Posted on

Online Brokerage Weekly Roundup – February 22, 2022

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.

Key Takeaways

  • 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.

Increasingly recognizable names, such as National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage, and even big players, such as TD Direct Investing, have introduced this pricing outright, or in the case of TD Direct Investing, are taking a phased approach.

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.

Emerging Convergence

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:

Canadian Online BrokerageGlobe and MailSurviscor
BMO InvestorLineB+82%
CIBC Investor’s EdgeB-75%
CI Direct TradingB80%
Desjardins Online BrokerageC+76%
HSBC InvestDirectD+66%
Interactive BrokersBn/a
National Bank Direct BrokerageB+69%
Qtrade Direct InvestingA93%
RBC Direct InvestingB-81%
Scotia iTRADEB91%
TD Direct InvestingA-89%
Wealthsimple TradeI20%
Date of PublicationFeb 4, 2022Dec 20, 2021

To figure out a conversion scale between letter grades and percentage scores, we relied on the grading scheme used by the University of Toronto, since that was the university selected as the “best” post-secondary institution in Canada (according to the most recent Maclean’s rating).

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.

Comparing Rankings

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.

Combined Scores

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.

Posted on

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – November 29, 2021

Just when we thought things couldn’t take a turn for the bizarre, Black Friday showed up, and with it, a whole new COVID-19 variant of concern. As a result, markets rapidly sold off, but as this edition of the Roundup is going live, there seems to be some enthusiasm that things will get better from here. 

In this edition of the Roundup, we review Qtrade Direct Investing’s latest move to launch real-time account opening, as well as look into the stats and rankings of online brokerages from Surviscor. As always, we serve up some healthy investor culture to end on. 

There in an Instant: Qtrade Launches Instant Account Opening

In a world where we can do almost anything online, it shouldn’t seem like instant account opening is a game changer, and yet, it definitely is when it comes to the world of online investing in Canada. 

This past week, Qtrade Direct Investing announced the launch of “real time” account opening for self-directed investors, and in doing so, has managed to get a highly-prized feature ready just in time for the start of RSP season. Importantly for Qtrade, this feature now enables them to provide a competitive onboarding experience relative to other Canadian brokerages that already have digital applications in place. 

Aside from being incredibly convenient for customers to be able to open accounts online, the speed with which an investor can get up and running has become an increasingly important determinant of whether or not investors will ultimately select a particular online brokerage. One only needs to look back at the past 18 months to see that the two major waves of self-directed investor interest tested the existing capabilities of online brokerages to be able to sign up clients fast enough. 

On both sides of the border, and in fact across the globe, self-directed investors poured into the stock market in unprecedented numbers. And, despite investors encountering long delays on customer service channels, as well as manual processes to actually complete an application, they nonetheless stuck it out because the opportunity (at least in the eyes of any traders) was there. 

And while it is difficult to predict whether or not something like the pandemic-driven sell-off in stocks will ever happen again, it is nonetheless important to acknowledge that the investor pool has dramatically changed. Those self-directed investors that have now become active in participating in markets have very different expectations about how quickly an online brokerage needs to be available to jump on fast-moving market opportunities. 

While online account opening seems like a natural feature for the online brokerage industry to adopt, the reality is that Canadian online brokerages have been fairly slow at doing so. Even with a more “digital” experience, approval times to get up and running can still take a few days. 

Another trend that has emerged over the past year relating to getting started quickly is in terms of funding accounts. Opening an account is only half the battle – there has to be a quick way to fund the account as well to be able to capitalize on market opportunities. In the case of Qtrade Direct Investing, opening an account is now faster, but funding it will still take time. Conversely, competitors of Qtrade, such as Wealthsimple Trade and Questrade, have digital account opening procedures and the ability to fund accounts right away, albeit with limited amounts. 

Heading into this RSP season, Qtrade Direct Investing has managed to address an important component of the onboarding process. In what is often a scramble to get an account opened or funded, Qtrade clients and those considering choosing Qtrade are in for a pleasant surprise. Conversely, the handful of online brokerages that still require printing or physical signatures of documents are increasingly going to be relegated to the sidelines until they can match the speed and efficiency of the instant account approval process. 

Ranking File: Questrade Notches Second Consecutive Top Mobile Experience Ranking

While the end of the year is typically the ramp up to RSP season, there’s also another important season for online brokerages that shows up around this time of year: online brokerage rankings.

This past week, financial services research firm Surviscor published their latest online brokerage mobile experience rankings, and it seems like this year there were a few surprises, as well as a fair share of tough love doled out to Canadian online brokerages.  

Before diving into the results, it is key to mention that when it comes to online brokerage rankings and ratings, methodology matters (a lot). Ultimately, the goal of online brokerage rankings is to be able to compare brokers to one another using some structured criteria. In this case, the mobile experience rankings are intended to measure the overall user experience of a self-directed investor via a phone or tablet device. 

Importantly, Surviscor uses a fairly comprehensive set of measures that assess various aspects of the service experience. Those components are then collated into six categories that can be used for a high-level view of the “mobile experience.”

Five of the six items that Surviscor reports on with respect to mobile experience at online brokerages include: 

  • Opening an Account
  • Navigational Design
  • Account Management
  • Market Information
  • Market Notifications

This year’s review covered 11 Canadian online brokerage firms. The four firms that were not covered were HSBC InvestDirect, Canaccord Genuity Direct, Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage, and Interactive Brokers Canada. Interestingly, as part of the summary of the results of this year’s review, Surviscor revealed that while all online brokerages analyzed were invited to participate, several of them declined to do so. 

While the ranking data alone was interesting to see, to add deeper context on the ranking, we also gathered the scores associated with the above mentioned categories. In doing so, there are some fascinating observations of the state of mobile experience as defined by Surviscor.

The first important note to point out is that Questrade’s Edge platform was the one that was evaluated and not the recently launched QuestMobile. There has been considerable controversy among self-directed investors, in particular on user forums, about the switch to the new QuestMobile look and feel on the desktop platform. It is therefore important to distinguish between the way in which a user will interact with a platform on a mobile device compared to a desktop. 

Looking at the overall ranking more closely, the top three firms in the ranking, Questrade (77%), BMO InvestorLine (73%) and TD Direct Investing (72%) were relatively close to one another. Similarly, firms in positions six through nine were also very close in terms of overall ranking (range 54% to 57%). One very interesting result was just how poorly Wealthsimple Trade (33%) performed on this evaluation. Anecdotally, the aesthetic and user experience/user interface for Wealthsimple Trade is something that many self-directed investors specifically highlight as a positive feature. In this analysis, however, other than the account opening category, Wealthsimple Trade came up at or near the bottom of peer firms. 

Another interesting thing that jumps out from the full data set is that almost all online brokerage mobile apps do a poor job of notifications. Only four firms did not score 5%, with BMO InvestorLine scoring the highest in this category (95%). Market notifications are a particularly important feature for active investors, so it is curious to note that more firms would not make this component a more refined experience. 

One more pattern that emerged from the data is the correlation between navigational design and rank. In general terms, the better the navigation, the higher the ranking. That said, it was also interesting to see that navigation ranged from 67% to 90% and in this category; Wealthsimple Trade was a real outlier at 3%.

In the categories of Opening an Account, Account Management, and Market Information, the data show how variable the mobile experience can be in these categories. From a user perspective, this is the definition of hit and miss. It highlights some of the challenges associated with creating rankings and ratings, namely that there are some features that certain online investors will prefer and prioritize that others won’t. 

The mobile experience for self-directed investors in Canada, according to Surviscor’s latest report, has room for improvement and innovation. It seems like most online brokerages have managed to do a decent enough job of navigation but outside of that, there really isn’t a consensus from an industry perspective on what defines mobile experience. One goal to aspire to would be to do everything in an online brokerage account on a smartphone that you could do on a computer. 

From an execution standpoint, Surviscor didn’t hold back on a critique of some of the players in the online brokerage industry. The biggest critique, however, was that there was no app that “wowed” the rating team at Surviscor. There isn’t the kind of innovation or pace of innovation in the Canadian market that exists in other markets, such as the US. 

For self-directed investors looking for an online brokerage and for which mobile trading capabilities are important, this analysis is a great way to dive into the nitty gritty. There’s clearly work to be done by the online brokerages to provide a better trading experience. However, the tricky part will be understanding what clients generally want. 

From the forums

Live and Let Trade

In volatile markets, fortunes can change in an instant. For that reason, having access to accurate information on the latest stock prices is crucial to getting visibility on the best entry or exit points on a trade. In this post from reddit, one user looks to the self-directed investor community to find out which services other investors are relying on for real-time data.

Beware the Deals

Heading into RSP season, there’s no question that online brokerage deals and promotions are in full swing. Among the deal types, cash back offers are the most popular, but they’re not without some important considerations. In this post from, one forum user asks an important question about getting a cash back bonus for a registered account. 

Into the Close

Just when we thought we were out of the woods, Omicron surfaced and volatility came back into stock markets in a hurry and just in time for the weekend. It didn’t help matters much that the US had their shortened work week (because of Thanksgiving).  If there’s at least one silver lining, it’s that this time around, the world is much more prepared than previously. Stay safe and kind!

Posted on

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – August 2, 2021

While Canada being on fire at the Olympics is a definite plus, Canada is literally on fire (at least in this neck of the woods in BC) this long weekend. Despite the hazy skies, ambitions at Canadian (and American) online brokers are pushing faster and higher.

In this long (and smoky) weekend edition of the Roundup, we jump into the latest updates from the deals and promotions section, highlighting a new offer from a popular online brokerage. Next, we do a quick sweep of some interesting developments, including new stocks available for trading at Wealthsimple and the brave new world for Robinhood now that they’ve IPO’d. Finally, there is some fascinating fodder in the forums to cap your summer reading list off.

Deals Activity Update – August

It’s the start of a new month, and as such, time to check in on the latest deals and promotions from Canadian online brokerages. This summer (and year) has been filled with surprises, and this month, there’s a positive surprise in the form of a new offer from Qtrade Direct Investing to kick things off in August.

Before diving into the details of the promotions active this month, it’s important to highlight that August is the start of the final quarter of the fiscal year at many Canadian online brokerages. Why that matters is because this final stretch of the year offers brokerages a chance to bring their full year numbers up. While trading volume isn’t something that brokerages can directly impact, attracting assets and new accounts are. And, one of the fastest ways to do that is with promotional activity.

Looking first at the newest offer in play, Qtrade Direct Investing has an interesting promo aimed at the FOMO crowd: 50 commission-free trades. One of the reasons this promotion is interesting is because it lives up to its FOMO name, with the deal only lasting until the end of September. Another FOMO angle is that only the first 100 people to sign up for this account are eligible to receive it.

While limited time offers are not unusual, short term (one to two month) offers are fairly rare and combining these offers with a limited quantity feature is virtually unheard of at other brokerages. This is not the first time Qtrade Direct Investing has tried the limited quantity approach, but the titling of this offer as a “FOMO” promotion is targeting this deal to millennial investors who would have likely also seen this labelled applied to GameStop and AMC trading earlier this year. The fact that the deposit requirement is a minimum of $10,000 also significantly lowers the hurdle for younger investors to be able to take advantage of it.

Promotions generally take time and effort on the part of online brokerages to configure and manage, so there have to be additional benefits to the exercise that go beyond just the new accounts. One of those additional advantages would likely be understanding what kind of demand for online brokerage accounts currently exist.

Earlier this year there was an unmistakable tsunami of interest in opening new accounts; however, as the year has progressed, there has been a definite pullback in the number of new accounts opened. The launch of a new promotion at a typically quiet time in the calendar year might be a way to gauge whether DIY investors – especially younger ones – are still keen on trading.

Two other online brokerages on the deals radar this month are BMO InvestorLine and Scotia iTRADE.  Both of these bank-owned brokerages have promotions that are currently scheduled to conclude at the end of August. In the case of BMO InvestorLine, there is a strong likelihood that a new offer will appear to replace the outgoing promotion; however, for Scotia iTRADE, it is not entirely clear whether there will be another special offer coming.

The good news for DIY investors is that the quiet period for promotional activity is almost over. In all likelihood, the combination of the end of the fiscal year and a surge in new feature releases means that online brokerages are going to be more inclined to either test some creative offers or launch some campaigns that will last into the mid-fall when the ramp up to RRSP season kicks off.

Online Brokerage Quick Updates

Wealthsimple Trade Enables Hundreds of Canadian Securities Exchange Listed Stocks

When it comes to online brokerages in Canada, Wealthsimple Trade represents an interesting case. On the one hand, there is a clear value proposition with zero-fee trading commissions for Canadian-listed securities, on the other, there is a limited availability of those shares for trading because stocks have to meet certain price and volume criteria.

This past week, Wealthsimple Trade took a significant step forward in increasing access to a big chunk of a Canadian-listed stocks by enabling access to just over 200 stocks listed on the Canadian Securities Exchange (CSE). The CSE is home to Canada’s largest contingent of publicly-traded cannabis companies and also has stocks in blockchain and esports, all areas in which the core audience of Wealthsimple Trade are interested in trading.

For the CSE and Wealthsimple, this is clearly a win-win. Wealthsimple Trade has achieved a unique position in the online trading landscape in Canada, having reaching a critical mass of importance that enables it to challenge larger and older online brokerages despite not having all of the features of those other brokerages. By closing that gap between themselves and the existing competition, Wealthsimple Trade is well-positioned to benefit from any big movements in the cannabis space that could reignite investor interest in the industry (e.g. any movement on legalization in the US). On the CSE side, more access to retail investors also means more possible trading to take place on their market, ultimately translating into greater potential revenue.

Memes in the HOOD

If there’s one name in the US online brokerage market that’s been in the news practically all year, it’s been Robinhood. Earlier in the year, it was a rollercoaster ride of emotion from hero to villain, as Robinhood found itself in the middle of a public firestorm from DIY investors who wanted to ride on the “meme stock” train only to find themselves shut out of trading those stocks by Robinhood.

The fallout from the meme stock controversy has still not subsided, and despite what would ordinarily been considered a blowout year of performance, there is a clear overhang on the Robinhood story that clearly had an impact on what should have been an exceptionally big deal of Robinhood going public via IPO.

The Robinhood IPO and the journey to this incredible milestone will almost certainly be the focus of business case studies, more so as a question of what went wrong. The fact that the stock was priced at the lower end of its range and that it still fell on opening day (and for a few sessions afterwards) point to clear pessimism on the part of the investing public. Until the market can accurately discount the risks for activities such as payment for order flow (and where regulators may elect to clamp down) as well as some of the liabilities, there will be a constant uncertainty to what Robinhood should be worth. The bigger challenge, however, is how Robinhood will fare as a public company in order to grow its revenue to make it an attractive investment over the long term. They have a massive account base (22 million at last count) so there is room to monetize that, and it’s not just any account holder, it’s the prized millennial segment that so many online brokerages and wealth managers are only now ramping up to try and win over. Robinhood has a six-year head start on this group. The question, ultimately, is how Robinhood intends to grow its earnings.

One interesting feature about Robinhood is that because of its line of business, it can be a better proxy for ordinary online investors than Interactive Brokers can. In the case of Interactive Brokers, their target is more active investors, including day traders, so there is some limitation as to what can be interpreted when Interactive Brokers releases its trading figures. Another interesting feature we can expect as well is that in order to grow earnings in what might be a declining level of interest in markets (compared to 2020 and early 2021), Robinhood will have to innovate and that could open up a slew of new features and components that Canadian online brokerages can look to for inspiration as they too wrestle with how to attract and win market share with millennial investors.

There is much more on the new chapter in the Robinhood story, so be prepared for this name to become cemented into the psyche of retail investors and wealth management everywhere.

From the Forums

Fractional Shade

Some stories you find in the spotlight, others you find in the shade. And in the case of this forum post on reddit, there was clearly a lot of shade being thrown by Interactive Brokers Canada at the whole Canadian fractional share trading story.

The shots fired by Interactive Brokers Canada management at Wealthsimple Trade and the latest innovative launch of Canadian Depository Receipts at Neo Exchange are unlike anything we’ve seen from the normally spotlight-shy brokerage. Ironically, despite having access to fractional shares for years, Interactive Brokers Canada has not heavily marketed this feature and as a result, Wealthsimple Trade and now the new CDR feature have stolen the innovation thunder away from Interactive Brokers. See what sparks were flying among online investors here.

Help with Homework

DIY investing requires doing some degree of homework, especially when picking an online brokerage to start trading with. In this post from, it is fascinating to see the degree to which some online investors would prefer to seek out answers to questions from fellow DIY investors rather than addressing questions directly to online brokerages or digging around on a website for answers. While at first glance it may seem like trying to take the easy route out, long customer service wait times and website navigation are some of the unseen reasons why sometimes even simple questions get raised in forums instead of addressed by online brokers themselves.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this short-week edition of the Roundup. Here’s hoping you’re managing to stay safe and squeezing in relaxation before what is shaping up to be a very busy September.

Posted on

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – June 28, 2021

There’s no doubt about it, summer is here. While the prescription for most folks is to take it easy, online brokerages have been doing anything but resting up so far this year.

In this month-end edition of the Roundup, we focus on the launch of a new trading dashboard by a big bank-owned online brokerage who is hoping to make strides with the active DIY investing crowd. More new features abound as we highlight announcements at popular online brokerages and some associated chatter from the DIY investor forums.

RBC Direct Investing Launches New Trading Tools

As any seasoned online investor knows, being adaptable and capable of change is a prerequisite to finding new and interesting opportunities to invest in. That said, when it comes to the platform and interface used to pursue those opportunities, changing things around can often be a stressful affair – especially for those individuals who like to have things “just so” or who are familiar enough with the way things have been for some time. Inertia, it seems, is the enemy of momentum.

This past week, one of Canada’s largest and most recognizable bank-owned online brokerages, RBC Direct Investing, officially announced the launch of yet another new feature this year: a new trading dashboard.

At its core, the trading dashboard is intended to provided active investors with a nimble environment in which to manage and execute trades of stocks and ETFs. Actively trading stocks is more time and opportunity-sensitive than passively trading stocks, and as a result, the features required to make and act upon decisions quickly need to be able to support that.

As popular as RBC Direct Investing may be with investors, one of the areas in which several of their bank-owned peers, such as TD Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE, have managed to outcompete RBC Direct Investing has been in the active trader segment, specifically because of the trading platform experience.

The existing (and now “Old”) RBC Direct Investing trading dashboard provided some of the essential features of a trading-focused user experience, such as the ability to efficiently place trades, and monitor watchlists and level 2 activities.

In the newest incarnation of the active trading experience, RBC Direct Investing has maintained the purpose of the trading dashboard, which is to provide a streamlined trading experience, but has completely redesigned how users can manage information related to tracking and trading stocks and ETFs.

Of the many changes to the user experience that the new trading dashboard introduced, one of the most striking is that the new dashboard enables significant customization of how information gets organized.

By using floating windows, known as widgets, inside of a “workspace,” a user can organize account information, watchlists, charts, quotes, and more in virtually any layout that best suits them. And with five workspaces that can be easily navigated through, there is enough opportunity to track a respectable amount of information quickly and efficiently.

Another huge improvement to the trading experience is the charting on the new trading dashboard. Although it takes a little getting used to, once over the learning curve, there are multiple chart indicators that users can do research with. And, for active traders, it is nice to be able to look for different kinds of technical setups as well as to create notes on the charts themselves. Being able to annotate things like entry and exit points along with reasons on the chart is a big time-saver.

Ironically, one of the biggest strengths of the new approach to design and rendering of trading-oriented information is that with so many moving parts, finding where things are is going to take some getting used to. While watchlists are at the core of the transition from the old system to the new, not all the information about a security that was available in the old version is available in the new (yet).

On that last point, it is clear that RBC Direct Investing is actively collecting feedback on their new trading platform experience, and will (likely) be continuously working to enhance the offering for DIY investors, so this new platform will still evolve from its current state. The nice thing about the configuration of the design is that it is very modular, so changes and improvements can be made without negatively impacting all clients and new enhancements.

In turning to design and modern interfaces, the new dashboard feels more at home in 2021 than does its predecessor. That said, the new interface also has new jargon for DIY investors to have to learn in order to navigate this platform. For example, labels such as “Hub” and “X-ray” do not clearly convey what those things do, which then requires users to learn and remember this information. If there’s an area in which the dashboard will have to be mindful, it’s focusing on being intuitive while at the same time providing something unique to the brand.

Recognizing that active investors and traders have different, and likely more complex, needs and requirements than novice investors, the new trading dashboard is a step in the right direction for RBC to provide these valuable segments of users with enhanced functionality. By enabling a highly customizable interface, the platform experience can be configured by the user and thus change along with their changing needs and preferences. If there’s one thing that can be counted on, it’s that the world of DIY investing is going to continue to change. The challenge for all Canadian online brokerages is whether or not they can keep up.

More Online Brokerage Features Keep Coming

RBC Direct Investing wasn’t the only Canadian online broker making big feature announcements this past week. Three other online brokerages had new features to showcase, which is a clear signal that the self-directed investing space is going to be incredibly busy heading into the end of the year.

All of the new features will undoubtedly need to be marketed as well, so it seems like even though new items are going live in the summer, they’re going to be around and in the spotlight for quite some time.

Here’s a run-down of some important new developments:

Interactive Brokers Launches Credit Card in Canada

Convenience has always been one area that bank-owned online brokerages in Canada have enjoyed a clear advantage over independent brokerages. Whether it’s Canada Post, tech giants like Apple, or retailers like Walmart, the walls around the banking business are being pursued on a number of fronts. This past week, the credit card landscape in Canada just got a little more crowded, and the online brokerage space a whole lot more interesting, as Interactive Brokers Canada announced the arrival of the prepaid Mastercard for Canadians.

This credit card has been available to Interactive Brokers clients in the US for several years, and offers incredibly low interest rates. The fact that it is now being rolled out into Canada is a signal that this program can be delivered cost effectively and with a high degree of confidence. In short, Interactive Brokers has likely figured out how to position this service to its clients – many of whom are active traders – as a way to deepen the relationship with these clients.

While the headline and interest rate will undoubtedly get the attention of financially savvy investors, the details for this card will certainly be a bit of a barrier to adoption. In particular, there are restrictions on the number of point of sale transactions that can be done in a day, as well as limits on withdrawals and purchase amounts.

That limitation in mind, combined with the ultra-low interest rate, suggests that this product offering may represent an alternative to having to tap into a HELOC. With an advertised interest rate of 1.63% (at the time of publication), it will almost certainly raise some eyebrows. In several reddit forums, it has already generated an interesting discussion regarding how and when this kind of card could be useful.

Questrade Bulks Up on Research

This past week, Questrade announced its latest feature category: more robust research. Using “big data” to process multiple input points, the new service for Questrade clients, called TipRanks, aggregates and reports investor data and provides tools for DIY investors to conduct additional research.

While research may not seem like the most popular user feature, in reality it makes a big difference to finding or validating a trading decision. Historically, Questrade has lagged behind its peers in the research component, however, this latest foray into the research pool will be interesting to watch.  

From the Forums

Who Let the Doge Out?

This past week offered Canadian online investors a boost as Wealthsimple added 14 new coins to its suite of cryptocurrencies offered to trade. With so many coins available to be traded now, users on this reddit post weighed in on the expansion of crypto trading at Wealthsimple, and shared what coins they’d love to see become available.

Mass Market

With a clear interest in increasing the accessibility of investing, is it any wonder that marketing would need to be involved? Cue Wealthsimple Trade, who was called out in a (mostly respectful) exchange on reddit. At issue is the saturation of advertising for Wealthsimple Trade and how clients and observers are “not over it.”

Into the Close

Canada Day is just around the corner, and the week ahead will be shorter because of the statutory holiday. Similarly, the US statutory holiday the following week will also slow things down on the trading front for Canadian DIY investors. Wherever you choose to spend this year’s holidays, we hope it is safe and restful.

Posted on Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theme 1: Agility

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

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

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

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

Theme 2: Communication

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

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

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

Theme 3: User Experience

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

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

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

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 23, 2020

The most fundamental view of how the stock market works is a balance between supply and demand. As the past few weeks have now shown, there are clearly some places where there’s an oversupply and some places, like grocery stores and phone lines, where demand has surged. Even so, it’s important to remember, especially at the beginning of spring, that growth is a force that will happen and that life will find a way.

This edition of the Roundup will be shorter than usual, as the one big story that matters and is on everyone’s mind is COVID-19. In particular, we will highlight the responses to the COVID-19 crisis that different Canadian discount brokerages have posted to their websites and what interesting things have emerged as a result. Not departing too far from the norm, we’ve also corralled comments from DIY investors on Twitter and in the investor forums.

Canadian Discount Brokerages Provide COVID-19 Updates

It’s safe to say, almost everyone is impacted by COVID-19 and Canadian online discount brokerages are no exception.  Over the past two weeks, there have been a slew of updates from most of Canada’s discount brokerages informing their clients of how they are prepared to provide support during this extraordinary time.

The overall theme emerging from these various messages is that DIY investors looking to get in touch with their online brokerage should be prepared to wait.

Call volumes are up and so too are volumes on other channels, such as email.  The net impact is that systems are currently overwhelmed and investors will face delays. At a time when markets are facing unprecedented volatility and market circuit breakers are being tripped, systems are particularly vulnerable to being unable to support the flood of actions that normally would be quite low.

While many market observers, including those who advise passive investment strategies, are doing their best not to look at markets or even to sell off investments, there is only so much “loss” that investors are prepared to take in the face of a totally unprecedented event. There have been financial crises and recessions before, but nothing at the speed and scale at which COVID-19 is moving.

As such, this pandemic is testing the planning and resourcefulness of all online brokerages. In reviewing the different responses from Canadian discount brokerages, the messages that some chose to provide came from the parent bank, if they were bank-owned brokerages, whereas some came directly from the online brokerage themselves.

Here are some interesting and important highlights from the COVID-19 messages posted on Canadian discount brokerage websites:

BMO InvestorLine

BMO InvestorLine referenced the features and service options that can be accessed online, as well as their modified call centre hours. Although their message was focused primarily on service, they also pointed site visitors to the BMO parent page on COVID-19 which had more general information.

CIBC Investor’s Edge

At the time of publishing, the CIBC Investor’s Edge was displaying an alert for website visitors to expect higher than normal wait times on call centre channels. Also, they were encouraging individuals who wanted to open an account to consider doing so using their online account open feature.

Interactive Brokers

Though this message came from the head of Interactive Brokers (and thus not a message directly referencing to Interactive Brokers Canada), it nonetheless acknowledged the global nature of this online brokerage. The CEO’s message mentioned that Interactive Brokers has invested significantly in the robustness of their trading systems, and even in light of the heightened volatility, they are confident in their capacity to operate. Interestingly, they revealed that they have multiple fail-over options for running their organization remotely, should one of their trading operation centres go down.

National Bank Direct Brokerage

National Bank Direct Brokerage directed users on their website to an announcement from the parent brand which detailed a reduction in branch hours and, in some cases, temporary closure of branches to minimize in-person contact. There was also a link provided to a Facebook live video answering questions about the market volatility.

Qtrade Investor

Qtrade Investor reiterated their commitment to providing service to their clients and mentioned plans put in place to enable call centre staff to work remotely should it be necessary. In addition, they highlighted services that would be available for investors to access online and provided a couple of articles that helped to explain market volatility.


Questrade’s message, like those from its peers, indicated the increased wait times on their client service channels. Importantly, they mentioned that they are allowing document drop-offs only at it their Toronto retail location and are encouraging customers to submit documentation online instead.

RBC Direct Investing

RBC Direct Investing’s COVID-19 message contained important information on their response plan, as well as some of the issues they are encountering. While they did specifically mention telephone wait times as an issue, they also directly referenced the fact that they have been fielding lots of interest for new account opens which have added to delays and wait times. Importantly for documents that need to be submitted to RBC Direct Investing by mail, they are still available to receive those documents.

Scotia iTRADE

The COVID-19 response statement on the Scotia iTRADE points visitors to the COVID-19 information section of their parent brand, Scotiabank. This landing page contains a substantial amount of information about the Coronavirus, as well as important personal financial tips and updates on what the bank is doing to mobilize. In the note from their CEO, it was also revealed that in the past week, delays to their system were, in part, the result of their call centres receiving close to 80,000 calls per day, with calls to mortgage and loan teams up 500 percent.

Expectedly, things work differently at different online brokerages, and just because statements do not appear on websites does not mean or imply that steps are not being taken or communicated to clients or stakeholders. The statements on COVID-19 responses ranged between very matter-of-fact and somewhat inspirational in tone. There were messages which, encouragingly, recognized the efforts of call centre and customer-facing staff who are working hard to service clients at this time, as well as to clients for their patience.

In spite of the different messages, there were two recurring themes: that Canadian online brokerages (and financial services providers) stand ready to help customers and that they believe we will get through this together. These are key messages to remember – even for those who may be stuck on hold for what seems like an eternity. Waiting in lines might be the new normal for some time and it is simply a reminder of the fact that as digital as things are with online trading, there is still a large part of this industry that is driven by and relies on people being there.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week


From the Forums

Time and Time Again

On Reddit, users engaged in a lively discussion around a video on whether this market crash may or may not be different from those before. Redditors go back and forth on the narrative being constructed around this event in this post.

Ramping Up While Hunkering Down

In this post, Redditors discuss the merits and drawbacks of putting money saved by working from home and social distancing back into the stock market. Other users weigh in on how their plans for adjusting to ever-changing circumstances are going.

Into the Close

Another new week, and another start with Dow Futures hitting the “limit down.” There are currently no signs that trading will be any less volatile this week, as the largest economies in the US go into lockdown. Fortunately (or unfortunately), civil society and private industry have mobilized faster than many governments to make up for lost ground. Our hope is that all of our readers, their loved ones and the communities in which they call home stay calm, safe and healthy. Please remember to thank all of the front line workers – from hospitals to grocery stores – who are working so hard to keep us all afloat.

View this post on Instagram

It’s week 1 of this quarantine, and things are already getting weird.

A post shared by Ellen DeGeneres (@theellenshow) on

Posted on Leave a comment

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – December 16, 2019

Heading into mid-December, there are clearly lots of numbers being thrown about. The number of shopping days left until Christmas, the countdown to the end of the year, and the exact deadline for trades to be counted for inclusion in 2019. To add to the pile, there are also numbers to consider that measure the online brokerage industry in Canada – which for some folks is like getting an early Christmas present.

In this edition of the Roundup, we take a deep dive into the latest online brokerage rankings to be released ahead of the end of 2019, and look at the impact that big changes in definitions can have on how investors ultimately decide which online brokerage is best. After that heavy dose of numbers, we’ve layered on some interesting comments and reactions from DIY investors in the forums and from Twitter to close things out.

2019 Online Brokerage Rankings: Focus on Experience over Price

Just in time for the end of 2019, there was a fresh round of online brokerage rankings for DIY investors to review as they do their financial planning for the year ahead. The annual Canadian discount brokerage rankings from financial services analysis firm, Surviscor, were released this past week and featured some interesting results on the pool of Canadian brokerages.

For DIY investors, rankings and ratings from third party agencies help to provide insights into what the client experience is like at particular Canadian online brokers. In Canada, there are three primary rankings that investors typically turn to – the Globe and Mail’s annual online brokerage rankings, the Online Self-Directed Discount Brokerage Rankings by Surviscor, and the J.D. Power & Associates Self-Directed Investor Satisfaction Study.

Expectedly, each of these rankings and ratings measures different aspects of the online brokerage segment and provides a rating based on their respective view of what separates the best online brokerages in Canada from their peers. For DIY investors, this translates into a somewhat muddled experience where different rankings and ratings provide different perspectives on the question: “which online brokerage is best?”

It is against that backdrop that the most recent iteration of Surviscor’s Canadian discount brokerage review offers some fascinating insights and also provides important lessons for DIY investors relying on rankings for researching online brokerage accounts. In particular, because of significant changes to how they have defined their Canadian online brokerage review in 2019 and what the resulting effects are for interpreting the rankings, it is important for DIY investors to look more carefully at the latest Surviscor rankings to understand how those changes impact potentially important decisions around choosing an online broker.

Starting with Definitions

An important but easy to overlook detail about the difference between the 2019 Surviscor rankings and the 2018 rankings is seen in the respective press releases associated with the rankings data release. In the 2019 rankings news release, it states:

“Surviscor’s proprietary scorCard methodology measures over 3,600 objective usage-related criteria questions over six independent categories, each weighted according to industry importance through direct feedback with industry firms.”

However in the 2018 news release, the following was stated:

“Surviscor’s proprietary scorCard methodology measures over 4,000 objective usage-related criteria questions and reviews each firm by 9 independent categories, each weighted according to industry importance through direct feedback with industry firms.”

Thus, the first important difference appears to be a change in the number of criteria and in the number of categories that are being used to assess Canadian online brokerages in 2019.

As seen in the table below, the categories that did not make it into the 2019 assessment were related to service experience, mobile experience, transactional experience, and cost of services. This selection of categories substantially changes the way in which an online brokerage is evaluated as a whole – shifting the focus to certain components of the experience.

2018 Categories 2019 Categories
Initial Experience Initial Experience
Service Experience X
Mobile Experience X
User Experience User Experience
Account Experience Account Experience
Market Analysis Experience Market Analysis Experience
Transactional Experience X
Investing and Planning Experience Investing and Planning Experience
Cost of Services X

Another important qualifier to the 2019 Surviscor rankings is that these rankings are purposefully attempting to measure the overall “self-directed online brokerage experience” for desktop users. The rationale for the significant change to this year’s study was to focus “on the pure online usability experience to better determine the best online/desktop platform for Canadians.”

Diving into Numbers

Those important contextual points considered, this year’s ranking saw Qtrade Investor still manage to retain its position atop Surviscor’s rankings for the fourth consecutive year. While this is a laudable feat in such a competitive field, it is noteworthy to see that this year the gap between first and second place (TD Direct Investing) came down to one percentage point – a gap that has never been that narrow in the four consecutive years that Qtrade Investor has topped these rankings. Rounding out the top three this year was Scotia iTRADE, a bank-owned online brokerage which has traditionally had a strong showing in these rankings and is back on the podium in 2019 after having placed fourth in last years assessment.

When transactional, service, mobile, and cost data are removed from the evaluation criteria, the 2019 online brokerage rankings paint an interesting perspective of the field of DIY trading service providers. Immediately, the relative advantage that “low-commission pricing” provides is removed in the 2019 rankings.

Three of the four lowest cost online brokerages occupy the lowest three positions when it comes to the “online brokerage experience”: CIBC Investor’s Edge (ranked 10th), National Bank Direct Brokerage (ranked 11th) and Interactive Brokers Canada (ranked 12th).

Clearly, it is important for DIY investors to note that the “best online brokerage” doesn’t necessarily translate into the lowest cost online brokerage nor the “best value,” since commission prices appear to be heavily factored out.

Even with most online brokerages now charging standard commission pricing in the sub-$10 per trade range, events in the US online brokerage space as well as recent moves by brokerages such as Wealthsimple Trade (which was not featured) and National Bank Direct Brokerage point to a significant enough gap in pricing that DIY investors could still see merit in switching brokerages to realize savings on commissions. In other words, DIY investors are still price sensitive when shopping for online brokerages.

The performance of the Canadian online brokerage field in 2019 as measured by the Surviscor rankings is interesting in and of itself. Removing price factors as well as mobile and service features, however, introduces a substantial degree of variability in the scoring when comparing results year over year, and paints the picture of an industry that – other than the excluded factors – is generally getting it right when it comes to “online brokerage experience” for DIY investors.

One of the first interesting characterizations was noted by Surviscor in their press release as a “surge” in performance by TD Direct Investing moving up three ranking positions from fifth place in 2018 to second in 2019. We took the extra step of crunching the numbers on the gainers and decliners for 2019 compared to 2018 to highlight the magnitude of performance difference. Indeed, TD Direct Investing did “surge” a remarkable 22 percentage points from 69% in 2018 to 91% in 2019.

That said, a positional shift (or surge) also took place with two other firms: Desjardins Online Brokerage and HSBC Invest Direct. The latter of these was particularly interesting given the historically poor performance shown by HSBC InvestDirect on the Surviscor ratings since 2016 where it has either been second last or last. Using the new criteria for measurement in 2019, this suggests that the combination of pricing, transaction, mobile experience and service were actually dragging these firms down in terms of performance on the Surviscor rankings.

Two other firms saw double digit percentage point improvements compared to 2018: Scotia iTRADE (+16 percentage points) and Virtual Brokers (+17 percentage points). Despite these sizable gains, however, their respective rankings only improved one position, with Scotia iTRADE climbing to third place this year and Virtual Brokers rising to seventh place.

Interestingly, there were three firms that saw percentage improvements but did not see any change in their rankings: Qtrade Investor (remained in first), RBC Direct Investing (remained in sixth), and CIBC Investor’s Edge (remained in 10th).

Perhaps the biggest curiousity from this year’s rankings comes not with the advancers, but in the decliners category.

There were four firms that saw position rankings slip, however, in three of those four brokerages, there were actually increases in the percentage scores compared to 2018. This underscores a broader takeaway from the results of this year’s online brokerage rankings, which is that the quality of online brokerage experience appears to be significantly better this year at almost all brokerages. The one exception according to these results is Interactive Brokers, which plunged from seventh place in 2018 to twelfth in 2019.

Removing the factors related to price, mobile experience, transaction experience, and service experience appears to have a significant impact on the comparability of results year over year.

Compared to previous years, the year over year volatility in rankings and percentage points seen from 2018 to 2019 is significantly higher. The standard deviation in scoring in 2018 vs 2017 was 1.97 whereas in 2019 compared to 2018, this worked out to be 7.62 or almost a factor of four (3.87x) difference.

Why that is relevant to note, however, is that in comparing rankings from one year to the next, it is also important to understand that those rankings are not measuring the same set of attributes. And, it is on that particular point of year over year comparability of rankings that consumers and DIY investors need to take the streaks and the ranking shifts with a grain of salt.

To put the impact of the measurement changes in perspective, in 2018, only one firm (Qtrade Investor) scored better than 79% for overall experience whereas in 2019 there were six – or half the firms analyzed – that scored above 79%. Since 2019 to 2018 is not a true apples-to-apples comparison, however, the shift in ranking positions year over year has to be heavily qualified, as does the consecutive nature of a particular ranking. While it is true that Qtrade Investor is first overall (again), why they are first is materially different.

The Takeaway for DIY Investors

For DIY investors shopping around for online brokerages, rankings and ratings are generally a go-to resource to better understand what kind of brokerage experience can be expected. That said, it is important to note that online brokerage rankings and ratings are not static, nor do they measure the same things between rankings.

As such, while an accolade such as being named “best online brokerage” by a particular rating firm is certainly something online brokerages can be proud of, for consumers it is crucial to ask more questions about the nature of what’s being measured. In other words, definitions matter as much as the results.

In the case of the 2019 Surviscor online brokerage rankings, the focus has shifted away from a number of previously important components to focus on the desktop user experience.

The fascinating implication of this analysis, however, is that the differentiators for almost half the brokerages are on the factors that were excluded. That is to say, with so many brokerages scoring 80% or better on “experience” features, this evaluation shows the brokerages have very similar (and reasonably good) platforms and will have to differentiate themselves on other features.

The real answer (if there is one) is how these experience factors combine with the separated-out factors like mobile experience, price, and service. Strategically, Surviscor will be launching a comprehensive “Digital Brokerage Experience award” in 2020 that combines the multiple assessments into one evaluation. The challenge for DIY investors, however, is making sense of the different ranking performances and the inevitable confusion from multiple online brokerages rightfully claiming that they are the “best online brokerage.”

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Cast a Wide Net Worth

Following the loss of their preferred finance tracking tool, one DIY investor wants to know how others keep tabs on their net worth and investments. Read on for tools and tips provided by fellow forum users.

Singled Out

A DIY investor has questions about how to go about investing in a single US stock as a Canadian. See what advice other Redditors provided.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this edition of the Weekly Roundup. We’re going to be putting the Roundup on park for the remainder of 2019, so this is the official sign off for the year (unless some kind soul in the online brokerage world decides to take commissions to zero just before the end of the year). While we’ll be monitoring developments and reporting on deals updates (and potentially groundbreaking news), we’ll otherwise be in the workshop until 2020.  On behalf of the SparxTrading team, we’d like to thank the loyal Weekly Roundup (marathoners) readers for tuning in, and wish you all the best for the holiday season, and the New Year! Stay safe and profitable!

Posted on Leave a comment

Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – February 11, 2019

Now that February is here, there’s all kinds of buzz surrounding the entertainment industry awards shows like the Grammy’s and the Oscars. For Canadian discount brokerages, this month also marks an important awards window with long anticipated online brokerage rankings getting published.

In this edition of the Roundup, we take an in-depth look at the latest Canadian online brokerage rankings from the Globe and Mail’s Rob Carrick. Of course, that wasn’t the only big news to drop this past week, as the last bank-owned online brokerage standard commission fee above $10 finally capitulated to join the sub-$10 party. As always, we’ve also got some interesting DIY investor chatter to share to round things out for the week.

Who is Canada’s Best Online Brokerage? Hint: It’s a Tie

It’s incredible how fast time flies. This past week Rob Carrick from the Globe and Mail, published the  20th edition of his popular online brokerage rankings (this is the longest running evaluation of Canadian online brokerages) that delivered its signature mix of insight, evaluation and a dash of sass to report the state of the Canadian online brokerage marketplace in 2018.

As arguably the most popular online brokerage ranking in Canada, there has been a lot that has changed in the industry since this ranking first launched two decades ago. Having witnessed and reported on it all, it is especially interesting to see what Carrick homed in on for this year’s rankings.

Canada’s online brokerages were analyzed and evaluated on the following categories:

  • Client experience
  • Cost
  • Investing experience
  • Tools
  • Website

In keeping with the more recent format, letter grades were assigned to brokerages (as opposed to numerical scores) and there was a mix of objective and subjective elements to the scoring. This year, there was also one less online brokerage on the list, as Credential Direct merged with Qtrade Investor, which resulted in 12 Canadian online brokerages being measured.

Of course, the first question everyone asks of the rankings is: who won best online brokerage? Interestingly, for 2018 it wasn’t just one firm that took home the prize as Canada’s top online brokerage. This year both Virtual Brokers and TD Direct Investing shared the top prize displacing last year’s winner Qtrade Investor from the winner’s circle.

While TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers couldn’t be more different in their size, scope of services and recognizability with investors, they nonetheless both took home top marks for their efforts in catering to the mainstream investor in 2018.

Comparing scores this year to last, it is interesting to note that a significant portion of the brokerage pool made strides to improve their overall appeal to mainstream investors. In fact, in the latest online brokerage rankings, there were five online brokerages who scored A- or better compared to only one last year (Qtrade Investor). This bodes well for DIY investors who now have a strong pool of firms to choose from when it comes to selecting an online brokerage.

Online Brokerage 2018 Rating 2017 Rating
BMO InvestorLine B B
CIBC Investor’s Edge C C
Desjardins Online Brokerage C- C
HSBC InvestDirect C- C
Interactive Brokers B+ B+
National Bank Direct Brokerage B- C+
Qtrade Investor A- A
Questrade A- B+
RBC Direct Investing B B
Scotia iTRADE A- B+
TD Direct Investing A B
Virtual Brokers A B

Firms who improved slightly were National Bank Direct Brokerage (C+ to B-), Questrade (B+ to A-) and Scotia iTRADE (B+ to A-). By comparison, both TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers improved by a whole letter grade going from B to A, albeit because of different features and improvements.

There were four firms that remained unchanged year over year: Interactive Brokers (B+), BMO InvestorLine (B), RBC Direct Investing (B) and CIBC Investor’s Edge (C).F

Finally, three firms did slightly worse than last year, including Qtrade Investor (A to A-), HSBC InvestDirect (C to C-) and Desjardins Online Brokerage (C to C-). It is worFFth noting that the drop in scores is likely more because of improvements at other online brokerages rather than something that these brokerages did i.e. the rest of the field just did better.

Of course, it helps that the detailed comparisons of features were also published so that we can more closely examine where some of the variation between last year and this year appeared. One of the first differences that jumps out is the foreign exchange conversion fees. While Interactive Brokers Canada remains first in terms of having the lowest fees for forex conversions (USD to CAD), Questrade slipped from 2nd to 12th. Interestingly, Qtrade Investor moved from 6th to 2nd and National Bank Direct Brokerage from 8th to 3rd. This volatility in currency exchange fees is an interesting observation however what hasn’t changed is the extent to which Interactive Brokers is ahead of other online brokerages in terms of this fee category.

Although not as drastic as forex fees, another category that had some interesting shifts compared to last year was the website experience. One of the most notable improvements from the last set of rankings was Virtual Brokers. In 2017 they scored 2.5 (out of 5) but moved up to 4.5, on par with Questrade and behind TD Direct Investing who maintained their 5 out of 5 score. Interestingly, there were a number of scores that declined – even in spite of changes made to their websites over the time between the previous rankings and the latest one. National Bank Direct Brokerage’s website experience score stands out with a score of 1 in spite of a website overhaul that took place in November 2018. Their previous site scored 2 (out of 5) so the drop is a particularly tough break.

As a group, it was also interesting to see how bank-owned brokerages fared. TD Direct Investing (5) and Scotia iTRADE (4) had the strongest website experience scores however their peers didn’t do nearly as well. In fact, the average score of remaining big five bank-owned online brokerages was 1.8, an indication that, according to Rob Carrick, there is still considerable room to improve.

When it comes to determining which online brokerage is best, it is always important to understand exactly how that title is defined.

The 2018 Globe and Mail online brokerage rankings are now in their 20th year and arguably Rob Carrick has one of the best perspectives and context on how the industry has evolved over the time he has been covering it. Even so, it is important for anyone shopping for an online brokerage to note that these are primarily his opinions of what brokerages are doing well (or not). One of the most helpful components aside from the rankings themselves is actually the comparison details which accompany the rankings and provide additional information on features each online brokerage offers.

What is also interesting about this year’s rankings is that they are open only to subscribers of the Globe and Mail.

By putting this highly coveted ranking behind a paywall, there are already ‘gripes’ from online readers who have come to expect this information to be available freely. Of course, the internet being the internet, the popularity of this content means it already has surfaced almost in its entirety on a forum thread for DIY investors.

Why this matters is because unless these rankings are made more publicly available, they will be restricted to the readers of the Globe and Mail (and savvy, forum dwelling investors), which in turn erodes the reach and impact of the ratings. Although this is not the first time this content has been put behind a subscriber paywall, it will no doubt challenge investors to wonder whether they really want to subscribe to the Globe and Mail just to access these rankings. For frugal, tech savvy DIY investors, that’s going to be a tough sell.

Scotia iTRADE Quietly Lowers Standard Commission Prices

If a commission price drops but nobody is paying attention, is anybody going to save? Despite what is an important development in the Canadian online brokerage space, there has been almost zero chatter, buzz or activity online related to the drop in standard commission pricing at Scotia iTRADE last week.

The standard commission price at Scotia iTRADE is now $9.99 per trade, down from the $24.99+ which it has managed to maintain since the wave of commission price drops kicked off by RBC Direct Investing back in February 2014 (for those keeping score, that’s five years ago).

The decision to remain defiant on dropping commissions for so long, however, has appeared to have taken its toll on the most vocal digital users – young investors. By effectively pricing out this group from adopting and potentially evangelizing this online brokerage, Scotia iTRADE is now forced to play catch up.

The issue, however, runs deeper than that. Scotia iTRADE’s $24.99 commissions routinely earned the ire of some DIY investors on Twitter, which means that there is also a lot of negative earned media that iTRADE has to overcome on top of trying to tell their story to DIY investors in a very crowded market.

In fact, it was an interesting decision to drop commission prices to almost exactly the levels other bank-owned brokerages are currently offering and not use this opportunity to introduce a lower standard commission price.

Given the absence of excitement about this move in the DIY investor space (and even nothing on the iTRADE website itself), it is clear that Scotia iTRADE is going to now have to throw some significant marketing dollars to inform investors that standard commission prices have dropped to what everybody else is already offering (and others are offering even lower pricing).

And, they’ll have to do it at a time when their bank-owned brokerage peers and independent competitors are heavily advertising as well. So, unless they can generate some positive buzz, getting the word out and getting people excited are not going to be cheap.

Suffice to say, Scotia iTRADE lowering standard commission pricing is a positive development for DIY investors. A major bank-owned brokerage with a strong platform, commission-free ETFs and (now) competitive pricing means that fellow bank-owned brokerages will be working a little harder to attract clients with less than the $50,000 in assets that the standard commission rates impacted.

The big hurdle for Scotia iTRADE now will be overcoming the years of negative press and doing something bigger than a giant Lego banana that will make DIY investors pay attention (in a good way).

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Chatter on the Rankings

Readers of the investor forums weighed in on the latest online brokerage rankings from the Globe and Mail. See what users had to say about the winners and other brokerages in this post from RedFlagDeals.

Sorry to Bug You

With any big technology roll out, there are bound to be a few hiccups. When it comes to handling peoples’ investments, however, the chatter around the rollout of Wealthsimple Trade reveals some simultaneously fascinating and frightful scenarios of glitches being detected. Check out this reddit thread to see what DIY investors encountered with their shiny new accounts.

Into the Close

It’s time to roll the credits on another edition of the roundup. The week ahead should be interesting as marketing departments from award winning online brokerages will find clever ways to showcase their accomplishments as investors head into the last few weeks before the RSP contribution deadline. Also coming up this week is Valentine’s Day, which is timely given that investors have been showing the market lots of love to start of 2019 – which may (or may not) change with all of the big earnings announcements also poised to be published this week too. As any seasoned trader knows, however, it’s best not to get emotional over (or fall in love with) any stock, no matter how attractive it might seem. Have a great week!