With summer just around the corner, it looks like stock markets won’t be the only ones seeing red. Weeks of volatility and sell-offs have been difficult for all but the most seasoned self-directed investors to stomach.
For DIY investors, the news isn’t all bad though. The pullback in stock markets typically means that online brokerages will need to work harder to encourage online investors to open an online trading account, and that means potentially bigger or more attractive incentives.
By far, the biggest development last month was the launch of commission-free trading on stocks and ETFs at CIBC Investor’s Edge. This is huge news for younger investors, as well as for competing online brokerages across the board. As the first of the big five bank-owned online brokerages to offer full commission-free trading, it seems like CIBC’s peers will have to consider adjusting their commission rates or young investor offerings.
Fortunately for RBC Direct Investing, their 100 commission-free trade offer is both large enough and long enough in duration to weather this price move by CIBC Investor’s Edge. Perhaps it was fortuitous timing that RBC chose to extend their offer at the beginning of last month, and with this move from CIBC Investor’s Edge, they may consider extending it even further.
Against that backdrop, the launch last month by Qtrade Direct Investing of a 50 commission-free trade offer does provide something to online investors looking for a deal when opening an online account, but clearly, the stakes have been raised.
The reality for Canadian online brokerages is that there are only a few months left to make plans for the next RRSP season, and with all the action happening in markets right now, for better or worse, online investors are checking their accounts and wondering if they’re getting great value. It’s one thing to sell a stock into a storm and another to incur a commission charge on a loss.
Wealthsimple Trade’s “free stock” promotion expired on May 31st. This popular promotion has been a windfall for the zero-commission broker, mirroring the performance of US online brokerage, Robinhood, who has a similar (but actually a free stock) program in place.
Another important expired deal was from National Bank Direct Brokerage. Their recent promotional discount on margin rates seemed especially well-timed given the discussion on rising interest rates that is dominating the news cycle right now. It was the first “discount” on margin interest rates we’ve seen in some time, so given the current interest rate environment and volatility in markets, it could make this offer especially attractive to very active or sophisticated investors.
Nothing new to report on this month as far as deal extensions are concerned. The RBC Direct Investing commission-free trade offer is worth watching as it was extended into this month.
No new deals activity to report at the start of the month.
Q1. What can a first-time investor expect at your firm? The 18-30 age group represents 43% of our users, so we know all about the challenges of taking those first steps toward independent investing! That’s why we focus on education and support. We offer investors a learning centre that covers the most important topics and guides them as they explore the world of investing.
Q2. What can active investors expect? With Disnat Direct, active investors have access to a state-of-the-art ecosystem. This high-level platform has been designed to meet the needs of the most discerning users who want all the information they need to make sound investments in one place.
Q3. Which online investing trends are likely to be important for independent investors? There’s no denying the trend of using mobile applications to make investments. That’s why Desjardins Online Brokerage is working hard to make its mobile platform more user-friendly and comprehensive, so our users can expect a great experience whether they’re at home on their desktop or on the road with their cell phone.
Q4. What does “user experience” mean for Desjardins Online Brokerage? The user experience is the driving force behind change and innovation at Desjardins Online Brokerage. We believe that it is crucial to ensure that our platforms are easy to use and facilitate quick transactions. We want our users to feel that our ecosystem is perfect for their changing needs.
Q5. What sets Desjardins Online Brokerage apart from its competitors? First and foremost, we are a cooperative. Listening to and understanding our members and clients is an integral part of our mission – it’s in our DNA. Desjardins was founded with the goal of empowering members and clients and their communities. Each year, Desjardins offers a dividend to caisse members and invests heavily in projects that aim to improve the world around us. Doing business with Desjardins Online Brokerage is about learning from the past, making the most of the present, and building a better future for everyone.
Desjardins Securities Inc. uses the trade name “Desjardins Online Brokerage” for its discount brokerage activities. Discount brokerage products and services are consolidated under the trademark “Disnat”. Desjardins Securities is a member of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada (IIROC) and the Canadian Investor Protection Fund (CIPF).
Desjardins®, Desjardins Online BrokerageTM and related trademarks are trademarks of the Fédération des caisses Desjardins du Québec, used under licence.
Spring has sprung, and with it a renewed focus on growth and optimism for what’s ahead. Interestingly, online brokerages have also embraced a new season now that the RRSP season is over, and this one focuses on active investors.
In this abbreviated edition of the Roundup, we focus on deals and promotions offered by zero-commission online brokerages. Dive into the details of the newest promotions to emerge and what they signal for existing and potentially incoming online brokerages to consider. To wrap things up, we focus on investor commentary related to retirement accounts and slow-moving platforms.
New Deals in Town: Zero Commission Brokerages Continue Using Promotions to Drive Interest
Hot on the heels of the 2022 RRSP season, the timing of a launch of a new offer is also indicative of a new target audience: active traders. Trading on margin is not something that people thinking about retirement or RRSPs typically consider first, so the timing of this offer to go live after the RRSP season rush makes sense.
National Bank Direct Brokerage is not alone in that reasoning either. Wealthsimple Trade also launched their own limited-time offer aimed at the non-registered account crowd. Although their offer of a “free stock” cash back equivalent is ongoing, the boost to the amount for referrals to 3x the normal amount is clearly intended to generate some buzz.
Offering a promotion to attract new clients is a tricky proposition for a “zero-commission” brokerage.
After all, part of what should keep costs low is the controlled spending on acquiring new assets and customers. That said, when looking at the current group of “zero-commission” online brokerages in Canada, not only is the number of firms small (currently three) but two of the three firms are not well-known across Canada
Uncertainty Begets Volatility
When it comes to choosing an online brokerage, one of the biggest hurdles facing this specific group of zero-commission brokerages will be the uncertainty associated with them.
Unlike the entrenched Big Five bank-owned brokerages or names, such as Questrade and Qtrade that have been around for many years across Canada, the current group of zero-commission brokerages faces an uphill journey to become known and, more importantly, trusted.
A recent quote from Mike Foy, Senior Director of the Wealth Management Practice for North America at J.D. Power sums up the issue:
“Investors are increasingly bombarded by information from numerous sources including social media. We see the single biggest driver of online investor satisfaction with their broker is trust.”
Now that the surge in new retail investors coming to the market has somewhat abated, the challenge to Canadian online brokerages will be to create online investing tools and experiences that cater to this new group of investors and yet-to-be investors. And this is where promotions can offer a tactical advantage.
The latest promotion to launch from National Bank Direct Brokerage focuses on margin interest rates and serves as a good example where zero-commission brokerages can look to in order to attract attention while at the same time keeping costs contained. Although cash back or commission-free trades are welcomed, they’re not the only place that self-directed investors incur fees.
This past RRSP season demonstrated that online brokerages are spending aggressively on cash back promotions to attract new clients. For zero-commission online brokerages, pure cash back promotions are unlikely to be pursued because the costs may be prohibitively high. And as National Bank Direct Brokerage showed, there are now other costs that are up for negotiation.
Active is Attractive
National Bank Direct Brokerage’s focus on margin rates is a clear overture to active investors. The hope, it seems, is that in addition to the zero-commission trading commissions, there are other reasons to consider NBDB for a trial run or even as a separate or additional account.
Unless the direct competitor to NBDB, Desjardins Online Brokerage, follows suit with a similar offer, this latest deal will give National Bank Direct Brokerage an interesting combination of features worthy of a closer look by active self-directed investors.
With interest rates increasingly coming into focus for the next two years, getting a substantial break on higher interest rates for even a short time could be the catalyst that gets online investors talking about National Bank Direct Brokerage once again. And if there’s one sure fire way to achieve greater consideration in the online brokerage segment, it’s through the honest and unfiltered positive commentary of investors.
By lowering their commission prices to zero, National Bank Direct Brokerage has already ignited a conversation among online investors as to why they should pay attention to NBDB. This latest move seeks to steer the conversation once again in favour of this bank-owned brokerage. The key question, however, is who investors will stop talking about now that National Bank Direct Brokerage’s newest promotion is live.
From the Forums
There’s probably a reason that changing financial service providers is deliberately harder than it needs to be. This post from Reddit is fascinating because it highlights the challenges associated from moving accounts from one provider to another, but even more so, because it is a question about moving pension accounts – something that signals there are more than Millennials and Gen Z readers tuning into Reddit for information and guidance.
Not So Fast and Furious
“Time is money” takes on a whole other layer of meaning when it comes to trading online. In this Reddit thread, there is a chorus of complaints from active investors who find one online brokerage’s platform to be moving too slowly for their liking.
Into the Close
That’s a wrap on another Roundup. Although it was a bit of a light week (a March break?) heading into start of spring, “green shoots” are starting to appear in terms of investor education activities. We’re looking forward to the nicer weather and a chance to get out and about more, and we’re not alone. So, it will be interesting to see how the reopening starting to take place will impact the ability of online brokerages to capture and hold attention over the next few months. In the meantime, enjoy the signs of spring!
Let’s call a spade a spade: things are in a terrible state. While we continue to watch from afar and hope that peace comes quickly to Ukraine, markets and investors closer to home are trying to digest world events having local consequences. And right now, we could all use something uplifting.
Fortunately, there are a few bright spots in this edition of the Weekly Roundup. To begin, we review the latest online brokerage deals and promotions, with a detailed look at how developments during the RRSP season portend what DIY investors can expect through the rest of the year. From there, we dive into a master class in continued growth by Interactive Brokers, whose latest metrics reveal that they’ve successfully navigated the new normal. Finally, tune into chatter from the investor forums to see what self-directed investors were focused on (other than oil prices).
Deals and Promotions: Rise of the Hybrids
While the holiday season is typically the time of year for gifts, it seems this year it was the RRSP season that gave self-directed investors the gift that keeps on giving: online brokerage deal extensions.
Things around the Canadian online brokerage industry are a bit unusual these days (see next story for more). Prior to the pandemic, there was a trend of online brokerages offering incentives and promotions that would typically start in November and last until the RRSP contribution deadline at the beginning of March the following year.
While last year was characterized by a tsunami of new investors clamoring to open online brokerage accounts, this year traffic is comparably quieter and thankfully more measured. And, despite crowd sizes returning to more manageable levels for online brokerages, the deals and promotions offered around RRSP season reflect a massive step change in the promotional landscape, driven in large part by increased competition and a whole new set of investors that are looking at trading online.
Before diving into the analysis of March’s deals and promotions reveal about the current competitive landscape, let’s begin with a recap of who’s in and who’s out.
What is interesting, however, is that on a year-over-year basis, the profile of the offer from CIBC Investor’s Edge was about the same, whereas for TD Direct Investing the minimum deposit requirement dropped 90%, from $15,000 to $1,500. Across multiple deposit tiers, TD Direct Investing also offered the highest (or was tied for highest) cash back amounts.
As small as this sample size is, it is illustrative of how Canadian online brokerages appeared to approach RRSP season this year.
On the one hand, there are firms that chose to stick to the traditional script, and on the other, firms that took a dramatically different route. Based on the numbers, it is clear that TD Direct Investing employed a different playbook, whereas CIBC Investor’s Edge stuck to their familiar game plan.
That said, as the RRSP season went on, we witnessed three exceptional developments that suggest the current competitive landscape among Canadian online brokerages has shifted in a direction we believe is bullish for self-directed investors looking for a promotion when opening an online trading account.
A series of fortunate events
The first big shift in tactic came from Qtrade Direct Investing. At the outset of the RRSP season, Qtrade launched a cash back offer that looked like past offers. That is, they weren’t trying to be “first” when it came to cash back amounts.
That all changed in late January when Qtrade Direct Investing revised their cash back offering upwards and lowered the threshold to qualify for the promotions as well. They lowered their minimum deposit requirement from $15,000 to $5,000 and raised their minimum deposit bonus from $50 to $100. On a year over year basis, the revised Qtrade promotion was 80% lower for the minimum deposit threshold (from $25,000 down to $5,000) and two times higher in terms of minimum bonus. And it didn’t stop there.
Qtrade Direct Investing also raised their cash back amounts across numerous deposit tiers, matching the top bonus amounts in almost all of them. The only range where Qtrade Direct Investing was not tied for the highest cash back amount was in the $25,000 to $50,000 tier.
And this brings us to the second big development during the RRSP season, which is promotion extensions.
Historically, the expiry date of most online brokerage promotions would coincide with the end of the RRSP contribution season. This year, however, we saw expiry dates stretch out well beyond that point into March and April. And, as the RRSP season drew to a close, we started to notice deal extensions further into the calendar year.
For example, Qtrade’s cash back promotion now expires at the end of May (moved from an original expiry at the end of March). The RBC Direct Investing promotion, a fascinating development in its own right because of the number of commission-free trades (100) and term over which they can be used (two years), was originally scheduled to expire at the end of April and is now set to expire at the end of October. Joining this list of extensions is BMO InvestorLine, which has now extended its RRSP season cash back promotional offer into the end of May. Scotia iTrade has not extended their current offer (yet?), however, that is set to expire at the beginning of April.
Finally, another telling development during RRSP season this year was the launch of Easy Trade by TD. This new trading platform (which is separate from TD Direct Investing) offers 50 commission-free trades per year to its users. There is no doubt that when one of the largest banks in Canada launches a product that promises 50 commission-free trades per year, that self-directed investors (and other online brokerages) are going to pay attention. And, just in case they weren’t paying attention, TD heavily advertised the launch of Easy Trade during the Super Bowl and is continuing to advertise on social media as well.
Collectively, these developments are bullish for self-directed investors looking for better value (on commission pricing) and suggest that deals and promotions are going to fare more strategically into the approaches of online brokerages in the near term. In particular, those online brokerages that don’t want to drop their standard commission prices can, instead, launch a competitive commission-free trading promotion (as was the case with RBC Direct Investing). The events over this RRSP season also may serve as a harbinger of commission-free trading finally gaining widespread adoption in Canada.
Prior to the launch of full zero-commission trading at National Bank Direct Brokerage, this bank-owned brokerage offered 100 commission-free trades which were good for one year. Eventually, that promotion was superseded by the new pricing scheme. But in taking a measured approach towards zero-commission trading, it stands to reason that they could have reviewed the data associated with that promotion to decide about the impact of going to zero.
As TD showed with Easy Trade, zero-commission trading doesn’t necessarily mean full access to the suite of tools and capabilities that their TD Direct Investing online brokerage platform has.
It’s certainly a salient metaphor these days, but the “hybrid” option (aka unbundling) introduced by TD of paying for some trades or features and not for others could be how other online brokerages who currently charge for commissions approach the new world of zero-commission trading.
If other online brokerages follow suit, then just like at the pump, DIY investors looking for premium will be prepared to pay up. For everyone else, however, getting started with investing appears to be getting a lot cheaper.
Interactive Brokers: Numbers Reveal a Winning Formula
As we near the two-year anniversary of the official declaration of a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (March 11, 2020), the true impact of this once in a generation (hopefully) event is starting to become clearer. Although COVID is by no means behind us, almost anyone in the online brokerage industry can attest to how exceptionally different things are now than in the “before times.”
One area that probably doesn’t get much attention, however, is benchmarking. Specifically, how do you compare what’s taken place over the past two years to anything?
As it relates to online brokerages, be they Canadian or US, data from the past two years is showing that the changes to the industry have been profound. In many ways, not only is there a “new normal,” but new approaches are required and many of these are largely going to be written on the fly.
Earlier this month, as per usual, Interactive Brokers released their monthly performance metrics (for February 2022). Contextualizing these numbers, however, is particularly challenging because of how dramatically different the performance figures were in January and February of this year compared to last year. Though it may not be news that 2020 and 2021 were busy times – even by historic standards – what is particularly noteworthy is what you can see when net new account growth is plotted out back to 2019.
Because a picture is worth a thousand words, take a look at this graph of data of net new accounts at Interactive Brokers from 2019 to 2022.
Among the many things that jump out, it is striking to see the step change in interest in trading online that coincides with the start of the pandemic. Even more imposing is the surge in net new accounts in the first three months of 2021. Against that backdrop, the latest account growth figures reported by Interactive Brokers could be good, excellent, or terrible. Thankfully, context matters, and as such even though just under 39 thousand net new accounts represents a month over month decline in February of almost 22%, this still puts the strength of new account growth several times above where things were pre-pandemic.
Surges in interest aside, the longer-term picture points to a sustained interest – at least for Interactive Brokers – in trading online as indicated by net new account opens.
Prior to the pandemic, the average number of net new accounts in a month in 2019 was about 7.6 thousand. Excluding the period between January and March of 2021, the average between March 2020 and February 2022, the average number of net new accounts at Interactive Brokers has climbed to just shy of 38 thousand per month, a whopping 5x increase.
Focusing in on a more recent timeframe, it appears that the launch of cryptocurrency trading at Interactive Brokers in the late summer of last year helped to provide renewed enthusiasm for new account growth. Net new accounts opened in November 2021 (almost 55 thousand) reached the highest level seen since the end of the meme-stock craze in March.
Interactive Brokers’ continued account growth serves as a remarkable example of what is clearly a winning combination for active investors/traders.
Granted, some of the growth in their numbers is from acquisition. However, most new accounts have come through organic growth. Even more fascinating is that a material portion of their new clients have come to Interactive Brokers because of recommendations and referrals from existing clients.
Perhaps most remarkable of all, though, is that this data shows that growth can happen at an online brokerage that has a core business that charges commissions per trade, and against a backdrop where commission-free trading is the norm at many peer firms.
When comparing account growth figures across Interactive Brokers, Schwab, and Robinhood for 2021, it was revealing to see how poorly Robinhood fared against its peer firms in the back half of year – especially in the category of account openings. In contrast, Robinhood, which blew the doors off account growth in early 2021, saw a precipitous drop in account growth once meme-stock momentum faded.
As mentioned above, the truly exceptional nature of what happened in 2021 to the world of online investing makes comparing subsequent time periods against those first few months somewhat futile. The open question for online brokerages is whether the new entrants into the world of online investing are here to stay or simply a temporary phenomenon.
What the longer-term account data provided by Interactive Brokers suggests, however, there is more permanence to new users and continued interest in sophisticated platforms. Robinhood’s latest performance data has shown that especially when it comes to trading stocks, the new cohort of investors and traders were not nearly as interested in that asset class as they were in options or cryptocurrency trading.
Interactive Brokers has clearly figured out a winning formula to attracting new clients. Their platform and user experience, however, appeal to a narrower segment of users than something like Schwab or even Robinhood. What is undeniable, is that by creating a best-in-class product, maintaining a reputation for low-cost pricing and catering to the most influential user group in active trading, Interactive Brokers has shown that new clients will come.
Perhaps less obvious, Interactive Brokers has been playing a long game strategy.
Though they could not have foreseen a global pandemic tilting interest in their favour, their platform was nonetheless equipped to scale and did so when needed. They stuck to their strategy of focusing on their core segment (active traders) while recognizing the need to innovate (cryptocurrency, ESG investing, commission-free trading) to adapt to changing investor demands.
While it is difficult to extrapolate directly onto the Canadian online brokerage market, the key themes emerging from the latest Interactive Brokerage results, as well as the longer-term picture on account opening data across the big publicly traded online brokerages in the US, reaffirms that simply going commission-free doesn’t guarantee new account growth, nor does it guarantee loyalty.
That said, the pricing at Canadian online brokerages, for the most part, is very disconnected from the value offered.
Unless incumbent online brokerages are prepared to dramatically shift their development focus on delighting influential segments of self-directed investors, they should be prepared to significantly lower their commission pricing (or offer substantial sign-up bonuses).
When the new crop of online brokerages launches in Canada, COVID will be a fading memory and the conversation for most investors will be focused squarely on pricing and ease of use. As Interactive Brokers has shown, staying relevant is the best way to ensure you remain in the conversation, no matter where events in the world turn.
From the Forums
When trusting an online brokerage with something as valuable as a nest egg, it’s important to know exactly what kind of assurances there are in place in case of a default. In this post from the investor forum on RedFlagDeals.com, one investor compares coverage available at two popular online brokerages and how vastly different the terms are.
Point of View
One of the latest features to emerge from Wealthsimple is a small but convenient improvement – a singular view of Wealthsimple Invest and Wealthsimple Trade accounts in one place. In this post revealing the new feature, users weigh in on the new view.
Into the Close
That’s a wrap on this edition of the Roundup. It was a bit delayed in going live, but perhaps we can chalk this one up to a chip shortage, the potato kind not the silicon kind (thanks Frito Lay). Besides, it seemed like there was more than enough to digest this week with market volatility keeping investors on edge. Here’s hoping for calmer waters and heads prevailing.
Unusual times are upon us. In the world of online brokerages, the beginning of March has historically been a turning point where RSP promotional offers expire, and the industry collectively takes a breath after their busiest stretch in the year. But this year, things are a bit different.
What unusual things that we’ve witness take place are an increase in cash back amounts from Qtrade Direct Investing coupled with extensions, again from Qtrade as well as RBC Direct Investing. And perhaps it is a sign of exactly how intense competition has become, but the RBC Direct Investing and Qtrade Direct Investing promos are at historic high levels. Another, for good measure, are longer deadlines for offers.
So, while we don’t have any new offers (yet) to report on, the extensions of offers from big names, like RBC Direct Investing and Qtrade Direct Investing, and longer durations of offers from Scotia iTRADE, would (or should) compel brokerages without an active promotion to consider launching an offer for the spring or through the summer.
In part, incumbent online brokerages – and especially bank-owned online brokerages – now need to factor into their promotional mix a world in which zero-commission trading from firms like National Bank Direct Brokerage (as well as Desjardins Online Brokerage) are gaining ground, and TD Easy Trade now exists. The new self-directed investor service from TD offers 50 commission-free trades per year to clients, and our recent in-depth analysis of TD Easy Trade shows why it is of immediate concern to competing brokerages.
Again, typically this would be a quieter time for all but a handful of perpetually active online brokers, but there’s a clear signal that in many ways these are not usual times, especially in the realm of self-directed investing. One possible reason: younger investors.
This new and materially relevant group of investors has started to drive all manner of change among online brokerages in Canada, which could mean that there are a few more interesting touchpoints in the calendar year where we see promotional campaigns surface.
For the time being, we’ll keep an eye out for new deals and promotions, but if you don’t see one on our list of online brokerage deals, let us know!
CIBC Investor’s Edge cash back promotion officially wrapped up on March 1st, as did the ultra-competitive cash back offer from TD Direct Investing. For reference, check out February’s deals and promotions post for a comparison of cash back promotions from the 2022 RRSP season.
Extended Online Brokerage Deals
RBC Direct Investing made a huge move this RRSP season by offering 100 commission-free trades which are good for up to two years. Originally slated to expire at the end of March, this RBC Direct Investing free trade promotion has now been extended to the end of November.
Another important extension was from Qtrade Direct Investing. In addition to revising the cash back bonus amounts upwards (and applying rewards retroactively to people who signed up under the original bonus), they also extended this offer until the end of April.
What a difference a few days makes. It’s hard not to pay attention to or be thinking about the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. Despite there being many important turning points with the arrival of March, the one the world is focused on is the end of the conflict in Europe.
For online investors, this war has also shed light on the role that finance plays in the conduct of nations, including during conflicts. In particular, the steady drumbeats of war over the past few weeks have reintroduced uncertainty and volatility back into stock markets – something that could once again challenge online brokerage systems heading into the RRSP deadline.
In this edition of the Roundup, we put commission-free trading into the spotlight, in particular, the launch of a commission-free trading platform by TD. Also, we’re rebooting investor comments, which this week reflect the perennial question around low cost trading and the spillover of politics into choosing an online brokerage.
Easing into Commission-free Trading in Canada – TD Easy Trade
It’s no secret that Canadian self-directed investors are betting on the widespread deployment of commission-free trading among Canada’s discount brokerages. What investors may not have bargained for is what form that commission-free trading experience will take.
Just over a month ago, TD made an interesting move into the commission-free trading world by launching their “Easy Trade” app and offering up 50 commission-free trades per year on that platform. This new investing service replaces the TD GoalAssist platform (launched in 2019) and now offers yet another platform by TD for investors to execute trades on – albeit with limits.
With all the attention that commission-free trading has received, courtesy of its widespread adoption in the US online brokerage market, the launch of Wealthsimple Trade, and the launch of commission free trading at National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage, it seemed a given that when a larger player moved to provide commission-free trading that others would quickly follow suit and investors would rejoice.
The fact that neither of those seem to have happened yet point to commission-free trading taking a different turn here in Canada.
If a Commission Falls
For some context, let’s rewind to 2014. Commission prices for trading at Canadian discount brokerages (as they were still called) were routinely just shy of $30 per trade ($29+ at TD Direct Investing) when RBC Direct Investing lowered their standard commission pricing to $9.95 per trade. The shockwave was immediate. And it wasn’t very long before most other Canadian online brokers – but especially the bank-owned online brokerage peers – followed suit by lowering their commissions to about the same price (except for Scotia iTRADE which waited until February 2019 to drop from $24.99 to $9.99 per trade).
The reason was clear: when a big player on the field does something material, expectations change.
Against this backdrop, the latest moves to lower commission pricing by a big name like TD – while clearly garnering attention – haven’t prompted the kind of response that we saw in 2014.
But since then, we haven’t seen much activity or appetite to lower standard commissions to zero by any other online brokerages, let alone bank-owned brokerages, despite the surge in interest and recommendations by self-directed investors towards National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage.
Instead, what we have witnessed is Canada’s online brokerages taking a “wait and see” approach to commission-free trading during the RRSP season, offering up a concession, rather than a capitulation.
Heading into this RRSP season, for example, RBC Direct Investing offered up 100 commission-free trades which are good for two years. Both the duration and the magnitude of this offer is higher than in years past. And to boot, this promotion is set to expire at the end of March, well after the deadline for RRSP contributions. In contrast, many other online brokerage promotions are timed to expire at the beginning of March.
Unlike in 2014, the response to TD’s latest move, according to many (many) self-directed investor forum posts and user comments, has been lukewarm. While there is clearly praise for providing a “commission-free” choice for up to 50 trades, there are a number of sticking points – including gripes from some of TD Direct Investing’s very large customer base.
Even though TD Easy Trade is clearly a multipronged response to the challenge of commission-free trading, as well as the “mobile first” mindset of Wealthsimple Trade, the expectations that come with such a successful and financially flush brand as TD are significantly higher.
Early Reactions to TD Easy Trade
Now over a month into the new service, the early response from across the investor forums paints a mixed picture of self-directed investors welcoming the price point but feeling constrained by the limitations of the app (especially around ETF purchases) and inconvenienced by having to separate the TD Direct Investing online brokerage experience from the TD Easy Trade experience.
An area where a bank-owned brokerage cannot be seen to fall short, however, is with convenience. That is the pillar of the value proposition of going with a bank-owned brokerage, and it is one feature younger and older investors agree upon.
In reviewing hundreds of forum, social media, and user comments on TD Easy Trade, aside from the points mentioned above, it was fascinating to see which online brokerages were (and were not) mentioned as alternatives to the new app.
National Bank Direct Brokerage was by far the most frequent alternative (followed by Desjardins Online Brokerage) cited to TD Easy Trade, despite a lack of a “mobile app” experience from National Bank Direct Brokerage (for now). This seems to suggest that investors are still very much conscious of the commission pricing. And although TD’s offering isn’t “unlimited,” many commenters concede that 50 commission-free trades should suffice for most passive investors.
Wealthsimple Trade, while also a part of the discussion, did not fare as high as it likely should considering it is the closest in feature and user experience to TD Easy Trade. Along with commission pricing, access to ETFs was also mentioned. User interface was a part of this discussion; however, the mobile experience – including biometric login – was a pain point for users contemplating on using TD Easy Trade
The “kicker” it seems is the restriction on ETFs – since TD Easy Trade only allows for commission-free trading of TD ETFs. That constraint seemed to open up other brokerages into the discussion, such as BMO InvestorLine as well as Scotia iTRADE.
Names that weren’t mentioned as often, however, were also a sign of shift in value perception among self-directed investors. One name that did not receive as much mention as it typically has prior to the zero commission launch by National Bank Direct Brokerage was Questrade.
This is an important development since Questrade has long been perceived as a low-cost leader. They have also been actively campaigning (including mass media buys) to win over the same clients as Wealthsimple Trade. Based on the conversation, however, Questrade appears to have lost ground to both the commission-free brokerages and is now facing pressure from TD Easy Trade.
And on the topic of campaigning, anyone watching the Super Bowl from Canada also likely saw the barrage of commercials from TD Easy Trade, a move that is a change in tactic from the big bank. Typically content to watch from the sidelines, the big sporting event advertising has been a mainstay of Questrade’s awareness campaigns, but this year TD Easy Trade came out swinging, dwarfing commercial presence of Questrade and BMO.
Early adopters of the National Bank Direct Brokerage experience have shown that despite some delays in getting accounts open and funded, overall, the feedback has been positive, especially when people have been posting their savings on commissions per trade. That kind of social proof is compelling, and when done at scale, can carry substantial influence among communities of investors who rely on the experiences of others when making decisions around potential online brokerages to use.
Given the size and prominence of bank-owned online brokerages, however, the expectations to get things right is also higher. There are simply fewer missteps or shortcomings that consumers are prepared to tolerate when Canadian banks are earning record profits.
Anything short of a best-in-class online trading experience begets a wave of complaints. And for a firm like TD, with two million online brokerage account holders, creating a parallel product to TD Direct Investing that has a considerably lower price point definitely ruffled some feathers. So while Canadian online investors may not leave a particular brokerage right away, they are clearly open to exploring other options and giving new entrants the opportunity to win business.
The takeaway for self-directed investors is that there isn’t really one Canadian online brokerage that is hitting all the marks when it comes to the trading experience and commission structures.
In terms of the balance of features and value, our analysis of the most influential Canadian online brokerage rankings shows that according to the reviews, there is more than just price to consider when choosing an online brokerage. And despite commission price clearly playing a role, consumer sentiment in the reaction to TD Easy Trade confirms that features such as commission-free ETFs and convenience weigh heavily. What this likely amounts to for Canadian self-directed investors is multiple accounts with multiple online brokerages.
For online brokerages, the lesson is also clear. Offering zero-commission trading is no guarantee to success; however, it does provide mass market visibility when it comes to being considered. Key features, and, in particular, the feeling of convenience are potentially more highly prized than commission pricing alone.
With our everyday lives increasingly dominated by apps that remove so much friction from the user experience, financial services, and online investing in particular, online brokerages have yet to perfect the delicate balance between keeping things functional and reliable with making the process of managing wealth as easy as possible. Hence, though the naming of the platform was a deft move, Easy Trade has set the bar high for themselves to make the process of managing wealth as a DIY investor – including the entry point investor – feel easy.
From the Forums
Which Online Brokerage is Cheapest?
Although it is a perennial question, whenever the topic of which online brokerage has the lowest cost comes up, it is fascinating to see which online brokerages are mentioned (and those that aren’t). In this recent reddit post, the conversation about low cost brokerages highlights who is top of mind for self-directed investors.
In Case of Emergency Act
Take your pick of political news having economic fallout. With the war in the Ukraine now dominating the headlines, the previous few weeks also showed that when Canada enacted the Emergency Act to deal with “freedom protestors”, financial firms and assets were also in the crosshairs to restore order. In this reddit post, one user wanted to know which online brokerage(s) better aligned with their personal political beliefs.
Into the Close
That’s a wrap on another “catch-up” edition of the Roundup. Suffice to say there is a lot on deck now that we’re at the official start of March and the official end to RRSP season for 2022. In the fullness of time, this seasons results will come to light but in the meantime, like everyone else, we’re watching what’s unfolding in the Ukraine and hoping that peace comes as soon as possible.
This year more than most, February is a month that embodies competition. From the Super Bowl to the Winter Olympics to the final stretch of RRSP season, there’s no shortage of high drama, stats, scores, and podium finishes. And while there might not be any formal winner declared to RRSP season, the reality is that Canadian online brokerages are battling hard to lock in new clients and assets ahead of the RRSP contribution deadline.
In this reboot to the Weekly Roundup, we took our cues from the biggest sporting events in the world to bring an exceptional edition filled with high degrees of difficulty to compare one of the most influential touchpoints of DIY investors making decisions on which online brokerage to choose: Canadian online brokerage rankings. Grab some snacks (maybe a coffee too), this is going to be a good one – but if you don’t have time, check out the key takeaways below.
It is increasingly more difficult to distinguish between Canadian online brokerages, let alone to find out which online brokerage is best
Different online brokerage rankings (Globe and Mail and Surviscor) ended up with very similar opinions about Canadian online brokerages this year, despite measuring them differently
When comparing online brokerage rankings, consistency between rankings provides greater confidence, whereas, inconsistency is a warning that experiences may be variable (aka YMMV)
Most online brokerages in Canada are generally OK to meet the needs of most self-directed investors; however, ranking as a best online brokerage means hitting important feature metrics, not just having the lowest commission pricing
Which Online Brokerage is Best? Comparing Online Brokerage Rankings to Find Out
The 2022 RRSP season is on the cusp of wrapping up, and, as in previous years, there has been a predictable surge among self-directed investors to find a new Canadian online brokerage. Unlike in past years, however, this year it seems that competition between Canadian brokerages is even more heated than ever before. And despite that competition (or perhaps a result of it), it is becoming increasingly more challenging to distinguish Canadian online brokerages from one another.
While commission price has historically been a key distinguishing feature for value-conscious self-directed investors to base their decisions on, zero-commission pricing has now gained a foothold among Canadian online brokerages.
The fact that there is more than Wealthsimple Trade – which was the sole zero-commission option for several years – to choose from since the start of this year’s RRSP season also heavily impacted an important touchpoint for the online brokerage industry and consumers alike: Canadian online brokerage rankings.
Online Brokerage Rankings Launch Ahead of RRSP Season
Earlier this month, the 2022 edition of the Globe and Mail’s online brokerage rankings was released, just in time for the peak of the wave of investor interest in online brokerage account opening. Now in its 23rd year, Rob Carrick’s long-running review is hands down one of the most influential online brokerage reviews with Canadian self-directed investors. And in late December 2021, the other big name in online brokerage rankings, Surviscor, released their 2021 online brokerage experience rankings, a comprehensive ranking of online brokerages in Canada based on detailed criteria about the online investing experience.
While it comes as no surprise that in the lead up to the 2022 RRSP contribution deadline two very important Canadian online brokerage reviews have been released, it was surprising to see the degree to which both rankings ended up agreeing with each other.
At Sparx Trading, we don’t rank online brokerages, but we do have a long history reviewing online brokerage reviews. We’ve continuously held the perspective that “the best” online brokerage for Canadian investors is one that suits their particular needs as a self-directed investor.
That said, for self-directed investors who turn to third party reviews for guidance and perspective on which online brokerages are leaders or laggards (or to find out “which online brokerage is best?”), our recommended approach would be to see what different brokerage rankings have to say.
The challenge, however, is that each of these reviews take very different approaches to defining and measuring which online brokerages in Canada are the best, and so it is important to understand what each of these online brokerage reviews measure and how they measure it. But comparing online brokerage rankings is not easy.
From a consumer perspective, there is quite a bit of analysis and more homework/guesswork than most are willing to do, which is why we’ve tried to simplify this in our online brokerage review pages by providing ranking data from different sources alongside information about the brokerages themselves below.
An important trend that we’ve observed with online brokerage rankings in Canada is that the difference between online brokerage ranking scores has been shrinking.
For the past two decades, online brokerage reviews from third party sites and sources have played an important role in helping Canadian self-directed investors understand how to choose an online brokerage, as well as provide recommendations on which Canadian online brokerage is best. That said, the spread between the top and bottom ranked firms has been closing across different reviews, a signal that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish between online brokerage firms.
While the appeal of these online brokerage rankings is that they offer a quick point of reference for investors to be able to determine which online brokerage(s) are the segment leaders and which are the laggards, there hasn’t been an easy way to compare Canadian online brokerage rankings – until now.
To address this analysis gap and to highlight the trend towards homogenization among online brokerages (i.e. that it is harder to tell online brokerages apart from one another) we wanted to put the latest online brokerage rankings from the Globe and Mail and Surviscor into a format where they could be compared side by side. By doing this, a much clearer picture emerges of where there is consensus from subject matter experts on which Canadian online brokerages are leaders and which are lagging their peers.
Specifically, the most important thing (we think) to pay attention to when comparing online brokerage rankings is where there is agreement and the extent of that agreement, because it demonstrates increased confidence in the experience that self-directed investors can expect from a particular Canadian online brokerage.
How We Compared Canadian Online Brokerage Rankings
Before diving into a comparison of the two different online brokerage rankings, it is important to provide some context as to how these numbers were generated.
The scoring criteria for the 2022 Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings uses letter grades in combination with +/- components. (For those who wish to take an in-depth look at how the grading system changed over time, you can check out one of our original articles explaining how the Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings evolved from 2002 to 2012.) As in the past, there are multiple criteria that Canadian online brokerages are evaluated on with a final letter grade assigned based on a combination of scoring and impression of the online brokerage (from the perspective of the “average” online investor).
In contrast, Surviscor reports a numerical percentage for their Canadian online brokerage experience rankings. The methodology for their analysis takes a criteria-based approach and measures features that online brokerages do (or do not) have. This year’s online brokerage experience review audited Canadian online brokerages during October and November 2021 and analyzed over 400 criteria in six categories and 27 subcategories.
To enable a fair comparison, we decided to convert the letter grade ranking system used by the most recent Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings, into a numerical system that is used by Surviscor.
Interactive Brokers Canada was analyzed as part of the Globe and Mail’s 2022 online brokerage rankings, whereas Surviscor’s brokerage ranking did not include them. Conversely, Wealthsimple Trade was rated by both firms; however, they were only scored in the Surviscor rankings. In the Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings, Wealthsimple Trade was given an “I” for “incomplete.” As such, both Interactive Brokers and Wealthsimple Trade are not directly comparable in the two different rankings.
The table below contains the raw rankings from both online brokerage reviews. As mentioned above, the online brokerage rankings from the Globe and Mail are reported in the form of letter grades, whereas the rankings of online brokerage experience from Surviscor are reported in percentages:
Also, for ease of comparison, we’ve calculated the average score between the two sets of online brokerage rankings, as well as the difference between the scores (in percentage points) to highlight the degree of agreement (or disagreement) between the two different rankings’ results.
What We Found When Comparing Canadian Online Brokerage Rankings
Again, in the interest of a fair comparison, it is important to reiterate that we are comparing two different Canadian online brokerage rankings that measure different aspects of trading online via a Canadian online brokerage.
The Globe and Mail’s online brokerage rankings take the perspective of what the “average” Canadian self-directed investor would typically need or want. By comparison, Surviscor’s rankings measure the “online brokerage experience,” which reflects what their perception of a leading online brokerage experience could look like.
One of the first things that jumps out from the results of this year’s rankings is that averages from the Globe and Mail (75%) are lower than those from Surviscor (81%). Moreover (and for the stats nerds), the standard deviation – or measure of variance of the average – for each set of scores show much more consistency for the Globe and Mail’s online brokerage ranking than for Surviscor’s (7.31% vs 8.88%). It is important to note that the scores for Wealthsimple Trade on Surviscor’s rating (20%) were not included because they were so far below everyone else’s that it would have significantly skewed the analysis.
What these averages and standard deviations point to is that the perception of the overall online brokerage offering for Canadian self-directed investors is generally not bad.
Aside from a couple of outliers – in particular Wealthsimple Trade – an online investor could pick just about any Canadian online brokerage and be OK. Thus, choosing a Canadian online brokerage in 2022 for most individual investors is not a decision to fret over – especially if their needs are fairly straightforward or basic.
Importantly, a low number on these rankings doesn’t necessarily imply a “bad” or poor online brokerage, but rather one that doesn’t meet a full spectrum of user needs based on what else is out there. As such, not all investors will end up wanting or needing all features that are available elsewhere, which might be just fine for those investors.
Another interesting observation right off the bat is that the average score for Canadian online brokerages is lower in the Globe and Mail ranking than it is in the Surviscor ranking. One interpretation is that Rob Carrick is a tougher grader than Surviscor, something that is somewhat of a surprise given the qualitative data and commentary on the online brokerages coming from each ranking. While it is clear what Surviscor’s position is on firms like Wealthsimple Trade, other than that, according to Surviscor’s scores, most Canadian online brokerage firms appear to be faring well (in a relative sense) when it comes to features.
One of the unique features of analyzing the Canadian online brokerage rankings this way is that it is possible to combine the scores into an average score between the two different rankings. In doing so, not only does this enable readers to more easily compare Canadian online brokerages based on the average alone, but it also highlights where these rankings agree and the extent to which they do.
To be fair and consistent for the analysis on combined scores, Interactive Brokers (which was analyzed only in the Globe and Mail) and Wealthsimple Trade (which was not graded in the Globe and Mail and was a severe outlier in the Surviscor analysis) were not included.
The table below shows the combined average scores from each Canadian online brokerage, as well as the difference (in percentage points) between the two rankings. Firms that had the same average score but lower difference between rankings were rated higher in this analysis, thus it is possible to have a lower average score but place higher because there is greater confidence associated with a particular average.
The scores for the combined rankings ranged from a high of 90% (Qtrade Direct Investing) to a low of 62% (HSBC InvestDirect) with the overall average of the group coming in at 78% and a standard deviation of 7.7%.
With these numbers in mind, the results of the best ranked online brokerages (as well as the worst) take on greater meaning.
In particular, based on the average values and the range of scores alone, Qtrade’s performance is very close to being significantly better than the other firms ranked, falling just three percentage points shy of being two standard deviations better than the average. Conversely, HSBC InvestDirect’s ranking does (barely) cross the threshold into being significantly lower than its peers.
As for the rest of the field, which is essentially every other online brokerage, the experience is generally OK. This could explain the observation that many Canadian self-directed investors don’t feel compelled to switch online brokerages, even in the face of low or zero commission alternatives. Even if costs may be somewhat higher, things are not so materially bad to induce a change. It’s only likely after a negative service interaction (or feature shortcoming) or some significant convenience boost (e.g. consolidating other financial services or very cool feature) that would form the catalyst to change brokerages.
Areas of Agreement
What became clear in comparing these online brokerage rankings is that there were clearly some instances where both sets of reviews arrived at similar conclusions about the performance of a particular online brokerage.
The range of agreement was between 4 and 16.5; however, the latter score (the result of the difference in scoring for Scotia iTRADE) was certainly an outlier. Excluding that from the analysis, the average difference between the Globe and Mail rankings and Surviscor ratings was about 7.15 percentage points with a standard deviation of 2.24.
When including a “confidence” measure, which is really a consistency between rankings measure, the most consistent conclusions were about BMO InvestorLine (average combined score of 80%) and CIBC Investor’s Edge (average combined score of 73%). Rankings for both of these firms were within four percentage points of each other, suggesting that both Surviscor and the Globe and Mail analyses arrived at a similar conclusion about what self-directed investors can expect. In this case, when comparing BMO InvestorLine versus CIBC Investor’s Edge, according to the rankings, BMO InvestorLine would provider higher probability of a better outcome for investors.
Where the confidence measure really impacts the average scoring and ultimate ranking of online brokerages is when the difference between online brokerage rankings is considered high. In this case difference scores of 8 or higher were considered to be an indicator of a “YMMV” (your mileage may vary) for investors in terms of what their own experiences with an online brokerage may be. Several firms fell into this cluster including (in descending order of disagreement):
The most extreme example of disagreement between online brokerage rankings was for Scotia iTRADE, which had a 16.5 percentage point difference. The Globe and Mail’s online brokerage rankings rated Scotia iTRADE at 74.5%, a score that put it in the middle of the pack in terms of grading; however, in the Surviscor rating, Scotia iTRADE earned a 91% rating. According to Rob Carrick’s commentary, the website interface came across as dated but in the Surviscor ranking, the overall online experience was close to exceptional. In short, this is a good example of a firm where consumer experience is likely somewhere between good or excellent, depending on the user.
Other interesting names on the YMMV list were the two online brokerages with zero commission trading: National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage.
Despite being a “tougher” judge overall, it was the Globe and Mail ranking for National Bank Direct Brokerage (78%) which was higher than Surviscor (69%). The situation was almost the opposite at Desjardins Online Brokerage, which scored higher on the Surviscor ranking (76%) compared to the Globe and Mail (68%). And despite not being captured in the comparison analysis shown above, Wealthsimple Trade is also a zero commission brokerage that did not score well on the online brokerage rankings.
The shift to this low-cost structure for consumers would almost certainly be considered a win, but as these online brokerage rankings clearly show, pricing is just one of many factors that online brokerages need to get right in order to score well on these brokerage rankings. In fact, it appears that when it comes to Canadian online brokerage rankings, each of these aggregate ratings favour the online brokerage offering features and “frills” rather than the most essential online trading experience. Most “average” investors don’t make a significant amount of online trades in a year, so the “value” of zero commission trading might be minimal compared to other features (such as portfolio tracking) that would be of interest.
Online brokerage reviews and rankings have and will continue to play an important role for self-directed investors who are interested in opening an online brokerage account. For Canadian online brokerages, rankings – especially those from the Globe and Mail and Surviscor (as well as from JD Power) – are a particular point of pride, and demonstrate to investors that these online brokerages can meet certain standards of quality that, in turn, should give investors confidence in doing business with them.
While historically there might have been substantial differences between firms, in 2022 it is clear that most Canadian online brokerages are doing an adequate job of providing self-directed investors with the essential functions of being able to trade and track their portfolios online. The customer service wait times, which became a dominant topic of discussion in 2021, were also part of the conversation this year, but what that data also showed is a) improvements have been achieved in most places year over year, and b) customer service channels are, like pricing, only part of what earns good grades in an online brokerage ranking.
Our conversion of the letter grades used in the Globe and Mail’s online brokerage rankings into percentages is not a perfect one-to-one mapping. For that reason, the percentages that we’ve used are at best, a reasonable approximation of what it takes to conduct an apples-to-apples comparison of the different online brokerage rankings that are highly influential during the current RSP season and throughout the rest of 2022. Despite the limitations, the ability to compare different online brokerage rankings does show that firms like Qtrade Direct Investing and TD Direct Investing have earned their way to the top of the list of firms who are providing broadly appealing features and value to Canadian self-directed investors. The fact that there are both strong averages as well as reasonable agreement can give self-directed investors some degree of confidence when trying to decide on a “good” choice for an online brokerage.
That said, the online brokerage rankings are a line of best fit for the “average” or typical investor. And despite some firms scoring lower, it is important to recognize that a “lower” score doesn’t translate necessarily into a firm that doesn’t please its customers. Different features matter to different investors, and as such, firms that didn’t receive much spotlight in these rankings and analysis, in particular Interactive Brokers and Wealthsimple Trade, have passionate users who genuinely enjoy using these brokerages.
Thus, if there is one big cautionary note in relying on the rankings and ratings generated by both the Globe and Mail and Surviscor, is that these ratings reflect the perspectives of the respective entities that developed the rankings. The rankings do not, unfortunately, factor in customer satisfaction or sentiment, which is a highly prized but very difficult factor to get reliable data on.
Nonetheless, much like the Olympics, the competition between Canadian online brokerages is so intense that the difference between a podium finish and being out of the spotlight is small. The gap between the best online brokerage and the rest is closing. Canadian online brokerages who are agile enough to continuously improve, especially in what kind of features they can bring to market, should continue to do well in the rankings. If there’s one important lesson from the world of sport that holds true for Canadian online brokerages, however, it’s to try and eliminate unforced errors, especially once RRSP season is done. The data now exists in an easier format for Canadian online investors to compare online brokerages, but whether or not they’re driven to look it up after RRSP season is a function of how well each online brokerage can perform.
Into the Close
It’s great “two” be back in the thick of things just in time for sprint to the RRSP finish line at the end of February.
There’s lots that’s happened since our pause so we’re looking forward to digging out from the vacation responder emails, as well as reviewing the latest developments taking place with Canadian self-directed investors and online brokerages.
Of course, anyone who’s also had a newborn knows that sleep is a precious commodity, as is family time. So we thank you for your patience as we get back online and promise that there are even more dad joke puns about to make their way into the Roundup from here on out.
Fingers crossed, it’s going to be a nail-biter of a week in more ways than one.
Happy New Year and welcome to 2022! The start of a new calendar year is typically the time of year when we all struggle with writing the correct year for a few weeks and then eventually get the hang of (or accept) being in a new place. Ironically, time distortion is a hallmark of a pandemic, and aside from not knowing what day of the week it is (every day is sweatpants day!), it seems that timing was topsy-turvy at online brokerages in Canada and the US. But this is the definition of the new normal, and like markets tend to do, we’re embracing the ability to adapt with the times.
Change is a big theme in this mega-edition of the Roundup. First, we dive into the biggest review of Canadian online brokerages: the Look Back / Look Ahead for 2021/2022. This in-depth look at the latest issue picks out some important themes that impacted Canadian online brokerages and self-directed investors in 2021 and what’s in store for 2022. Next, we recap the year with memes & themes in an epic rundown of the big (and small) stories of 2021. So, in case you missed the past year or simply just need a quick(ish) primer on what happened with Canadian online brokerages in 2021, be sure to read through this ultimate roundup of Roundups. Finally, be sure to get to the end for an important announcement on the schedule changes to the Roundup coming this January.
Online Brokerages Review 2021 & Offer Exclusive Preview of 2022
When given the opportunity and spotlight to speak directly to online investors, what did Canadian online brokerages have to say about an exceptional year and how to build on top of that?
On a thematic level, it was clear that one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the online brokerage industry in Canada was the meteoric rise of retail investor interest in trading stocks online. The stats provided were incredible. Desjardins Online Brokerage, for example, shared that 30% of their user base is between the ages of 18 and 30, and BMO InvestorLine reported nearly 50% of their new clients are under 35. And they’re likely not alone. The huge demographic shift in clients means that online brokerages are working to deliver features and experiences that align more closely with this group – including investor education resources.
Having covered the online brokerage industry in Canada for the past decade, an important theme of this issue we’ve witnessed is effort into investor education gradually recede. When Sparx Trading first launched, at least half a dozen or more online brokerages would regularly hold investor education seminars, webinars, or education-focused events. Gradually, however, as markets moved steadily higher and volatility subsided, interest in education waned, and whether it was supply or demand driven, “investor education” resources began to disappear.
Fast forward to today and it seems we are experiencing a renaissance of investor education based on the feedback from online brokerages, as well as in several of the trends we’ve been tracking throughout the industry. National Bank Direct Brokerage, for example, highlighted the fact they offer Options Play for free to their clients. This digital tool enables clients to simulate and learn about options trading strategies – something that is of growing interest to younger investors, especially coming out of the meme-stock craze of early 2021. At RBC Direct Investing, education is also on the roadmap for 2022 as is building out additional content for investors via the Inspired Investor magazine. And, at the industry giant TD Direct Investing, it is clear that investor-focused content will play an important role given their sizeable investment in building an entire content team that is likely going to be producing content at an unmatched volume.
Of course, the big story for 2021 in the Canadian online brokerage industry was the launch of commission-free trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage in August. Undeniably a surprise for many, the fact that a bank-owned online brokerage with a national footprint would be the first to offer full commission-free trading changed the competitive landscape for larger and smaller players alike. Not long after NBDB lowered their fees, Desjardins Online Brokerage followed suit. With both of these Quebec-based institutions taking trading commissions to zero, clearly commission-free trading is on the minds of self-directed investors and online brokerages alike. When polled about the issue, Canadian online brokerages revealed that they are clearly aware of it and would be looking to enhance value for investors with new features and offers rather than lower prices for trading commissions – at least at this point.
As we round the turn into 2022, however, zero-commission trading looms large. Just ahead of the end of 2021, Mogo Trade announced it had received the official green light to launch its commission-free trading app, and in our special section on commission-free online brokerages, we listed a total of four (including Mogo Trade) that we are currently tracking that are likely to come online either in 2022 or 2023. So, the reality for Canadian online brokerages is that zero-commission trading is coming, as is more competition.
Given the pace of innovation and change that are on the horizon, the Look Back / Look Ahead series provides visibility on which Canadian online brokerages are actively innovating, which firms are working on important infrastructure components, such as client experience, and which firms are clearly capable of doing both.
For self-directed investors, moving from online brokerage to online brokerage is (at least for now) a slow and painful exercise. Consumers would much rather stay where they are; however, without confidence in their online brokerage’s ability to innovate or be competitive on cost or value, alternatives are increasingly present.
Perhaps one of the most compelling stories in 2022 beyond commission-free trading will be a new feature telegraphed in the Look Back / Look Ahead from National Bank Direct Brokerage: paid securities lending.
In addition to offering zero-commission trading, the fact that clients could be compensated for lending their securities out to those seeking to short them lays a strategic foundation for NBDB to not only hang on to clients in a way that other brokerages are not (at least not yet), but it also is a draw for active traders who are looking to source shares for shorting. It’s a feature that currently exists only at Interactive Brokers, which is a signal or validation that active investors are either direct or indirect benefactors of this program. In short (pun intended), our call on National Bank Direct Brokerage in early 2021 appears to continue to play out: they are increasingly going to be an online brokerage to watch as they expand their presence across Canada. Until another major online brokerage in Canada drops their commission pricing to zero or close to it, National Bank Direct Brokerage is going to continue to be a top contender among self-directed investors looking to for a value-oriented online trading experience. Unlike other providers, however, NBDB isn’t waiting around for that to happen – they are clearly positioning themselves well with Options Play and the paid securities lending feature to be an attractive destination for active investors, as well as passive ones, and they’re working towards launching a mobile app which would only deepen the appeal with younger investors.
With 2021 now officially in the books, the Look Back / Look Ahead series is a great opportunity to get a unique perspective from industry insiders on the world of self-directed investing. As it falls on the tenth official year of the launch of SparxTrading.com, it also represents a significant milestone to have been covering the activity in this space to the depth and consistency that we have. Over the course of the decade, it’s been amazing to connect with industry analysts, online brokerage leaders, and self-directed investors to chat all things online investing. Most fulfilling, however, has been getting to be able to level the playing field for DIY investors and help, even in some small measure, make self-directed investing easier and more accessible.
True to the spirit of the Look Back / Look Ahead series, we also took the opportunity to announce the launch of Sparx Trading Pro. While it is still in development, we’re excited to be building something special for the community of users that regularly turn to SparxTrading.com for in-depth insight and analysis of the online brokerage industry. We love analytics and numbers, so a big part of what we hope to introduce is more data on what self-directed investors are interested in, and as a result, help serve as a catalyst to drive innovation.
Finally, on behalf of the entire Sparx Publishing Group organization and SparxTrading.com team, thank you to our loyal readers, visitors, and supporters. We’re amazed that 10 years has flown by, and we’re bullish on where the next chapter in self-directed investing goes from here. Thanks for tuning in!
Themes and Memes: Online Brokerage Highlights from Q2 2021 onwards
April: In with the New
From Qtrade’s new look and new name (Qtrade Direct Investing) to the preview of long sought-after features from Questrade and Wealthsimple Trade, April showered self-directed investors with the promise of new things to come.
The launch of the new brand direction for Qtrade Direct Investing was a huge milestone for this popular Canadian online brokerage. Executing a rebrand is no small feat; however, Qtrade managed to strike the right balance between a connection to what people know it for (i.e. its first name) and what it wants people to know it for. With a bold, new look and energy, it felt like Qtrade was ready to embrace the new landscape of online investing and bring something emotion into what has typically been a conservative brand.
Also looking to stir up some excitement, Questrade telegraphed the launch of a new mobile app – something that they hoped would help them compete more effectively against a design-savvy, mobile-first competitor: Wealthsimple Trade. It wouldn’t actually launch until November (see below) but the hype train on the new mobile app officially pulled out of the station in April.
And speaking of Wealthsimple Trade, new feature releases were a regular occurrence throughout the year, but one big announcement from the zero-commission brokerage was the news that they would be launching US dollar trading accounts. Long the Achilles heel for this very popular brokerage, the final form of the US dollar trading offering from Wealthsimple Trade ended up launching in December (see below).
May: Statistics and Outliers
Strange, almost by definition, is not normal. For the (fellow) statistics nerds out there, data is a great way to get a handle on what is considered normal and what’s an outlier. This month happened to be filled with DIY investor data from all over the world.
One of the big developments was the online brokerage ranking by Surviscor, which put online brokerage fees into the spotlight. Remarkably, even before going to zero commissions, National Bank Direct Brokerage took the crown of lowest cost provider which is no small feat in a fiercely price sensitive industry.
Another watershed pricing moment came later in the month from popular bank-owned online brokerage BMO InvestorLine. In a calculated move, BMO InvestorLine launched 80 commission-free ETFs, and while they are not the only Canadian online brokerage to offer completely commission-free ETF buying and selling, the move gave both active and passive investors a compelling reason to choose this online brokerage over others (especially bank-owned brokerage competitors).
June: More New Features
Summer is typically the time for big blockbuster movies. Although the silver screens weren’t as busy this past year, DIY investor screens were filled with blockbuster reveals in the summer.
Perhaps the biggest one for Canadian self-directed investors (up until that point) was the launch of fractional share trading by Wealthsimple Trade. This highly-prized feature is something that US online investors were able to have access to from a variety of online brokerages, but for mainstream investors in Canada, Wealthsimple Trade was able to make a huge splash by bringing this trading to the masses in Canada.
The Robinhood IPO and the opportunity to “buy buy buy” into the game-changing commission-free online brokerage was undeniably one of the biggest stories in the space this past year. By venturing into the public markets, it was possible to look under the financial “hood” to see how this commission-free brokerage managed to grow so rapidly, and, more importantly, how they made their money despite keeping commissions at zero. As it turned out, the prospectus for Robinhood’s IPO made for some fascinating reading.
No stranger to life as a publicly traded online brokerage, however, Interactive Brokers managed to pull off a deft mic drop moment of their own when they waved bye-bye-bye to inactivity fees for their clients worldwide. This included Canadian online investors, so it was a huge win for DIY investors everywhere who, prior to the removal of inactivity fees, were reluctant to have more than their most active accounts with Interactive Brokers. By lowering the friction to stay a customer of Interactive Brokers, this savvy online brokerage turned the math of customer churn on its head and managed to find a way to get customers to stay, even if they needed to step back from active trading for a while.
August: Coming This Fall
Twenty twenty-one was many things, but typical it was not. For that reason, we probably should have known better than to think it would be business as usual – or more appropriately – quiet business as usual. August happened to be an historic month for Canadian online investors because that was the month National Bank Direct Brokerage chose to launch commission-free trading.
Not only did National Bank Direct Brokerage take their commission fees for trading stocks to zero, they simultaneously took the vacation plans for other online brokerage leaders to zero as well.
And, while there wasn’t a story bigger than that, there was one that came close. We spotted and reported on the potential launch of yet another commission-free online broker, FreeTrade, here in Canada. In addition to Mogo Trade, FreeTrade represented yet another online brokerage interested in launching direct trading services in Canada with no commission.
Between the news of National Bank Direct Brokerage and the potential launch of another commission-free online brokerage in Canada, a clear trend is forming, and now it seems only a matter of time before existing big-bank online brokerages follow suit with significant commission rate drops.
It has been a spectacular journey, and despite a very different landscape for online investors today, it was clear that a resource like Sparx Trading is needed as much now as it was when we first started. We also recognized that to prepare for a very dynamic future in the online brokerage space, we had to make some big changes – starting with a full redesign on the website, and in September, we also added the ability for online investors to research what other people are saying about online brokerages on Twitter and reddit, two areas which saw huge gains in participation by retail investors.
We weren’t the only ones launching a retail investor sentiment tool, however. As it turned out, TD Direct Investing launched the TD Direct Investing Index to measure Canadian investor sentiment in the stock market. With several Canadian online brokerages regularly reporting what their clients have been trading, this new feature from TDDI takes things to a whole new level by providing data on demographics and location, as well as sectors.
Of course, when it comes to online investors in 2021, stocks weren’t the only asset class of interest to them. In a stunning pivot (and/or a capitulation to giving people what they want), Interactive Brokers announced they would be enabling cryptocurrency trading to their clients. The big story here is that founder and very public face of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, has been an outspoken critic of cryptocurrency for years, and so to see him personally acknowledge the material relevance of cryptocurrency as well as make the feature available to Interactive Brokers clients underscores the trading adage of “not fighting the tape.” Demand for cryptocurrency trading was simply too high despite the potential regulatory peril it could represent. Interactive Brokers was by no means the only big name in the US to adopt or support cryptocurrency trading, but it does signal that there is a sufficiently high level of interest among new and experienced investors in trading this digital asset class.
October: And Another One
And speaking of listening to customers, the launch of the QuestMobile app by Questrade generated a tonne (yes, it felt like the metric kind) of responses from clients and observers who weighed in (pun intended) on the new feature. There are only a handful of examples of feature launches from online brokerages over the past decade that generated so much response online, and the QuestMobile launch ranks high on the list of lightning rod discussion points.
Questrade’s unique success online with DIY investors ultimately became its undoing in this case because so many of its clients were not shy about providing their (negative) feedback on social media and investor forums. Regardless of the merits of the app, the roll-out of a new interface is a highly instructive case study change management, especially in an era of increasingly tech and design savvy clientele.
It seemed fitting in a month often known for trick or treating that a huge treat for self-directed investors was the announcement that (yet) another commission-free online brokerage was looking to formally launch in Canada in 2022. TradeZero, a name familiar to very active traders, indicated their plans to expand globally with Canada being an important jumping off point in that roadmap. Excluding the perennial “are we there yet?” questions about tastyworks coming to Canada, the announcement by TradeZero brought the total number of new online brokerages (new commission-free online brokerages) looking to launch in Canada in 2022(ish) to three. In the decade prior to 2021, the number of commission-free online brokerages that were publicly looking to launch in Canada was exactly Wealthsimple Trade long (we announced this back in 2018).
In a month that has now become synonymous with bargain hunting, November didn’t disappoint for DIY investors either. There was a dizzying amount of news to report on but the biggest story for self-directed investors in Canada was the unofficial (but now kinda official) launch of RSP season. While the contribution deadline comes at the beginning of March 2022, the deals and promotions for online trading accounts have now started to appear at the beginning of November, and 2021 was no exception. Some big players in the Canadian online brokerage space came out swinging early, among them, CIBC Investor’s Edge and TD Direct Investing, both of which provided a preview to the highly competitive promotional offers available this season.
Another big theme for this year was in the non-bank-owned online brokerage group launching features to help self-directed investors get started and funded as quickly as possible. Qtrade Direct Investing announced the launch of rapid account opening knocking down the time required to open an online trading account at Qtrade from days to minutes. While getting an account opened quickly is a huge step forward, another big hurdle to clear is account funding. Competitor online brokerages such as Questrade and Wealthsimple Trade worked feverishly in 2021 to address instant account funding (albeit with limited amounts).
On the topic of opening accounts quickly, Robinhood, the poster child for rapid growth in online brokerage accounts, in 2020 and 2021 reported earnings, and for anyone keeping score on their stock price recently, the outlook was not great. Being winter, the phrase “getting ahead of your skis” characterizes the Robinhood story, and the now publicly traded stock has seen a massive sell off in large part because of the stall in momentum from retail investor trading. Specifically, the pull back in options and cryptotrading have clearly hurt the top and bottom lines for this zero-commission brokerage. Beyond the trading in those products, it also appears that after the meme-stock debacle, the “for the people” branding took a significant hit, something that might be keeping newer clients away from considering Robinhood as their online brokerage of choice.
And, speaking of choosing, Interactive Brokers once again reflected that the power of capitalism is ultimately in listening and providing to the market what the market wants. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), ESG-driven trading is something that Interactive Brokers offers to its clients with the launch of their IMPACT app. Commission-free trading that enables you to make the world better through your investment decisions pretty much nails it for the demographic this app is clearly targeting.
December: Free Fallin’
Even with ice and snow on the ground, it seems like stock markets (and a couple of online brokerages) were doing all the slipping and sliding heading into the end of the year. Yet again, 2021 proved that time distortion and normalcy are not a thing because feature launches and big announcements continued to roll in despite it traditionally being a month when activity among online brokerages gears down for the holiday season.
But the giving season did giveth, or at least asketh to taketh, in the case of Wealthsimple Trade which launched a new subscription-based service. The commission-free brokerage finally addressed (sort of) one of their clients’ biggest pain points, the high cost of trading US-listed stocks by launching access to US currency trading accounts. The devil, however, was in the details, and despite the sizzle on rolling out the feature, there were many important unanswered questions about how converting between currencies would work with the subscription model.
Questrade managed to slide in some interesting new features ahead of the end of the year as well, launching a wonderfully named “RoundUP” service to help make investing digital spare change easier as well as a “cash back” shopping feature in which the worlds of online shopping and online investing collide.
Finally, we shipped the annual Look Back / Look Ahead series for 2021/2022 in December (see above), and with it we wrapped up what has clearly been an eventful year with insights from Canadian online brokerage leaders. As busy as the year was in 2021, all signs point to even more activity in 2022, with new features continuing to launch, new pricing drops likely to come from existing online brokerages (who haven’t already lowered their prices), some interesting new players on the field, and, naturally, the unknown.
Into the Close
If you’ve made it to this point reading top to bottom, congratulations! Not only are you all caught up on the biggest developments in the online brokerage space for the year, but you’re also well prepared for what’s about to come next in 2022. The start of a new year is often a time for reflection and resolutions, but this new year brings even greater cause for reflection as well as celebration.
After 10 years of publishing the Weekly Roundup from pretty much everywhere life has taken me, there are only a handful of instances where publication has been paused, and they’ve been to tend to the greatest investment anyone can have: family. For that reason, the Weekly Roundup will be going on pause until mid-February.
In the interim, we will continue to be publishing deals and promotions updates, as well as monitoring and sharing interesting content to our Twitter channel and newsletter, so be sure to subscribe to those if you haven’t already done so. Also, we will continue to monitor the online brokerage space for big developments, and like all of life’s great surprises, perhaps don’t be surprised if we drop some interesting posts between now and the return of Roundup.
Until then, Happy New Year, and wishing good health, prosperity, and joy to you and your loved ones for 2022! Here’s hoping we get back to a time where can all fist bump in person again soon.
If there’s one thing that all self-directed investors have in common, it’s that they pay attention to trends. This year, we officially crossed the 10-year mark at Sparx Trading, and if there’s one thing that we can speak to after a decade’s worth of data and analysis, it’s being able to spot trends in the Canadian online brokerage industry.
Taking stock (pun intended) of the past year and a half, it’s fair to say that we’re living through events unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed before. And yet, one of the most striking features of the Canadian online brokerage industry, even in the face of such dramatic events, is the ability of the Canadian market to sustain firms that move at paradoxically different speeds when it comes to innovation. That world, however, is about to change.
In this fifth iteration of the Look Back / Look Ahead magazine, it’s abundantly clear that the Canadian self-directed investing industry sits at the cusp of a major transformation.
From the launch of commission-free trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage, to a structural shift in demographics of investors who entered the online trading world, 2021 was a year that online brokerage executives told us challenged them to establish a new normal when it comes to delivering outstanding experiences for Canadian self-directed investors.
Drastic change was also prevalent at SparxTrading.com this year. Our choice to completely overhaul our website and lean into refining our brand identity appears to be in line with where leaders in the industry are as well. And we, too, have some incredibly ambitious projects slated for the next year that we can’t wait to share more about, especially the launch of Sparx Trading Pro.
After 10 years of consistently producing content on the Canadian online brokerage landscape, it’s remarkable to reflect on the breadth of audience that we serve.
Analysts, journalists, executives, enthusiasts, and investors turn to Sparx Trading for in-depth insights and newsworthy developments, as well as puns, gifs, and fun artwork. In today’s parlance, we’ve helped to democratize online investing by providing industry-grade content and insights to all. Today, investors have more technology, platforms, products, providers, and pricing options than they have ever had before, which means our place in the DIY investor ecosystem is even more important today than it was a decade ago when we first launched.
On behalf of the exceptionally talented Sparx team, I would like to thank our loyal readers, supporters, and, especially, the online brokerage community for 10 years of wonderful memories, and for keeping things interesting.
Where the next 10 years takes us all, we’re not sure. But we’re excited all the same, especially if where we’re going next won’t need roads. See you in the future!
Click below to learn more about what each individual online brokerage had to say about 2021 and what’s coming up in 2022:
Vixen might be a reindeer name, but Vix’n is just what the active traders wanted to see Blitzen and Dash-in around their screens as volatility, like lockdowns, makes a comeback. Screens and markets might be redder than Rudolph’s nose heading into the end of the year, but like all things market related, there are opportunities for good news if you Comet to finding them.
In this I-can’t-believe-we’re-so-close-to-the-end-of-this-hot-mess-of-a-year edition of the Roundup, we spotted new features being launched by one popular online brokerage just in time for the holiday shopping season, and what they could signal for this brokerage, as well as DIY investors. Next, more savings just got deal-ivered as two (big!) new online brokerage promos crossed our radar this week. Finally, a bonus story about a story – we preview the launch of the Look Back / Look Ahead magazine with an overview of what to expect, including some special features we think will drastically shape the industry in 2022.
Cashing In: Questrade Launches Cash Rewards and Roundup Features
At Sparx, we know a thing or two about roundups. So, you can imagine our joy when we noticed a Canadian online brokerage launch a new product line with “roundup” in the name!
Questrade, one of Canada’s most popular online brokerages, quietly rolled out a pair of new “savings” features for existing clients this past week in what looks like an interesting tactic to encourage low-friction asset gathering, while providing clients with additional value for being a Questrade customer.
The first, the RoundUP automatic savings program, is similar to many well-established services that help encourage saving and investing by rounding up dollar amounts on purchases which then get contributed into investments. Think of it like finding the spare change in your actual couch and automatically adding it to your couch potato strategy.
The second is the new Cashback Rewards program. This new feature appears to offer Questrade clients a way to spend their way to savings via cash back rewards from a variety of retailers. Similar to ebates/Rakuten, purchases made at different online merchants will provide shoppers with a cash back bonus for those purchases. The cash back amount can then be deposited directly into a Questrade account automatically.
In either case, these are timely programs to have arrive just before the holidays and when online shopping season hits a crescendo. More strategically, these new features also help Questrade stand out amongst an increasingly commoditized and crowded field of online brokerage service providers.
Despite an initial mixed reaction from investors and skepticism on the part of clients seeking out lower commission rates, this idea from Questrade is quite savvy even if it is not original. Questrade can lean on the successes from similar programs, such as Acorns in the US and Moka (recently acquired by Mogo Financial) in Canada, all of which are built on a premise of small amounts adding up to material gains. Undoubtedly, it is going to play well with the personal finance discussion groups and influencers who recognize that sometimes being disciplined about saving is hard; anything that makes building the habit of saving and investing easier is likely to win support.
One of the early critiques of the Cashback Rewards program is that Questrade has pulled together a list of merchants offering deals that most online investors don’t find compelling. There are a handful of recognizable names and a heavy concentration of shopping mall gift card-linked offers, so the successful uptake of this program will be correlated to the kinds of offers that Questrade can negotiate in. By comparison, rewards programs offered by Canadian financial service providers, such as RBC Rewards, or even like Rakuten, illustrate just how sophisticated these reward programs are.
As we noted in our coverage of Questrade in the soon-to-be-released Look Back / Look Ahead feature magazine, this year Questrade elected not to provide a submission highlighting what they’ve been working on. Nonetheless, there has clearly been activity and new features being brought forward, so it is curious that even with this new program that the rollout has been quiet out of the gate.
It’s clear that Questrade continues to innovate; however, what also is clear is that they are expanding beyond just the online brokerage space – a trend that other online brokerages in the US have demonstrated is necessary to retain clients from having to access other financial service providers for things like credit cards or bill payments. Their acquisition of Community Trust in 2019 helps to explain why Questrade Financial Group is hiring for roles related to digital banking, and even in roles related to their online brokerage site, they are looking to drive growth in the banking side of their business, the clearest signal yet of where they intend to move into next.
Against the backdrop of broader ambitions in the traditional banking and financial services realm, the latest product launch of RoundUP and Cashback Rewards programs seem aligned with a bigger picture to create ongoing relationships with online investors beyond just the world of investing. Tying real world purchases to the online investing accounts through credit cards and bank accounts gives Questrade important insights into spending patterns of their customers, better enabling Questrade to provide support and content (among other things – like mortgages) to clients in a more meaningful way.
And, if moving into the traditional banking offering is part of Questrade’s roadmap, it also stands to reason that the economics of offering commission-free (or lower commission fee) investing options would change. After all, National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage managed to take a “big picture” approach to what their online investing clients could represent in terms of business opportunities for other lines of business, and if the math made sense to them, it could certainly do so for Questrade.
Deal-ightful News: RBC Direct Investing Promo and Scotia iTRADE Offer Launch
It might have taken some time, but like the thrill of last-minute shopping, promotions from RBC Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE joined the pool of online brokerage offers this past week.
In terms of the latest promotions, however, there are some noteworthy differences from the trend of cash back offers that have been dominant through the launch of RSP season promos. The biggest difference: the reappearance of commission-free trades.
The latest promotion from RBC Direct Investing is a huge 100 commission-free trade offer, with those trades being good for up to two years. This is by far the biggest commission-free trade deal we’ve seen since a similarly sized one offered by National Bank Direct Brokerage (before they went fully commission free), and both the quantity of those free trades as well as the duration of time that clients could use them make it incredibly competitive. To boot, there is no minimum deposit required to qualify for this promotion, which immediately positions this offer at the top of the list for any online investor seeking out deep value for active trading or doing some major portfolio reorganization. It is impossible to say where exactly things will end up in two years’ time; however, the fact that RBC Direct Investing is willing to extend such a long runway for commission-free trades is perhaps a sign of an experiment playing out in real time. Either way, this is an exceptional offer that other online brokerages (who still charge commissions and even those who don’t) are going to be compared against, especially given RBC Direct Investing’s feature set (in particular real-time data).
While at first blush it may seem like Scotia iTRADE is content to rely on their regular playbook of promotion structure, their latest tiered promotion of cash back or commission-free trades shows that they’ve been doing their homework (and reading the Roundup!) when it comes to strategic deposit amounts.
It helps to view the latest cash back promotion from Scotia iTRADE against its bank-owned brokerage peers to see the deposit levels at which Scotia iTRADE is competing the most aggressively for deposits.
The first tier that jumps out is the minimum deposit level. Scotia iTRADE is the only one of the online brokerages to have minimum of $5,000 for a deposit, and the associated cash back amount of $100 is tied with the only other bank-owned brokerage with a cash back bonus at that deposit tier (TD Direct Investing). In fact, Scotia iTRADE keeps pace with TD Direct Investing’s cash back offer through deposit tiers up to $100,000, after which point Scotia iTRADE’s cash back bonus leaps to $500, matching the leader at that tier, CIBC Investor’s Edge. What delivers bonus value to anyone signing up for the Scotia iTRADE cash back promotion, however, is that those individuals also receive a temporary commission rate of $4.99 per trade (flat!!) – effectively, a 50% discount on the standard commission rate – until the end of July 2022.
As we referenced in prior Roundups, Scotia iTRADE has been quietly going through a “rebuilding” mode, as evidenced by their front-end website refresh and winding down of their Twitter channel. This latest offer reveals some signs of activity, however, and that they are willing to keep pace with peer firms when it comes to trying to attract new clients.
A quick look at their Google reviews showcases concerns that have been voiced very publicly online, and as such, as competitive as their offering may be, it may hold greater appeal with existing clients rather than new clients who are learning about this brokerage for the first time.
The latest launch of new promotions at this point in the calendar year is a great indicator of the high degree of competition between online brokerages. The biggest rush of interest to self-directed investing is likely behind us, however there is greater awareness of trading online (especially among younger investors) and it’s clear that the effect that National Bank Direct Brokerage’s move to zero commission rates has had across the board. While most online brokerages aren’t lowering standard commissions to zero (yet), the commission-free trades are getting more numerous, cash back incentives higher and commission rates dropping (even temporarily). Combined, those factors clearly paint a picture of a world in which pricing for self-directed investing will continue to decline.
Preview: Look Back / Look Ahead Magazine
The end of a calendar year is a fitting time to reflect on the events of the past twelve months, while also casting a gaze forward as to what to look forward to. We’re not alone in that activity, as numerous political and business leaders are taking the time to comment on what they thought the most important developments were for the past year.
This week coming up, the latest issue of Look Back / Look Ahead magazine is set to publish, and included in it are some very insightful perspectives by a cross section of senior leaders of Canada’s online brokerages. In this issue, we asked all participants a series of questions about what investors can expect from their firms, what interesting trends they noted, and in particular, what they see coming in the year ahead.
All Canadian online brokerages that we cover on SparxTrading.com were invited to participate, free of charge, and were given the opportunity to speak directly and freely to Canadian self-directed investors about the challenges and triumphs of 2021.
Naturally, the industry being as competitive as it is, many online brokerages were not going to reveal all of the things they’re working on; however, it was refreshing to see that among all the participants, there were some candid discussions of new features slated to arrive in the new year.
The online brokerages that provided submissions to this year’s issue include:
We also provided coverage of the rest of the field based on what we saw as important and noteworthy developments during the year, and where things could go for those firms in 2022.
Among the big trends that we noted for 2021, multiple online brokerages called attention to the shift in demographics of their client base to a decidedly younger group. Stats vary, but in the order of 20% to 40% of new clients joining online brokerages in Canada this past year were under the age of 35. This has tremendous implications for what online brokerages are focusing on, and we can already see what several brokerages are committing to as a result. One tangible feature that is in focus is investor-oriented content to support new investors.
We also asked about client experience, and how each firm interprets that component of their service offering. While we doubt anyone would talk down their service experience, there were clear and tangible activities shared by online brokerages as to what they intend to do in the area of providing strong service to online investors.
On the topic of zero-commission trading, there were some intriguing answers – especially from the firms that have not yet lowered their commission rates to zero. It’s clearly something that has been discussed, and in fact, will continue to be evaluated as the market continues to evolve.
There were several notable new features coming soon that were discussed by online brokerages in this issue. One, we believe, will be significant (dare we say huge) and will serve as a catalyst for self-directed investors to seriously consider brokerages based on this one big feature. Other features being telegraphed will undoubtedly address certain pain points with mobile and digital experiences that will hopefully contribute to self-directed investors remaining where they are.
Beyond the online brokerages already operating in Canada, we also took a look at the companies that have all provided some indication of interest in launching new online brokerages in Canada in the near future. Names such as Mogotrade, Tradezero, FreeTrade, and, infamously, Tastyworks, are set to make history if they all are able to come to market in such a short amount of time. Realistically, we understand the regulatory process is neither easy nor fast when it comes to launching a new brokerage in Canada; however, none of those firms mentioned are standing still on the issue of going live in Canada as soon as is feasible to do so.
Finally, this issue happens to coincide with the 10th anniversary of SparxTrading.com’s launch. It’s hard to fathom that a decade has gone by, and through that time, we’ve been covering the ups, downs, and sideways of the online brokerage industry in Canada, as well as in the US. We provide some fun behind the scenes snippets of the journey to this point, and in stepping back to look at the bigger picture of the state of the industry, as well as the needs of online investors, we see our role and mission as more important than ever to deliver on. It’s abundantly clear (to us) that we’ve also grown a sizable community of online brokerage industry stakeholders, followers, and online brokerage enthusiasts, and we’re really excited to reveal what we’ve got planned next for this community in 2022.
Be sure to sign up to our newsletter for recaps and updates (including the first look at the magazine) and follow along on our social media accounts for highlights from the Look Back / Look Ahead.
Thanks to all the firms that submitted and participated in this year’s magazine, as well as to the readers and supporters of Sparx Trading that have helped us make it to year 10, conveniently X in Roman numerals. Here’s to the next X.
Into the Close
At the time of publication, markets are poised for a bumpy start to a shortened holiday week. And, as financial services firms also sound the alarm to retreat and work from home through the winter to ride out the Omicron blizzard, we’re mindful that this is going to be a turbulent week. Volatility is going to be high, so despite travel bans and lockdowns starting to take effect, anyone who is a student of recent history is going to get a chance to witness a rerun of market turmoil and trading activity spikes. For traders, that’s about as bittersweet as it gets at this time of year but all we can do is buckle up, be kind, and hold on. We’ll be publishing the next edition of the Roundup a little later than usual courtesy of the holidays, but between now and then, thank you for joining us this year, and from all of us at Sparx, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and restful holiday season!