated that website inaccessibility has got them thinking about switching brokerages. That’s a huge number in an extremely hard-to-win-over segment.

The rankings from J.D. Power highlight that the Canadian online brokerage space will increasingly face a challenge to escape becoming commoditized. In these latest investor satisfaction metrics, what ultimately separates one online brokerage from another is becoming harder to distinguish.

Perhaps ominously, the relatively slow pace of innovation in this online service leaves the industry exposed to possible disruption by a provider able to deliver the technology piece with greater reliability and at a lower price. This is certainly the case in the US, in which an online brokerage was able to grow to an extraordinary size while lowering the price of commissions to zero.

With so many online brokerages facing technology challenges even when investors weren’t stampeding into and out of markets, the past several weeks have uncovered the limits of customer service and client experience capabilities at many online brokers. And while the news certainly isn’t all bad at Canadian brokerages, the scores show that investors expect online brokers should be doing better.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Going All Out

A forum user contemplates breaking from their investment plan and selling everything to avoid the stress of a turbulent market in this post. Fellow DIY investors weigh in by sharing their approaches and thoughts on the temperament it takes to invest.

Where’s the Wealth?

In this post, a Redditor inquires about how illiquid wealth works, and fellow forum users outline the imprecise nature of such wealth and offer helpful analogies.

Into the Close

It almost goes without saying that the start of this new month will begin on uncertain footing. There are many events taking place with very little visibility as to exactly how they will unfold. However, of the things that can be controlled, here’s hoping that readers remember to find ways to be kind, stay informed, and find the courage to dream for and change the world for the better, one action at a time.

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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.