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Online Brokerage Promotions – May 2022

*Updated May 17* No Jedi mind tricks here; there is literally not much to see in the deals and promotions category for May. Deals have gone dark for the moment with most offers that were launched for RRSP season formally closing out or receding into “YMMV” territory, where they’re offered on a case-by-case basis to select individuals.

While the pullback in deals and promotions is not uncommon at the start of May, what is unusual this time is that stock markets are tanking, interest rates are rising, and many first-time investors that made up a huge portion of the momentum in online account openings are going to be returning back to the office, and, thus, not able to pay attention to market fluctuations the same way they did at the beginning of the pandemic.

Adding to the mix of challenges, more options for DIY investors to choose from are coming to market (including more commission-free online brokerages) and a prevailing narrative among online brokerage rankings that the industry seems to have stagnated in terms of innovation.

In short, Canadian online brokerages are going to be facing exceptionally challenging terrain when it comes to new client acquisition and growth.

If only there was a way that they could attract the attention of online investors without having to lower their fees to zero or compromise their service experience. *Ahem* deals.

As we approach summer, there is only one Canadian online brokerage (so far) that is getting in front of the “rising interest rates” environment by leaning into an interest-themed promotion: National Bank Direct Brokerage (NBDB). If there’s one online broker that other Canadian brokerages probably don’t want to have grabbing more spotlight right now, it is NBDB – a bank-owned online brokerage offering zero-commission trading.

If only there was a way that online brokerages could also play defense without having to resort to an all-out price war. *Ahem* deals.

With the uncertainty around markets likely steering older online investors away from jumping into the market and competing priorities for younger investors interfering with getting started in the market despite declining prices, this is likely to set the stage for Canadian online brokerages to consider using more promotional activity (or bigger offers) to attract attention while simultaneously offering up some measure of defense against new entrants and ambitious existing players.

Although the deals activity is dark at the moment, there’s definitely a disturbance in the Force that could provide some very compelling deals in the near future. Stay tuned.

Expired Deals

Two important offers formally expired at the end of April.

The first was Qtrade Direct Investing’s cash back promotion. This Qtrade promo was historic in several respects, as it marked one of the rare times that an online brokerage actually revised an existing promotional offer upwards during RRSP season. Another important first was that this tiered promotion was one in which Qtrade matched or led some of the highest offers that were available, making Qtrade’s offer one of the most competitive across the board (not something we typically see).

Also sunset (for now?), the RBC Direct Investing 100 commission-free trade promo. This was one of the most ambitious commission-free trade offers yet from RBC Direct Investing, as it gave clients up to two years to use 100 commission-free trades.

Extended Deals

*Updated May 6 – Like a good comeback plot from the Star Wars franchise, it looks like there’s a new episode to celebrate for the RBC Direct Investing commission-free trade promotion. The same 100 commission-free trade offer is now available until the end of June (albeit with an updated promo code). As reported earlier, RBC Direct Investing’s commission-free promotion provides clients with 100 commission-free trades which can be used for up to two years.*

No deal extensions to report on just yet.

New Deals

*And just like that, it looks like deals action is heating up faster than Ontario weather. Hope you have AC for this deals update. Two big online brokerage names, CIBC Investor’s Edge and Qtrade Direct Investing have dropped new commission-free trading offers – and at least one of these is a game changer.

Commission-free trading just took a big step forward with CIBC announcing they’re going to offer commission-free trading for younger investors (aged 18-24) – a move from a bank-owned brokerage that will undoubtedly challenge other Canadian online brokerages to act decisively on commission-free trading (of some kind). The offer is linked to having a CIBC Smart Account (for banking) and it offers free trading for Canadian and US stock and ETF trades. To boot, they’ve also waived annual account fees for registered accounts. Oh, to be young in 2022.

For those over the age of 24 (and those younger than that too), there’s another promotion to be excited about. Qtrade Direct Investing has launched a new commission-free trading promotion that offers 50 commission-free trades which are good for up to a year. This offer is live until the end of August.*

No new online brokerage promotions to start the month; however, we’re monitoring chatter on possible commission-free trade offers that are in the works. Check back soon or follow along on Twitter for more updates when they happen.  

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Look Back / Look Ahead 2021-2022: National Bank Direct Brokerage Q&A

Q&A with National Bank Direct Brokerage. Claude-Frédéric Robert, President.

What can beginner investors expect from your firm? 
At National Bank Direct Brokerage, young and new investors are cared for and guided from the very beginning of their experience. As with all our customers, they will pay zero commissions on stocks and ETFs, and if they are under 30 years old, there are no annual administration fees.  

We support beginner investors with an enhanced ETF Centre, an easy-to-use filter tool, and ETF research reports from Morningstar and National Bank Financial. NBDB offers the necessary tools to trade, but we also offer the educational component to get started.

We have tailored webinars ideal for beginners, a YouTube channel where we publish instructional and educational videos, and several other tools that allow new investors to gain confidence and make informed decisions.  

What can active investors expect from your firm? 
Active investors benefit from the best pricing with zero-commission on stocks and ETFs, and they can trade options at $1.25 a contract (min $6.25) with access to our high-performance transactional Market-Q tool. We are also working on providing pre- and aftermarket trading online for 2022.

What does user experience mean at your firm? 
At NBDB, we value customer experience. That is why we routinely send surveys to our customers to better understand their needs. This valuable information is then used to guide our decision-making, whether it be for tools, services, or any other aspect of our business. We are customer focused, and that is why our customers’ opinions are considered daily.

What sets your firm apart from your peers?
NBDB has become a disruptive force within our industry. We may not be the biggest direct brokerage in Canada, but we are always looking to distinguish ourselves from our peers by being the first to offer zero commissions that benefit every investor, and offering innovative tools like OptionsPlay and services like our Fully Paid Securities Lending, which are not offered by the competition.

This Q&A was featured in the Look Back / Look Ahead magazine.

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Online Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 22, 2022

Spring has sprung, and with it a renewed focus on growth and optimism for what’s ahead. Interestingly, online brokerages have also embraced a new season now that the RRSP season is over, and this one focuses on active investors.

In this abbreviated edition of the Roundup, we focus on deals and promotions offered by zero-commission online brokerages. Dive into the details of the newest promotions to emerge and what they signal for existing and potentially incoming online brokerages to consider. To wrap things up, we focus on investor commentary related to retirement accounts and slow-moving platforms.

New Deals in Town: Zero Commission Brokerages Continue Using Promotions to Drive Interest

The universe certainly has a sense of balance. When commission-free trading at Canadian online brokerages started to ramp up last year, deals and promotions at those same brokerages quietly faded away.

The break from deals and promotions at these brokerages, however, seems short-lived.

Earlier this month, National Bank Direct Brokerage (NBDB) quietly launched a new promotion offering discounted margin rates to new clients, and in doing so, signaled that despite their market-leading position on commission-free trading in Canada, they’re still prepared to get creative to attract new business.

Hot on the heels of the 2022 RRSP season, the timing of a launch of a new offer is also indicative of a new target audience: active traders. Trading on margin is not something that people thinking about retirement or RRSPs typically consider first, so the timing of this offer to go live after the RRSP season rush makes sense.

National Bank Direct Brokerage is not alone in that reasoning either. Wealthsimple Trade also launched their own limited-time offer aimed at the non-registered account crowd. Although their offer of a “free stock” cash back equivalent is ongoing, the boost to the amount for referrals to 3x the normal amount is clearly intended to generate some buzz.

Offering a promotion to attract new clients is a tricky proposition for a “zero-commission” brokerage.

After all, part of what should keep costs low is the controlled spending on acquiring new assets and customers. That said, when looking at the current group of “zero-commission” online brokerages in Canada, not only is the number of firms small (currently three) but two of the three firms are not well-known across Canada

Uncertainty Begets Volatility

When it comes to choosing an online brokerage, one of the biggest hurdles facing this specific group of zero-commission brokerages will be the uncertainty associated with them.

Unlike the entrenched Big Five bank-owned brokerages or names, such as Questrade and Qtrade that have been around for many years across Canada, the current group of zero-commission brokerages faces an uphill journey to become known and, more importantly, trusted.

A recent quote from Mike Foy, Senior Director of the Wealth Management Practice for North America at J.D. Power sums up the issue:

“Investors are increasingly bombarded by information from numerous sources including social media. We see the single biggest driver of online investor satisfaction with their broker is trust.”

Now that the surge in new retail investors coming to the market has somewhat abated, the challenge to Canadian online brokerages will be to create online investing tools and experiences that cater to this new group of investors and yet-to-be investors. And this is where promotions can offer a tactical advantage.

The latest promotion to launch from National Bank Direct Brokerage focuses on margin interest rates and serves as a good example where zero-commission brokerages can look to in order to attract attention while at the same time keeping costs contained. Although cash back or commission-free trades are welcomed, they’re not the only place that self-directed investors incur fees.

This past RRSP season demonstrated that online brokerages are spending aggressively on cash back promotions to attract new clients. For zero-commission online brokerages, pure cash back promotions are unlikely to be pursued because the costs may be prohibitively high. And as National Bank Direct Brokerage showed, there are now other costs that are up for negotiation.

Active is Attractive

National Bank Direct Brokerage’s focus on margin rates is a clear overture to active investors. The hope, it seems, is that in addition to the zero-commission trading commissions, there are other reasons to consider NBDB for a trial run or even as a separate or additional account.

Unless the direct competitor to NBDB, Desjardins Online Brokerage, follows suit with a similar offer, this latest deal will give National Bank Direct Brokerage an interesting combination of features worthy of a closer look by active self-directed investors.

With interest rates increasingly coming into focus for the next two years, getting a substantial break on higher interest rates for even a short time could be the catalyst that gets online investors talking about National Bank Direct Brokerage once again. And if there’s one sure fire way to achieve greater consideration in the online brokerage segment, it’s through the honest and unfiltered positive commentary of investors.

By lowering their commission prices to zero, National Bank Direct Brokerage has already ignited a conversation among online investors as to why they should pay attention to NBDB. This latest move seeks to steer the conversation once again in favour of this bank-owned brokerage. The key question, however, is who investors will stop talking about now that National Bank Direct Brokerage’s newest promotion is live.

From the Forums

Moving Day

There’s probably a reason that changing financial service providers is deliberately harder than it needs to be. This post from Reddit is fascinating because it highlights the challenges associated from moving accounts from one provider to another, but even more so, because it is a question about moving pension accounts – something that signals there are more than Millennials and Gen Z readers tuning into Reddit for information and guidance.

Not So Fast and Furious

“Time is money” takes on a whole other layer of meaning when it comes to trading online. In this Reddit thread, there is a chorus of complaints from active investors who find one online brokerage’s platform to be moving too slowly for their liking.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another Roundup. Although it was a bit of a light week (a March break?) heading into start of spring, “green shoots” are starting to appear in terms of investor education activities. We’re looking forward to the nicer weather and a chance to get out and about more, and we’re not alone. So, it will be interesting to see how the reopening starting to take place will impact the ability of online brokerages to capture and hold attention over the next few months. In the meantime, enjoy the signs of spring!

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – January 6, 2022

Happy New Year and welcome to 2022! The start of a new calendar year is typically the time of year when we all struggle with writing the correct year for a few weeks and then eventually get the hang of (or accept) being in a new place. Ironically, time distortion is a hallmark of a pandemic, and aside from not knowing what day of the week it is (every day is sweatpants day!), it seems that timing was topsy-turvy at online brokerages in Canada and the US. But this is the definition of the new normal, and like markets tend to do, we’re embracing the ability to adapt with the times.

Change is a big theme in this mega-edition of the Roundup. First, we dive into the biggest review of Canadian online brokerages: the Look Back / Look Ahead for 2021/2022. This in-depth look at the latest issue picks out some important themes that impacted Canadian online brokerages and self-directed investors in 2021 and what’s in store for 2022. Next, we recap the year with memes & themes in an epic rundown of the big (and small) stories of 2021. So, in case you missed the past year or simply just need a quick(ish) primer on what happened with Canadian online brokerages in 2021, be sure to read through this ultimate roundup of Roundups. Finally, be sure to get to the end for an important announcement on the schedule changes to the Roundup coming this January.

Online Brokerages Review 2021 & Offer Exclusive Preview of 2022

When given the opportunity and spotlight to speak directly to online investors, what did Canadian online brokerages have to say about an exceptional year and how to build on top of that?

Well, we found out just that in the latest edition of the Look Back / Look Ahead series in which Canadian online brokerage leaders shared their perspectives on the past year, as well as what they have planned for the year ahead.

This year’s edition featured submissions from BMO InvestorLine, Desjardins Online Brokerage, HSBC InvestDirect, National Bank Direct Brokerage, Qtrade Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing, with senior leaders from each of these firms, sharing unique and intriguing perspectives into how various factors over the past year have influenced the priorities and direction of their respective firms going forward.

On a thematic level, it was clear that one of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the online brokerage industry in Canada was the meteoric rise of retail investor interest in trading stocks online. The stats provided were incredible. Desjardins Online Brokerage, for example, shared that 30% of their user base is between the ages of 18 and 30, and BMO InvestorLine reported nearly 50% of their new clients are under 35. And they’re likely not alone. The huge demographic shift in clients means that online brokerages are working to deliver features and experiences that align more closely with this group – including investor education resources.

Having covered the online brokerage industry in Canada for the past decade, an important theme of this issue we’ve witnessed is effort into investor education gradually recede. When Sparx Trading first launched, at least half a dozen or more online brokerages would regularly hold investor education seminars, webinars, or education-focused events. Gradually, however, as markets moved steadily higher and volatility subsided, interest in education waned, and whether it was supply or demand driven, “investor education” resources began to disappear.

Fast forward to today and it seems we are experiencing a renaissance of investor education based on the feedback from online brokerages, as well as in several of the trends we’ve been tracking throughout the industry. National Bank Direct Brokerage, for example, highlighted the fact they offer Options Play for free to their clients. This digital tool enables clients to simulate and learn about options trading strategies – something that is of growing interest to younger investors, especially coming out of the meme-stock craze of early 2021. At RBC Direct Investing, education is also on the roadmap for 2022 as is building out additional content for investors via the Inspired Investor magazine. And, at the industry giant TD Direct Investing, it is clear that investor-focused content will play an important role given their sizeable investment in building an entire content team that is likely going to be producing content at an unmatched volume.

Of course, the big story for 2021 in the Canadian online brokerage industry was the launch of commission-free trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage in August. Undeniably a surprise for many, the fact that a bank-owned online brokerage with a national footprint would be the first to offer full commission-free trading changed the competitive landscape for larger and smaller players alike. Not long after NBDB lowered their fees, Desjardins Online Brokerage followed suit. With both of these Quebec-based institutions taking trading commissions to zero, clearly commission-free trading is on the minds of self-directed investors and online brokerages alike. When polled about the issue, Canadian online brokerages revealed that they are clearly aware of it and would be looking to enhance value for investors with new features and offers rather than lower prices for trading commissions – at least at this point.

As we round the turn into 2022, however, zero-commission trading looms large. Just ahead of the end of 2021, Mogo Trade announced it had received the official green light to launch its commission-free trading app, and in our special section on commission-free online brokerages, we listed a total of four (including Mogo Trade) that we are currently tracking that are likely to come online either in 2022 or 2023. So, the reality for Canadian online brokerages is that zero-commission trading is coming, as is more competition.

Given the pace of innovation and change that are on the horizon, the Look Back / Look Ahead series provides visibility on which Canadian online brokerages are actively innovating, which firms are working on important infrastructure components, such as client experience, and which firms are clearly capable of doing both.

For self-directed investors, moving from online brokerage to online brokerage is (at least for now) a slow and painful exercise. Consumers would much rather stay where they are; however, without confidence in their online brokerage’s ability to innovate or be competitive on cost or value, alternatives are increasingly present.

Perhaps one of the most compelling stories in 2022 beyond commission-free trading will be a new feature telegraphed in the Look Back / Look Ahead from National Bank Direct Brokerage: paid securities lending.

In addition to offering zero-commission trading, the fact that clients could be compensated for lending their securities out to those seeking to short them lays a strategic foundation for NBDB to not only hang on to clients in a way that other brokerages are not (at least not yet), but it also is a draw for active traders who are looking to source shares for shorting. It’s a feature that currently exists only at Interactive Brokers, which is a signal or validation that active investors are either direct or indirect benefactors of this program. In short (pun intended), our call on National Bank Direct Brokerage in early 2021 appears to continue to play out: they are increasingly going to be an online brokerage to watch as they expand their presence across Canada. Until another major online brokerage in Canada drops their commission pricing to zero or close to it, National Bank Direct Brokerage is going to continue to be a top contender among self-directed investors looking to for a value-oriented online trading experience. Unlike other providers, however, NBDB isn’t waiting around for that to happen – they are clearly positioning themselves well with Options Play and the paid securities lending feature to be an attractive destination for active investors, as well as passive ones, and they’re working towards launching a mobile app which would only deepen the appeal with younger investors.

With 2021 now officially in the books, the Look Back / Look Ahead series is a great opportunity to get a unique perspective from industry insiders on the world of self-directed investing. As it falls on the tenth official year of the launch of, it also represents a significant milestone to have been covering the activity in this space to the depth and consistency that we have. Over the course of the decade, it’s been amazing to connect with industry analysts, online brokerage leaders, and self-directed investors to chat all things online investing. Most fulfilling, however, has been getting to be able to level the playing field for DIY investors and help, even in some small measure, make self-directed investing easier and more accessible.

True to the spirit of the Look Back / Look Ahead series, we also took the opportunity to announce the launch of Sparx Trading Pro. While it is still in development, we’re excited to be building something special for the community of users that regularly turn to for in-depth insight and analysis of the online brokerage industry. We love analytics and numbers, so a big part of what we hope to introduce is more data on what self-directed investors are interested in, and as a result, help serve as a catalyst to drive innovation.

Finally, on behalf of the entire Sparx Publishing Group organization and team, thank you to our loyal readers, visitors, and supporters. We’re amazed that 10 years has flown by, and we’re bullish on where the next chapter in self-directed investing goes from here. Thanks for tuning in!

Themes and Memes: Online Brokerage Highlights from Q2 2021 onwards

April: In with the New

From Qtrade’s new look and new name (Qtrade Direct Investing) to the preview of long sought-after features from Questrade and Wealthsimple Trade, April showered self-directed investors with the promise of new things to come.

The launch of the new brand direction for Qtrade Direct Investing was a huge milestone for this popular Canadian online brokerage. Executing a rebrand is no small feat; however, Qtrade managed to strike the right balance between a connection to what people know it for (i.e. its first name) and what it wants people to know it for. With a bold, new look and energy, it felt like Qtrade was ready to embrace the new landscape of online investing and bring something emotion into what has typically been a conservative brand.

Also looking to stir up some excitement, Questrade telegraphed the launch of a new mobile app – something that they hoped would help them compete more effectively against a design-savvy, mobile-first competitor: Wealthsimple Trade. It wouldn’t actually launch until November (see below) but the hype train on the new mobile app officially pulled out of the station in April.

And speaking of Wealthsimple Trade, new feature releases were a regular occurrence throughout the year, but one big announcement from the zero-commission brokerage was the news that they would be launching US dollar trading accounts. Long the Achilles heel for this very popular brokerage, the final form of the US dollar trading offering from Wealthsimple Trade ended up launching in December (see below).  

May: Statistics and Outliers

Strange, almost by definition, is not normal. For the (fellow) statistics nerds out there, data is a great way to get a handle on what is considered normal and what’s an outlier. This month happened to be filled with DIY investor data from all over the world.

One of the big developments was the online brokerage ranking by Surviscor, which put online brokerage fees into the spotlight. Remarkably, even before going to zero commissions, National Bank Direct Brokerage took the crown of lowest cost provider which is no small feat in a fiercely price sensitive industry.

Another watershed pricing moment came later in the month from popular bank-owned online brokerage BMO InvestorLine. In a calculated move, BMO InvestorLine launched 80 commission-free ETFs, and while they are not the only Canadian online brokerage to offer completely commission-free ETF buying and selling, the move gave both active and passive investors a compelling reason to choose this online brokerage over others (especially bank-owned brokerage competitors).

June: More New Features

Summer is typically the time for big blockbuster movies. Although the silver screens weren’t as busy this past year, DIY investor screens were filled with blockbuster reveals in the summer.

Perhaps the biggest one for Canadian self-directed investors (up until that point) was the launch of fractional share trading by Wealthsimple Trade. This highly-prized feature is something that US online investors were able to have access to from a variety of online brokerages, but for mainstream investors in Canada, Wealthsimple Trade was able to make a huge splash by bringing this trading to the masses in Canada.

The huge news from Wealthsimple Trade essentially overshadowed a lot of other new and newsworthy feature releases that month, including the launch of faster deposit times for Questrade, new advanced trading tools for clients of RBC Direct Investing, and the launch of the Interactive Brokers credit card in Canada.  

July: No Strings Attached

The Robinhood IPO and the opportunity to “buy buy buy” into the game-changing commission-free online brokerage was undeniably one of the biggest stories in the space this past year. By venturing into the public markets, it was possible to look under the financial “hood” to see how this commission-free brokerage managed to grow so rapidly, and, more importantly, how they made their money despite keeping commissions at zero. As it turned out, the prospectus for Robinhood’s IPO made for some fascinating reading.

No stranger to life as a publicly traded online brokerage, however, Interactive Brokers managed to pull off a deft mic drop moment of their own when they waved bye-bye-bye to inactivity fees for their clients worldwide. This included Canadian online investors, so it was a huge win for DIY investors everywhere who, prior to the removal of inactivity fees, were reluctant to have more than their most active accounts with Interactive Brokers. By lowering the friction to stay a customer of Interactive Brokers, this savvy online brokerage turned the math of customer churn on its head and managed to find a way to get customers to stay, even if they needed to step back from active trading for a while.

August: Coming This Fall

Twenty twenty-one was many things, but typical it was not. For that reason, we probably should have known better than to think it would be business as usual – or more appropriately – quiet business as usual. August happened to be an historic month for Canadian online investors because that was the month National Bank Direct Brokerage chose to launch commission-free trading.

Not only did National Bank Direct Brokerage take their commission fees for trading stocks to zero, they simultaneously took the vacation plans for other online brokerage leaders to zero as well.

And, while there wasn’t a story bigger than that, there was one that came close. We spotted and reported on the potential launch of yet another commission-free online broker, FreeTrade, here in Canada. In addition to Mogo Trade, FreeTrade represented yet another online brokerage interested in launching direct trading services in Canada with no commission.

Between the news of National Bank Direct Brokerage and the potential launch of another commission-free online brokerage in Canada, a clear trend is forming, and now it seems only a matter of time before existing big-bank online brokerages follow suit with significant commission rate drops.

September: Adding Up

We had to do a double take when it came to turning double digits. September marked 10 years since launched with a mission to level the playing field for online investors and “discount brokerages” as they were then known.

It has been a spectacular journey, and despite a very different landscape for online investors today, it was clear that a resource like Sparx Trading is needed as much now as it was when we first started. We also recognized that to prepare for a very dynamic future in the online brokerage space, we had to make some big changes – starting with a full redesign on the website, and in September, we also added the ability for online investors to research what other people are saying about online brokerages on Twitter and reddit, two areas which saw huge gains in participation by retail investors.  

We weren’t the only ones launching a retail investor sentiment tool, however. As it turned out, TD Direct Investing  launched the TD Direct Investing Index to measure Canadian investor sentiment in the stock market. With several Canadian online brokerages regularly reporting what their clients have been trading, this new feature from TDDI takes things to a whole new level by providing data on demographics and location, as well as sectors.

Of course, when it comes to online investors in 2021, stocks weren’t the only asset class of interest to them. In a stunning pivot (and/or a capitulation to giving people what they want), Interactive Brokers announced they would be enabling cryptocurrency trading to their clients. The big story here is that founder and very public face of Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, has been an outspoken critic of cryptocurrency for years, and so to see him personally acknowledge the material relevance of cryptocurrency as well as make the feature available to Interactive Brokers clients underscores the trading adage of “not fighting the tape.” Demand for cryptocurrency trading was simply too high despite the potential regulatory peril it could represent. Interactive Brokers was by no means the only big name in the US to adopt or support cryptocurrency trading, but it does signal that there is a sufficiently high level of interest among new and experienced investors in trading this digital asset class.

October: And Another One

And speaking of listening to customers, the launch of the QuestMobile app by Questrade generated a tonne (yes, it felt like the metric kind) of responses from clients and observers who weighed in (pun intended) on the new feature. There are only a handful of examples of feature launches from online brokerages over the past decade that generated so much response online, and the QuestMobile launch ranks high on the list of lightning rod discussion points.

Questrade’s unique success online with DIY investors ultimately became its undoing in this case because so many of its clients were not shy about providing their (negative) feedback on social media and investor forums. Regardless of the merits of the app, the roll-out of a new interface is a highly instructive case study change management, especially in an era of increasingly tech and design savvy clientele.

It seemed fitting in a month often known for trick or treating that a huge treat for self-directed investors was the announcement that (yet) another commission-free online brokerage was looking to formally launch in Canada in 2022. TradeZero, a name familiar to very active traders, indicated their plans to expand globally with Canada being an important jumping off point in that roadmap. Excluding the perennial “are we there yet?” questions about tastyworks coming to Canada, the announcement by TradeZero brought the total number of new online brokerages (new commission-free online brokerages) looking to launch in Canada in 2022(ish) to three. In the decade prior to 2021, the number of commission-free online brokerages that were publicly looking to launch in Canada was exactly Wealthsimple Trade long (we announced this back in 2018).

Finally, October was also the month where Virtual Brokers officially rebranded to CI Direct Trading. It had been just over four years since CI Financial acquired Virtual Brokers in 2017; however, the highly recognizable low-cost online brokerage had clearly been paring back on news and announcements post-acquisition. In an interesting (cryptic?) move in September, Virtual Brokers announced its name would be changing; however, it didn’t specify what it would be changing to. Nonetheless, 2021 brought some answers as to what’s going to happen next with Virtual Brokers / CI Direct Trading, and as we saw through the year, rebranding is big project but does set the stage for some transformative moves.

November: Let the Games Begin

In a month that has now become synonymous with bargain hunting, November didn’t disappoint for DIY investors either. There was a dizzying amount of news to report on but the biggest story for self-directed investors in Canada was the unofficial (but now kinda official) launch of RSP season. While the contribution deadline comes at the beginning of March 2022, the deals and promotions for online trading accounts have now started to appear at the beginning of November, and 2021 was no exception. Some big players in the Canadian online brokerage space came out swinging early, among them, CIBC Investor’s Edge and TD Direct Investing, both of which provided a preview to the highly competitive promotional offers available this season.

Another big theme for this year was in the non-bank-owned online brokerage group launching features to help self-directed investors get started and funded as quickly as possible. Qtrade Direct Investing announced the launch of rapid account opening knocking down the time required to open an online trading account at Qtrade from days to minutes. While getting an account opened quickly is a huge step forward, another big hurdle to clear is account funding. Competitor online brokerages such as Questrade and Wealthsimple Trade worked feverishly in 2021 to address instant account funding (albeit with limited amounts).

On the topic of opening accounts quickly, Robinhood, the poster child for rapid growth in online brokerage accounts, in 2020 and 2021 reported earnings, and for anyone keeping score on their stock price recently, the outlook was not great. Being winter, the phrase “getting ahead of your skis” characterizes the Robinhood story, and the now publicly traded stock has seen a massive sell off in large part because of the stall in momentum from retail investor trading. Specifically, the pull back in options and cryptotrading have clearly hurt the top and bottom lines for this zero-commission brokerage. Beyond the trading in those products, it also appears that after the meme-stock debacle, the “for the people” branding took a significant hit, something that might be keeping newer clients away from considering Robinhood as their online brokerage of choice.

And, speaking of choosing, Interactive Brokers once again reflected that the power of capitalism is ultimately in listening and providing to the market what the market wants. Ironically (or perhaps appropriately), ESG-driven trading is something that Interactive Brokers offers to its clients with the launch of their IMPACT app. Commission-free trading that enables you to make the world better through your investment decisions pretty much nails it for the demographic this app is clearly targeting.

December: Free Fallin’

Even with ice and snow on the ground, it seems like stock markets (and a couple of online brokerages) were doing all the slipping and sliding heading into the end of the year. Yet again, 2021 proved that time distortion and normalcy are not a thing because feature launches and big announcements continued to roll in despite it traditionally being a month when activity among online brokerages gears down for the holiday season.

But the giving season did giveth, or at least asketh to taketh, in the case of Wealthsimple Trade which launched a new subscription-based service. The commission-free brokerage finally addressed (sort of) one of their clients’ biggest pain points, the high cost of trading US-listed stocks by launching access to US currency trading accounts. The devil, however, was in the details, and despite the sizzle on rolling out the feature, there were many important unanswered questions about how converting between currencies would work with the subscription model.

Questrade managed to slide in some interesting new features ahead of the end of the year as well, launching a wonderfully named “RoundUP” service to help make investing digital spare change easier as well as a “cash back” shopping feature in which the worlds of online shopping and online investing collide.

Also, just casually sliding some big news in before the end of the year, Mogo Trade received approval for it to launch its zero-commission online trading platform and opened up the waiting list to be notified of the official go live date.

Finally, we shipped the annual Look Back / Look Ahead series for 2021/2022 in December (see above), and with it we wrapped up what has clearly been an eventful year with insights from Canadian online brokerage leaders. As busy as the year was in 2021, all signs point to even more activity in 2022, with new features continuing to launch, new pricing drops likely to come from existing online brokerages (who haven’t already lowered their prices), some interesting new players on the field, and, naturally, the unknown.

Into the Close

If you’ve made it to this point reading top to bottom, congratulations! Not only are you all caught up on the biggest developments in the online brokerage space for the year, but you’re also well prepared for what’s about to come next in 2022. The start of a new year is often a time for reflection and resolutions, but this new year brings even greater cause for reflection as well as celebration.

After 10 years of publishing the Weekly Roundup from pretty much everywhere life has taken me, there are only a handful of instances where publication has been paused, and they’ve been to tend to the greatest investment anyone can have: family. For that reason, the Weekly Roundup will be going on pause until mid-February.

In the interim, we will continue to be publishing deals and promotions updates, as well as monitoring and sharing interesting content to our Twitter channel and newsletter, so be sure to subscribe to those if you haven’t already done so. Also, we will continue to monitor the online brokerage space for big developments, and like all of life’s great surprises, perhaps don’t be surprised if we drop some interesting posts between now and the return of Roundup.

Until then, Happy New Year, and wishing good health, prosperity, and joy to you and your loved ones for 2022! Here’s hoping we get back to a time where can all fist bump in person again soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – September 13, 2021

During the pandemic, it’s understandable to lose track of time. Yet, there are some dates that stand out, such as September 11th, that are forever etched into the minds of those who lived through the terrible tragedies of that day. Despite 20 years going by, it is still a vivid memory for many, and though painful to reflect on, the lessons learned from that day show that hope can ultimately triumph over hate.

In this edition of the Roundup, we kick things off with a look at the new features that launched on to help self-directed investors and industry enthusiasts track and research the latest developments in the online brokerage space. Next, we report on the latest zero-commission trading chatter, with a potential big move by one brokerage and another big brokerage potentially not moving. As always, we have some interesting commentary from the forums, including the launch of cryptocurrency trading at one brokerage that rolled out abnormally quietly.

New Features at Sparx Trading

It’s been a big year of changes across the Canadian online brokerage industry as well as at Sparx Trading. In addition to recently crossing the 10-year mark, earlier this year we launched a new website, affectionately named SparxTrading 2.0, given that it had been around pretty much from the time that Sparx launched in 2011.

Suffice to say, we felt it needed a makeover to keep pace with the new world of online investing. Little did we know at the time, 2021 would also be the year in which so much would change in the world of online investing. It seems like our timing was about right when it came to prepping a new look and feel for a brave new world filled with new trading platform features, zero commission pricing, and new providers (coming soon).

This past week, we rolled out some important updates to the website which we think will help self-directed investors (as well as industry observers who want to keep up with what’s going on in the space) stay on top of the big changes heading into RSP season.

Investor Feedback Added to Online Brokerage Reviews

When it comes to researching online brokerages, one of the biggest questions online investors have is what other online investors have to say. Community is a huge part of the self-directed investor experience, however, navigating the different online sources and forums can be a bit daunting.

To help make accessing user feedback easier, we have now integrated comments made about each online brokerage on channels like reddit and Twitter and directly connected them to each online brokerage review. So, for example, the latest comments made by online investors about Questrade or Wealthsimple Trade on reddit appear at the bottom of each of these respective online brokerage reviews.

Given that some of these brokerages generate a lot of conversation online, we added the ability to filter by channel, so readers can focus on the conversation taking place on reddit or on Twitter. To help combat spam and other nefarious activities, we also have developed a filtering system, so users also don’t have to scan through the questionable materials to find the good stuff.

Finally, to make things easy to verify, we’ve hyperlinked each of the comments so anyone researching investor comments from our website can go directly to the reddit or Twitter post to see what the rest of the conversation contains.

Our system is designed to evolve and learn over time so while it is not perfect at filtering out or capturing all of what we’d like, it’s a great advancement and beats having to sift through everything about a single brokerage manually. It’s something we’re going to continue to tinker with to improve, but we’re really excited to see this feature now in action.

Deals and Promotions Section Gets Reorganized

When we first launched the deals and promotions coverage on, we were able to capture most of the information in an “at a glance” format using tables.

Unfortunately, even though our website was responsive (a big deal circa 2011-2015), the tables that powered our comparisons and the deals and promotions were not. Despite that being the case, these tables were really popular because they provided a birds-eye view of the different offers and promotions out there – a great feature for people who were browsing and for online brokerage staff who wanted a handy reference when comparing offers across the industry.

It was a big decision (and a huge amount of work) to completely refactor the deals and promotions section, but we felt it was worth it to deliver a more relevant user experience and make it more accessible to users on mobile devices. In the new format, self-directed investors can efficiently compare online brokerage promotions and offers using filters to pick what attributes are most relevant, whether that be minimum deposit amounts, account types, or offers from specific online brokerages.

In terms of the latest updates, one of the first things users will notice on the deals index page is that we’ve tidied up the design and user experience on the filter to perform more efficiently. Users can filter deals by deposit amount, online broker, account type, and deal type. Those interested in browsing can also view all deals by selecting all.

To keep advertising to a minimum on the website in what is sure to be an increasingly crowded advertising market, we wanted to find an alternative way to feature offers. There are now two spots at the top of the deals index results list for specific deals to be highlighted. These are offers that we might be compensated for either through affiliate revenue and/or via paid placement by online brokerages.

Featured Deals Snapshot

Finally, we’ve adjusted the design of the deals cards themselves to display promotions and essential information more clearly. Data about the deal, such as the minimum deposit, expiry date, and promo code, are readily visible at a glance and the details about an offer are easily expanded when needed.

We anticipate deals and promotions to play an even greater strategic role in how Canadian online brokerages navigate the new reality of a bank-owned online brokerage offering zero commission trading.

Case in point, we’ve seen a big bank competitor to National Bank Direct Brokerage, RBC Direct Investing, offer a 100% increase in the number of commission-free trades and the duration in which to use them compared to their previous offer. Specifically, new accounts at RBC Direct Investing can qualify for 50 commission-free trades for up to two years. Most passive investors will be challenged to use that up within the time frame, so those self-directed investors looking for the features of a bank-owned brokerage like RBC Direct Investing and don’t mind the premium commission price, will find a promo that can be used for up to two years compelling.

Also, there’s a lot that can happen within two years now that commission-free trading is starting to surface (see article below) and innovation among online brokerages is accelerating. Using deals and promotions strategically enables online brokerages in Canada to effectively delay the switch over to full zero-commission trading.

More Zero-Commission Trading Chatter

Another week, another big development in the zero-commission trading [storm] and another week in which other stories get bumped because zero-commission trading in Canada is kind of a big deal.

In a piece published this weekend by the French-language newspaper, Le Devoir, Desjardins Online Brokerage was reported to be waiving commission fees for clients last week. And comments in this reddit thread also seem to corroborate the reporting as well.

While we generally don’t report on rumoured activity, in our in-depth analysis of the launch of commission-free trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage, it was clear that the closest rival to NBDB would not have much choice but to either match the offer or make a substantial cut to pricing to defend its business.

There are few details to report on at this point, however, what has come through online investor chatter has been reports of clients contacting Desjardins Online Brokerage directly and having commission-fees waived. Until a formal announcement is made, there is likely to be a flood of calls and emails from clients requesting the same, which is why we expect to see a definitive (and formal) response rather quickly.

Currently, the standard commission at Desjardins Online Brokerage (aka Disnat) is $6.95 for the “Classic” option and as low as $0.75 per trade for the “Direct” option – typically the choice for active traders (defined as making more than 30 trades per month).

If confirmed to be true, the roll out taking place in this fashion is evidence that Desjardins Online Brokerage is being forced to respond quickly, and likely, reluctantly.

Unlike other online brokerages outside of Quebec, the local competition between National Bank Direct Brokerage and Desjardins Online Brokerage is extremely fierce. National Bank Direct Brokerage has set its sights on expanding nationally, which then justifies its move to zero-commissions because it can win the volume of business required to make commission-free online investing. For Desjardins, however, it does not seem like they have the same growth path in mind. With their stake in Aviso wealth, they can simultaneously cater to their core market in Quebec while continuing to benefit from higher commission pricing being charged by Qtrade Direct Investing outside of Quebec for however long that can be continued.  

Though clearly an important development, Desjardins Online Brokerage potentially being the next online brokerage after National Bank Direct Brokerage to eliminate trading commissions on equities and ETFs is still something the whole landscape of Canadian online brokerages can absorb. TD Direct Investing going to zero, on the other hand, would be a game changer.

This past week at the Scotiabank Financial Summit, comments by outgoing TD CEO, Bharat Masrani, revealed the executive view of going to zero commissions. Below is an excerpt from a discussion with Meny Grauman, Managing Director at Scotiabank, host of the virtual summit.

Meny Grauman

You talked about TD’s Direct Investing business, definitely yes, very topical. So I thought to just touch on that. National Bank and Wealthsimple going to $0 commissions and the question is, will TD match that offer? What’s the competitive response? How do you see this all playing out in the market?

Bharat Masrani

You know, Meny, we’ve been in this business I think we were the first bank in Canada to get into it in the mid ’80s I think. And, we’ve seen price compression come and go. We’ve seen lot of different sort of business models emerge out of it, and we’ve been able to manage it very well. So, is this a shocker? Absolutely not. Ours is a very large business, fully segmented and very integrated to the rest of the TD offerings. In fact, 80% of our direct investing clients have other TD products and TD relationships as well, so tells you how integrated we are.

Secondly, the offerings we have, from a very sophisticated options trading to a offerings for active traders, for offering for long-term investors, so you know there are offerings, there are specialized products available in each of these segments. And is it, I mean, you should, this should not come as a shock, but based on certain types of traders, we have special arrangements based on their needs and their offerings, and what value they need. And so, when we look at our trading commissions are taxed well, the reality is, depending on which segment you’re looking at, it could be less than that.

So I think it’s important to keep that in mind. So we feel very comfortable with our position, the offerings we have integrated with retail, the products that we offer, the services, if you look at thinkorswim platform, there’s nothing like that in the options trading business. And if a client needs that, that’s where they’re going to go.

And finally, I mean, there’s a lot of sort of, write-ups on this, but the overall commissions in this business represents about 1% of total revenues at TD. So we’ve got to keep this in perspective as to what it does to the bank, than to think that oh, my God, this is a major, major, I’m not undermining anything, every part of our business, I love every part of our business and the business model around it. But our job is to adapt to the environment we find ourselves in rather than hoping, wishing and praying that we go back to the good old days, that does not happen. And we have shown consistently that we will adapt, and we will adapt faster than others and I have no doubt that we will do so.

And another point I’d make, we just introduced TD GoalAssist, that’s a new offering there that competes very well, if a client is just requiring vanilla type of trading and services and then not the other value-added services that I just talked about. So important point is event that has occurred don’t want to underestimate as to what it means, but we feel very comfortable with the business model we have and the value proposition we provide to our customers.

There’s clearly lots to unpack from that statement, however, there are three specific data points of interest.

First, 80% of TD Direct Investing clients are also clients of other TD products and services. If this is true for TD, then it is likely comparable at other big-bank-owned online brokerages as well. The notion that Canadian self-directed investors would prefer to have the convenience of keeping all of their financial affairs at one firm is evident in that data point. The move by National Bank Direct Brokerage, therefore, is likely a play to acquire new customers that will then also want to simplify the management of their financial affairs by housing other financial relationships under the same digital roof.

The second point of interest is that revenues from commissions at TD represent about 1% of total revenue. For a finer point, as referenced in their last earnings call, the amount would be 50% of the broker dealer fees and commissions which last year brought in $860 million dollars and year to date have generated $849 million dollars. The “hit” that TD would incur, therefore, would be something that could be absorbed by the bank as a whole. For reference, TD generated $42 billion dollars in revenue in 2020 and almost $32 billion dollars year to date.

Third, and perhaps most instructive to those holding out for the big banks to make a move similar to National Bank Direct Brokerage and potentially Desjardins Online Brokerage, is that TD feels confident enough in their value proposition, in particular with their options trading platform and other elements, that they don’t need to rush to lower their commissions to zero. On this front, they’re happy to let others go first, which likely mirrors what at least one or two of the big bank online brokerages are thinking as well.

While TD is clearly stating they are ready to adapt (read: respond) if a sizeable competitor or peer firm moved to reduce their commissions substantially, self-directed investors hoping for a quick response to National Bank Direct Brokerage shouldn’t hold their breath. Movements by Desjardins Online Brokerage and potentially other smaller online brokerages seem to be inevitable in order to preserve market share. TD Direct Investing doesn’t really have to worry about that.

The rate-limiting factor, it seems, is how aggressively National Bank Direct Brokerage is prepared to advertise against competing brokerages while those online brokers maintain high commission rates. With more discussion and conversation on zero-commission trading to be almost a given, National Bank Direct Brokerage will likely be heavily referenced in that discussion, earning them a big discount on the media exposure.

That said, picking a fight with all of the other Canadian online brokerages this far ahead of the RSP season still gives competitor firms a chance to respond. And they will.

Had National Bank Direct Brokerage dropped this news in October or November, other Canadian online brokerages would have been hard-pressed to pivot their campaigns and advertising buys quickly enough.

With a few extra weeks of lead time and a healthy fiscal year performance across the board, there just might be enough capital and circumstance to warrant some pretty interesting fireworks this year. And it seems the best place for that might just be the deals and promotions section. Here’s hoping.  

From the Forums

Interactive Brokers Crypto Trading Launch

After a lot of hype around cryptocurrency trading being available at Interactive Brokers around September of this year, the actual launch of this feature was abnormally quiet. No coverage (yet) on major media but in this reddit post, online investors took notice (and we did too). More to come on this story but check out the early reactions.  

Crunching the Numbers on Motley Fool

As a very visible source of information about different investing opportunities, Motley Fool is a recognizable name among online investors. In this interesting post on reddit, one individual shared their analysis of whether the forecasts from Motley Fool lived up to the reality when it came to portfolio performance.

Into the Close

Apparently, there is lots to say (and still more to come) when it comes to zero-commission trading. There are other fascinating stories unfolding across the online brokerage space, so we look forward to highlighting those as well. At a certain point we can probably defer the reporting to a DJ Khaled meme. Until then, however, there’s lots going on between the launch of football (NFL) and the final stretch of the Canadian federal election (where people toss political footballs and, occasionally, pebbles). Whatever you’re focusing on this week, we hope you find some reasons to stay positive!

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – August 30, 2021

Truth be told, it was supposed to be a vacation edition of the Weekly Roundup. However, National Bank Direct Brokerage’s big news this week managed to make a lot of folks in the online brokerage industry in Canada put any plans for taking time off on hold (including mine).

It’s fitting that this special edition of the Roundup focuses on just one big story: the move to zero commission trading by National Bank Direct Brokerage. We’ll return with more stories next week (there were actually other things that happened too!) as well as more investor forum chatter.

Caveat: We were going to keep this initial coverage of the price movement short (well at least as short as we could). After poring over 1,000 user comments, as well as different news reports, articles, and forum posts, there’s lots to say here, but in the interest of keeping things manageable, we’ll focus on some of the initial developments and implications. Not to worry though, there’s lots more to unpack, so stay tuned.

National Bank Direct Brokerage Eliminates Trading Commissions

In case you missed it on the news, social media, and in the investor forums, National Bank Direct Brokerage made history this past week by dropping standard commissions for equity and ETF trading to zero. That’s right, the first big bank-owned online brokerage in Canada chose the “nuclear” option on pricing by eliminating trading commissions.

While it is still early days, saying this is a game changer would be an understatement.

Change, however, is unlikely to come as swift as it did in the US during their zero-commission wave in 2019, but the latest move by National Bank Direct Brokerage is sure to put pressure on all Canadian online brokers to seriously consider taking drastic measures to respond.

A History of Making Pricing Moves

Commission price drops have been a part of the trends at National Bank Direct Brokerage over the past several years, and even earlier this year. And yet, in looking at the roll-out of the new commission reality, one gets the sense that this decision was both a long time coming and pushed forward quickly to come to market this year.

For a bit of a history lesson, the zero-commission trading conversation at National Bank Direct Brokerage has been happening for longer than most online investors would think. In a bit of a personal anecdote, I recollect having a meeting with a senior executive at National Bank Direct Brokerage (NBDB) back in the spring of 2017 in which commission-free trading at Robinhood came up. At that time, it wasn’t seen as something that would gain traction with the industry, however, later that summer, NBDB launched zero-commission ETF trading on all Canadian and US ETFs. Prior to that, there were only short stints at NBDB where commission-free trading of ETFs were offered as a promotion, probably as a means to analyze the impact and popularity of this feature.

In October 2019, they dropped the pricing from $9.95 to $6.95 for National Bank clients, offered young investors (aged 18 to 30) commission rates at $4.95, and gave active investors an even lower rate of $0.95 per trade for 100+ trades per quarter. Earlier this year, in March, we also reported on a commission fee drop from National Bank Direct Brokerage in which the regular commission fee was lowered to $6.95 per trade for everyone. Incidentally, October 2019 was also the point in time when US online brokerages also embraced zero-commission online trading more broadly.

If there is a pattern emerging, it is that National Bank Direct Brokerage has been quietly gathering data on the zero-commission thesis over the past few years. It is a bold move to be “the first” one to make the move to zero, however, they clearly had a lot of information on which to place this bet.

While the timing is a bit of a mystery, the reality is that it was going to be a matter of when, rather than if, online brokerages moved to zero-commission in Canada. And, as a brand that wanted to expand its footprint across Canada, as well as its position in the hierarchy of online brokerages in Canada, going to zero commissions provided much more upside to NBDB relative to the downside.

Being the first one to do it, gave NBDB the spotlight and enabled them to set the pace of change. Case in point, everyone in the online investing community weighed in on the move.

Having covered this space for almost a decade, there are few moments in the Canadian online brokerage industry that have garnered as much interest from news outlets, social media, and investor forums alike. In fact, the news also made it to several bank earnings calls which happened to fall in the same week as the announcement. It’s safe to say that has never happened before here in Canada.

Not Everything is Free

Despite eliminating the commission charges for stocks and ETFs, National Bank Direct Brokerage did not entirely eliminate commission fees on trading options or inactivity fees.

In terms of options commission, the fixed commission cost component to the options trading commission trade has been eliminated, however, there is still a minimum charge of $6.95 per options trade and pricing per contract remains at $1.25.

That said, it is worth reviewing the revenue segmentation for Robinhood’s earnings which we covered last week, where it clearly shows that when it comes to commission-free trading, the product mix tends to favour options trading over purely stock trading. Options trading is also a lot more profitable for online brokerages than stock trading is, so there is some economic utility to keeping charges for that product intact. Although NBDB does not have all the bells and whistles or order types available on options trading that other brokerages support, the reality is that for simple strategies the functionality is there.

There are also still account maintenance fees. The annual fee of $100 for balances that are less than $20,000 still applies, as does the conditions in place to have them waived. Users can have the inactivity fee waived if they make five stock, ETF, or options trades in a year (between June 1 and May 31 of each calendar year). One source of confusion online initially was when the term “commissionable” was left in one of the conditions (it has since been updated).

Getting used to the realities of zero commission trading also means changes to the old way of doing things. One casualty is promotional offers. The 100 commission-free trade deal is no longer relevant (it was set to expire at the end of September anyway), and while it can’t be ruled out altogether, there is a low probability that cash back offers at NBDB are showing up anytime soon given the surge in interest from self-directed investors curious and relieved at this new option.

What Does This Mean for Self-Directed Investors?

Speaking of self-directed investors, the launch of a full commission-free trading experience with no limits or special conditions on US stocks or specific trading requirements is huge. The chatter online exploded as the news broke early last week, offering a rare glimpse at the various attitudes of many different types of investors all at once.

It is of little surprise to see how much interest there was online, especially in forums on reddit and that a bank-owned brokerage is offering zero-commission trading. What was surprising, even seasoned veterans, like Glenn LaCoste of Surviscor, was that a bank-owned brokerage that led with this change rather than a smaller competitor.

In fact, it is almost hard to put into words just how explosive the reaction was from retail investors to the news. While it is difficult to summarize all of the fascinating points raised by self-directed investors online, it is incredible to see that even with zero commissions, there are other features that Canadian investors value, something that could turn out to be an Achilles’ heel for broader adoption of commission-free trading at other online brokerages.

Nonetheless, in the weeks ahead, NBDB will likely be tested with a crush of new account opens. From transfers to new accounts outright, the wave of interest is more like a tsunami that will only continue to gather strength as news ripples through investor forums. It is especially attractive to younger investors (under 30) who are not subject to the minimum account balance requirements, and, thus, have almost no downside of opening an account to try out NBDB.

For very active investors and traders, the economics of this make far too much sense to pass up as well.

Granted, options traders and those using margin will still put Interactive Brokers high on their list, however, no other online brokerage in Canada is offering the competitive offer that National Bank Direct Brokerage currently is. Again, this is a major coup for NBDB across almost all segments of investors, including those fed up with paying lots of commissions for what they consider to be an “average” digital experience.

The two most fascinating angles (it is hard to narrow this down to only two), however, have been online investor reactions and the real-time test of how important mobile apps are to investors.

With well over one thousand investor comments and counting, the conversation around NBDB’s price drop contains many themes. High up on that list is the reaction that many online investors had were they contacted their existing online brokerage to ask whether those brokerages had any plans whatsoever to offer similar pricing.

That so many online investors did this was interesting for two reasons.

First, it revealed the different answers from online brokerages around this issue, ranging from “we’re thinking about it” to “nope” (paraphrasing a bit here). In some instances, online brokerages that offer lower commission prices were willing to lower the commission rates generally reserved for active traders to non-active users. In other words, online investors at certain online brokerages are apparently able to request a discount and get one.

The second reason it was so fascinating is because it revealed a nuance about the Canadian online investor which is that here (perhaps unlike in the US), investors are willing to ask questions first then make a move, rather than move quickly based on price alone. Underpinning the “ask first” approach is likely the hassle of having to move accounts, which online investors are apparently willing to endure depending on what they hear back. It was really interesting to see online investors publicly offer up “ultimatum” dates to their online broker to get zero commission trading announced by a certain date otherwise they would move altogether.

Another big point of interest is whether or not a mobile app matters more than low cost to the online investing experience. National Bank Direct Brokerage has web-based trading interface that works on mobile but does not have a dedicated mobile trading app, something that younger investors have – up until this point – been insistent is the marker of a great online investing experience.

It also important to note that the most active (and vocal and influential) online investors use their desktops or laptops when trading online. Users need or want multiple monitors when trading, especially for charting and scanning lots of news. Phones don’t do that nearly as well, so the traders that influence opinions for investors online are going to be driven by the web or desktop experience rather than the mobile one.

As the old adage says, money talks. And while NBDB is not in the same league as Wealthsimple Trade for mobile trading app user experience, the reality is that the mobile experience for NBDB (especially for the price) is “good enough.”

Again, for the sake of brevity, there is a lot to the investor reaction we aren’t reporting here, but suffice to say that all bank-owned online brokerages have likely seen a flood of questions from their clients asking about matching, as well as online brokerages in general receiving account transfer requests from clients looking to move their business to National Bank Direct Brokerage. Online investors are no longer caught between having to choose either low prices or bank-owned brokerage convenience; they can now have both.

What Does This Mean for the Canadian Online Brokerage Industry?

We’ve said it a few times, but it is worth underscoring that the commission price drop by NBDB is a game changer. Who it impacts and how immediately, however, is something we’ll be watching with intense interest.

The first online broker that lots of users have mentioned as being impacted by this decision from National Bank Direct Brokerage is Wealthsimple Trade.

Wealthsimple Trade

Though Wealthsimple Trade has tried to build its brand as the zero-commission online brokerage, the reality for their model is that trading in the US comes with some punishing forex transaction fees. This latest move by NBDB has earned accolades for being able to offer the full list of securities on the major US exchanges as well as the Canadian ones rather than have them subject to restrictions set by the broker. Already, however, sentiment among self-directed investors has put NBDB ahead of Wealthsimple Trade in a number of cost-sensitive categories.

Big Bank-owned Online Brokerages

If there’s any group that could defy gravity on commission pricing just a bit longer in Canada, it is the big five bank-owned online brokerages.

Arguably, the two biggest players, TD Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing are in the best position to not have to go zero commissions right away given their strong set of features and platforms. Responses from frontline reps, as well as from senior TD and RBC executives on earnings calls, seem to support this view.

Remarks from Teri Currie, TD’s Group Head of Canadian Personal Banking, reveal a rough estimate of what the cost might be if TD went the route of full commission-free trading, as well as what the current sentiment is on them moving price.

It is worth pointing out that the last time that the Canadian online brokerage industry saw a major repricing was in 2014, however, Scotia iTRADE managed to hold onto its 19.99+ and higher commission structure until 2019, which is a long five years for many investors.

After just launching commission-free ETFs, BMO InvestorLine might also take a wait and see approach to the commission drop rather than be the next to dive into the pool, or it might, like National Bank Direct Brokerage did, elect to start dropping prices gradually or with a really compelling promotion to buy some time heading into RSP season.

Of the big five bank-owned brokerages, CIBC Investor’s Edge, already a low-cost option, could arguably have to concede to a lower price point per trade first because it does not have the same depth of features or platforms that are currently being offered by its competitors.


Speaking of low-cost leaders, Questrade has emerged as a popular option for value-conscious online investors, so the latest move by National Bank Direct Brokerage to eliminate trading commissions is definitely a blow to the title for Questrade.

There are scenarios in which Questrade might be able to delay dropping commission pricing, however, in all likelihood, despite having a compelling brand, Questrade has sought to be a low-cost option and doing nothing doesn’t seem like an option nor does trying to reposition itself as a technology or platform leader. It has invested substantial resources in marketing themselves as a low-cost provider – if not THE lowest cost provider – so for fee-conscious online investors, they will likely be looking to Questrade to move quickly otherwise it will be investors who will do the moving.

Everyone Else

With the exception of Interactive Brokers, all other online brokerages in Canada will have to seriously reevaluate their pricing heading into the fall and 2022. There aren’t that many other online brokerages in this category, but the strength of brand, convenience, or features just isn’t there the same way it is for other online brokers.

What’s Next?

Where things go from here is somewhat safe to say; when, however, is a different story. The story is still unfolding but anyone who’s made it this far can attest to, there’s lots to unpack here.

The likely scenario we see playing out for now is that online investors will be adding National Bank Direct Brokerage to their short list of online brokerages to consider. There is quite the uphill battle NBDB faces in terms of building awareness of its platform, so it would be safe to assume there’s some big marketing pushes coming in the next few months. Even with the huge surge in online investor interest, National Bank Direct Brokerage is just not well known enough to have online investors immediately jump ship from their existing providers.

The early adopters of NBDB will serve as important points of influence to the curious, however, the good news for NBDB is that there is likely a high enough surge in new account openings that some portion of those individuals will be writing about their experiences.

As for the rest of the online brokerage industry, given where we are in the calendar year, the existing marketing plans that have been devised heading into the end of the year are going to have to be rewritten. While several online brokerages have probably got a “playbook” on how to respond to a zero-commission offering, the next few weeks and months will reveal how extensive that playbook is.

Although it has come as a surprise that National Bank Direct Brokerage was the first big bank-owned online broker to reduce equity and ETF trading commissions to zero, the reality is they’re well-rehearsed in making pricing moves while continuing to improve their service offering. By going first, they have certainly earned the attention they are now getting, however, they are also fighting the pull off some powerful forces among consumer behaviour to stay with their existing online brokerage firm.

Despite the forecast for other brokerages to adopt zero-commission pricing, one thing is clear: the longer other brokerages wait to go to zero, the more impatient online investors will get. Unlike the world before last week, Canadians have now woken up to a new option for trading online and no longer have to wait to take advantage of it.

Into the Close

Thanks for tuning in all the way! There’s still more to this story so be sure to tune into what is likely going to be a wild ride through the end of the year and into next. For now, try and recharge as quickly as you can; it seems the forecast is for activity at Canadian online brokerages to surge, thanks to the move by NBDB.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – July 26, 2021

The Olympics are a very public stage on which athletes have to be prepared to do their best. In more ways than one, this year’s games serve up some lessons to online brokerages on how to stay cool in the public eye, as well as under the pressure of intense competition.

In this edition of the Roundup, find out which US online brokerage appears to be taking the lead when it comes to innovative approaches for the new terrain of online investing and what it could signal for Canadian online brokerages looking to get creative with client experience. Next, we recap the highs and lows for Canadian online brokerages this week and close out with healthy dose of debate and chatter from DIY investor forums.

Interactive Brokers Positions Itself for a New Normal

There’s no doubt the upcoming Robinhood IPO is going to capture a lot of attention from curious onlookers, analysts, and investors this upcoming week.

As a publicly traded company, there will be a lot of scrutiny on the operations and performance of Robinhood, and a lot more information to dive into on the kinds of efforts Robinhood is going to undertake to drive reasonable rates of return to investors.

While reporting performance might be new to Robinhood, one online brokerage that has become well-practiced to life in the public markets is Interactive Brokers. This past week, Interactive Brokers held their regularly scheduled earnings call, and while there were some blisteringly high headline numbers on client growth to report on, there were several interesting things that surfaced that appear to have flown under the radar that we see as reflecting a very agile move to navigate the new normal of online investing.

Record-breaking Client Growth

There’s no question about what the headline is with respect to the latest earnings release.

Client growth compared to a year ago was up 61% to over 1.4 million client accounts. And while it may pale in terms of number of accounts when compared to Robinhood (which is estimated to have 22.5 million funded accounts), what stands out about Interactive Brokers is that the average account balance is $250,000. By comparison, the reported median balance of Robinhood account holders was $240. 

Even though Interactive Brokers has a competitor offering to the Robinhood cost model (i.e. IBKR Lite), the primary revenue driver for the online broker is still trading commissions, not payment for order flow.

There were two other interesting things that popped up in the earnings call which didn’t get much attention and one that should have gotten more attention but was not covered in the analyst Q&A.

Inactivity Fees Lower Friction to Restart

Earlier this month, Interactive Brokers made an interesting move by removing inactivity fees. On the surface, the move seemed to suggest that Interactive Brokers might be positioning itself to make an overture to some of the clients that would typically not qualify to have the inactivity fees waived – namely, individuals with less than $100,000 in assets or those who didn’t generate at least $10 per month in commissionable trades. For an online brokerage that deliberately sets its sights on active traders, this seemed a little unusual.

Fortunately, this past week, the founder (and still active spokesperson) for Interactive Brokers, Thomas Peterffy, provided additional context for dropping the inactivity fees. Peterffy stated:

“we would like to hold on to the people who have had accounts with us to run them to continue to have accounts with us even if they become inactive for a while. And so, the account is open even if they just leave a few dollars. And then, when they are ready to invest again, they will do it with us.”

Thus, the decision to waive inactivity fees was actually a move to hold onto active trader customers who would want a pause from trading. Instead of closing an account while it is not being used and potentially going to another source to reopen it when wanting to restart trading, by waiving the inactivity fees, Interactive Brokers is hoping that those lucrative, highly active traders will find it easier just to restart an existing account rather than try to open a new one.

This use case is a great example of looking at client behaviour and finding an opportunity to reduce the friction for a client who is behaviourally inclined to actively trade to be able to restart again.

As all online brokerages are aware, active traders are particularly hard to come by, so the motive behind the move for Interactive Brokers to remove inactivity fees makes a lot more sense when positioned in terms of retention as opposed to new client recruitment.

Investor Education Innovation

Another interesting development that was mentioned in the latest Interactive Brokers earnings call was an investor education initiative developed for the online learning platform Coursera. Interactive Brokers has developed and launched a specialization, entitled a “Practical Guide to Trading Specialization,” which is actually comprised of four courses covering the following topics:

  • Fundamentals of Equities
  • Forex – Trading Around the World
  • U.S. Bond Investing Basics
  • Derivatives – Options & Futures

As of the date of publication of this edition of the Roundup, the Interactive Brokers course had a 4.3 rating (out of 5) from 45 participants and enrollment of just over 2,450 students.

In addition to being free, there is a significant bonus feature of getting a “shareable certificate” which can be displayed on LinkedIn. The very interesting catch is that in order to receive the certificate, attendees must complete a hands-on project. And one of the tools that students can use in order to complete the hands-on project is the Trader Workstation (made available via free demo account), which is the Interactive Brokers trading platform.

Investor education was mentioned in the quarterly results, indicating that this feature continues to serve a strategic purpose to better educate investors on how markets work – especially those investors who are newer to investing. Interestingly, this theme is also echoed among several Canadian online brokerages who are investing additional efforts to provide educational resources to online investors, many of whom are just getting started on their online investing journeys.

For Interactive Brokers, the Coursera investor education offering is a very polished mechanism to generate awareness and interest in the Interactive Brokers platform.

Beyond just awareness, however, the fact that users are being nudged to download the Trader Workstation is a savvy move by Interactive Brokers to directly market to, if not, onboard new customers. Granted, a course as demanding as this won’t see a crushing flood of individuals flock to it; however, Interactive Brokers understands that their strategy on new customers is about quality rather than quantity. The added bonus that individuals who complete this course can share it on their LinkedIn profile will advertise the course as social proof and underpins just how innovative this latest move is from a marketing perspective.

As online brokerages here in Canada and in the US wrestle with trying to provide educational content that DIY investors will actually consume, this Coursera offering by Interactive Brokers provides an interesting example that other online brokerages are likely going to be inclined to consider replicating.

Crickets on Crypto

Of course, one of the big developments that we were listening for more information on, which surprisingly, did not get discussed on the conference call, was the launch of cryptocurrency trading on Interactive Brokers.

Earlier this year, we reported the launch of crypto trading by Interactive Brokers; however, there hasn’t been much in the way of details provided since then. Perhaps not entirely by accident, Thomas Peterffy – a notable critic of cryptocurrency – also went on record as saying that he himself now owns some cryptocurrency.

The shift, it seems, sounds like capitulation.  

Peterffy has clearly seen that there is at least some possibility of cryptocurrency becoming a valuable asset class regardless of his personal belief on the thing. Most traders understand that it’s best not to fight the tape, and for the foreseeable future, cryptocurrencies continue to be a part of where money is flowing to.

What was said about the cryptocurrency trading at Interactive Brokers was minimal – the only update we received is that there is more news to come at the end of the month.

Once again, the remarks made over the earnings call and during the Q&A component of the call provide a unique window into the mindset and possible strategic direction of Interactive Brokers going forward. While the kinds of disclosures and discussions are usually well-vetted and rehearsed, the reality is that the occasional hint or nugget gets dropped.

By their own admission, despite the strong numbers posted for the quarter, Interactive Brokers (like other online brokerages) is seeing that there is a slowdown in the pace of online investors rushing to open an online brokerage account and trade it with the same fervor that they had last year or during the first calendar quarter of 2021.

To navigate the next normal, it’s becoming clearer that new features and offerings are going to be required. In this case, it seems that for Interactive Brokers, features such as cryptocurrency trading, as well as client experience features, like reducing inactivity fees, educational resources, and ramping up of customer service are going to be important drivers to hold onto existing clients rather than purely seeking out new ones.

Canadian Online Brokerage Updates

While there’s been lots happening with US online brokerages this past week, Canadian online brokerages have also been busy juggling their own ups and downs.

On the upside, National Bank Direct Brokerage announced the conclusion of the Biggest Winner competition. The ETF picking contest, organized by Horizons ETFs and sponsored by National Bank Direct Brokerage, is now in its 10th year with National Bank Direct Brokerage, having sponsored the competition for the past nine years.

This year, there were 2,620 registrants which, according to contest organizers, was the highest registration since the first edition of the competition. The winner of the competition managed to generate a six-week return of 25.67% and took home the top prize of $7,500. Second place won $2,500 and there were six weekly prizes of $500.

For National Bank Direct Brokerage, this contest is a unique way to boost awareness of the online brokerage and position itself alongside an important selling point: the fact that they offer commission-free trading of ETFs. Of course, the challenge for all Canadian online brokerages coming out of the pandemic is to find creative ways to connect with investors, especially at a low cost.

With a prize payout of $13,000 and just over 2,600 registrants, the numbers from an advertising point of view work out to just under $5 per registrant, which is an exceptionally good deal if some of those registrants end up taking a closer look at either Horizons ETFs and/or National Bank Direct Brokerage.

Even though National Bank Direct Brokerage has been a long-time sponsor of this event, the past year seems especially relevant in terms of the attention that this bank-owned online brokerage has been getting from online investors. And (see forum post below), the additional marketing activities that NBDB is undertaking will almost certainly help in generating more interest and curiosity.

On a literal down note, this past week also saw a number of online brokerages in Canada impacted by a technical outage from Akamai that took down brokerage trading during market hours. More than just online brokerages were impacted, with major banks in Canada, as well as major tech and business names, experiencing service interruptions.

In predictable (and understandable) fashion, Twitter and reddit were awash in acrimonious posts from unhappy online investors, many of whom learned the hard way just how fragile the online trading environment can sometimes be. And even when online brokerages aren’t themselves the culprit, the fact that customers can’t get what they want, when they want it, is enough to leave a digital trail of negative sentiment.

Interestingly (and fortunately), the immediate reaction from investors who were frustrated by the outage were tempered by other online investors and users who posted that the outages were impacting other sites and companies, and this was not an event that was broker-specific.

Nonetheless, the lesson for online brokerages is to be prepared for some (or many) users to take a shoot-first, ask questions later approach to service interruptions. The easier it is for online brokerages to communicate service status and cause of interruptions, the easier it will be for the “fact-checkers” to be able to broadcast reliable information to those users simply blowing off steam.

From the Forums

Word on the Street

When it comes to questions about online brokerages, there are the usual suspects that DIY investors are curious about. Lately, however, we’ve spotted more questions being asked about National Bank Direct Brokerage, such as this post from reddit, in which one user is looking for opinions from fellow DIY investors on this increasingly popular online broker.

Banter Ads

When it comes to advertising, there is simply no pleasing everyone. Of course, if the goal is to generate an emotional response to get people thinking (and talking), then mission accomplished. This fascinating reddit commentary emerged from the recent advertising battle taking place between popular online brokerages Questrade and Wealthsimple Trade.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this week’s online brokerage activity. There’s no question that the Robinhood IPO and associated fanfare are going to be in the spotlight. Like everyone else, we’re curious to see where the dust (and price) will settle on the first day, but this is certainly a week for the history books. And, speaking of history in the making, the Olympics are now well underway. Congratulations to team Canada for already making a splash at the games.

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – July 5, 2021

It seems fitting that a short week is also a week for shorts (and not the bearish kind). With Canada Day and Independence Day interrupting the normal flow of trading activity for most DIY investors, it’s actually a great time to sit back, relax, and enjoy a good summer read. Fortunately, the online brokerages here in Canada and the US are teeing up a fair bit of interesting reading heading into July.

This edition of the Roundup features a recap of the latest deals and promotions activity at the outset of July, and what deals activity this month is telegraphing for the remainder of this year. Next, we take a quick look at a huge development in the US online brokerage market: the Robinhood IPO. As always, we keep things spicy with some fascinating DIY investor banter from the investing forums.

Online Brokerage Deals Get Creative

Summer is normally a time when things get a little sleepy in and around the online brokerage space – especially when it comes to deals and promotions. This year, however, things are definitely not “normal” among Canadian online brokerages.

The start of a new month is a convenient time to check in on the state of deals and promotions among Canada’s online brokerages, and this month’s pulse check has turned up some interesting findings for DIY investors and industry watchers to consider.

While there were no new (big) deal launches to announce to start the month, one of the biggest headlines to report on is the extension of National Bank Direct Brokerage’s 100 commission-free trade deal. This offer, which launched in March of this year and was set to expire at the end of June, has been extended until the end of September. On a relative basis, it is by far the biggest commission-free trade deal available to DIY investors in Canada. And with a year to use those commission-free trades, it is also a challenge for rival online brokerage offers to measure up to.

Contextually, this past year has also been an important one for National Bank Direct Brokerage in terms of mainstream exposure.

Having earned top spot in several online brokerage rankings, including the low cost online brokerage crown from Surviscor, and best online brokerage from MoneySense, and best online brokerage for investor satisfaction from J.D. Power, forum chatter among DIY investors clearly shows increased awareness of, and interest in, this online broker. After many years at the periphery, there is something noticeably different about the volume of interest as well as the comments and feedback from existing users.

Objectively, National Bank Direct Brokerage’s price point of standard commissions, the option for commission-free ETF trades combined with the commission-free trade promotional offer for new clients, and the perceived safety and convenience of a bank-owned online broker present a compelling combination for DIY investors. The biggest hurdles facing National Bank Direct Brokerage at this point, it seems, are awareness by more Canadian DIY investors (something that advertising can address) as well as the account opening experience.  

Thus, the decision to extend the deal through the end of the summer bodes well for National Bank Direct Brokerage, as well as for DIY investors, and raises the bar for competing Canadian online brokerages.

Differentiating between Canadian online brokerages is challenging for most DIY investors, so one of the natural starting points is price and subsequently features. With National Bank Direct Brokerage in the spotlight on both of those components, promotions are a natural complement to round out the increased visibility of this online brokerage with value-conscious DIY investors.

In addition to National Bank Direct Brokerage’s promotion extension, there were a couple of other bank-owned online brokerages that had important developments in the deals arena.

HSBC InvestDirect’s 60 commission-free trade offer expired at the end of June. Promotional activity from HSBC InvestDirect has been somewhat cyclical in terms of offers coming to market. Unlike other brokerages, such as BMO InvestorLine, which have much more frequent promotions, HSBC InvestDirect tends to be very tactical during the calendar year. As a result, though this commission-free trade offer expired, if history is any predictor, there could be space for one or two more promotions from HSBC InvestDirect between now and the end of the RSP contribution deadline in 2022.

The other bank-owned online brokerage to cross our deals and promotions radar this month was Scotia iTRADE. Specifically, the modest commission-free trade deal that offers new clients five commission-free trades, plus a bonus five for attending a series of educational webinars aimed at educating attendees about investing online.

With the number of free trades offered being so low (in comparison to other offers currently available), the point of interest here is that Scotia iTRADE is reactivating promotions and doing so by positioning commission-free trades alongside investor education. Of note, this commission-free trade promotion and associated investor education webinar series (pitched as a “bootcamp”) is targeted to younger investors.

This younger demographic of investor is increasingly of interest to Canadian online brokerages, as the past year has shown the appetite for online investing has increased among younger DIY investors. There is clearly a need for better understanding of how investing and markets work that DIY investors can benefit from.

It will be interesting to see how other established online brokerages – such as the bank-owned online broker peers – apply incentives and promotions around key activities (like attending a webinar series). For Scotia iTRADE, however, it is going to be important to gauge whether DIY investors believe that the effort required to attend a webinar is worth the reward of a few commission-free trades.

The bank-owned brokerages weren’t the only ones getting creative with deals and promotions this month, as the challenger brand Wealthsimple Trade also appeared to ramp up its promotional efforts as well.

Throughout the spring and into the early part of the summer, there has been a noticeable acceleration of the use of the “free stock” promotion by Wealthsimple Trade. As part of this offer, new clients (that sign up organically or via referral) can be eligible to receive the cash equivalent of the price of a stock from a pool of select stocks (chosen by Wealthsimple Trade).

This lottery-based approach appears to be similar to the approach used by popular US online broker Robinhood, however, in the case of Wealthsimple Trade, the dollar-equivalent of the stock is provided to the new client instead of a share of a particular company. And, to boot, the dollar amount for the highest stock, Amazon – which last closed at about $3,500 USD (about $4,300 CAD) – makes for a great headline.

The fine print on the Wealthsimple Trade promo clarifies that the “bonus” is a cash deposit and that the value of the bonus ranges between $5 and $4,500, with about 90% of clients receiving less than $50.

One of the most important objectives of online brokerages offering promotions is client acquisition (i.e. getting more customers). In the case of the Wealthsimple Trade promotion, the math behind the current promotion implies that there is a very low cost to Wealthsimple Trade to obtain a new client by using this structure. Even without knowing the probabilities and associated bonus amounts for the remaining 10% of clients, the fact that the average payout is $20 for a new client makes the cost to Wealthsimple Trade extremely attractive.

Despite it being an unusually busy summer for feature releases at Canadian online brokerages, there is also creative activity taking place on the deals and promotions front.

Now that we’ve crossed the halfway point of the calendar year, it is a safe assumption that several influential Canadian online brokerages are already working on their plans for promotions launching this fall (or sooner).

With a massive amount of money invested in enhancements and improvements at many online brokerages, looming competition on the commission-free trading front, as well as a return to “normal” that now includes individuals working from home (and returning to an office), it will be increasingly more challenging to stand out to DIY investors. As a result, like the weather in the summer, we fully expect deals and promotions action to heat up from here.

Robinhood IPO in Motion

Despite it being an incredibly busy year for IPOs (or perhaps because of it), there is one recently announced IPO that is almost certainly going to make waves when it officially launches: Robinhood.

This past week, the popular US online brokerage filed its prospectus to become a publicly traded company under the ticker symbol HOOD (to be listed on Nasdaq). While the details about how much money they intend to raise, and at what share price they intend go public at, are still to be determined, the ability to look “under the hood” at the company’s financial and performance figures reveals a data gold mine to anyone interested in the online brokerage industry in general, and the rise of Robinhood in particular.

Like any prospectus, the document is comprehensive, and as a result, incredibly long and detailed. Buried in the 300+ page document, however, are some incredible figures and statements about the current state of the online broker and what some of its future plans include.

As lengthy as the Weekly Roundup can get, there is far too much information about the online brokerage industry in the prospectus than can be covered in detail here. So, as more information inevitably emerges over the next few weeks, here are some initial figures that stand out.

Valuation: The rise in the valuation of Robinhood is staggering. From its inception in 2013, the company has grown to be worth (at time of publication) $12 billion USD and forecasted to be worth as much as $40 billion at public offering.  

Number of new accounts: The stat cited by Robinhood in its prospectus was that an estimated 50% of all new accounts created in the US between 2016 and 2020 were Robinhood clients. The total number of clients at Robinhood as disclosed in their prospectus was 18 million.

Cost of acquisition: Through the use of a variety of tactics, Robinhood’s cost of client acquisition at the end of March 2021 was – wait for it – $15. That number reflects exceptional performance improvements that have taken place over time, however, it’s a figure that’s sure to give any online brokerage, Canadian or American, a jolt. One of the key drivers of the exceptionally low client acquisition cost has been the Robinhood Referral Program. As mentioned above in the context of Wealthsimple Trade, the promotion of providing a “free stock” for the referral bonus has paid off in spades for Robinhood. It almost defies belief to report that 98% of customers receive a reward between $2.50 and $10.

Revenue mix: There are several interesting data points reported on when it comes to Robinhood’s revenues, but the standout figure relates to the product mix – specifically that options trading represented the highest amount of revenue for Robinhood.

Unlike many other IPOs, the Robinhood IPO is more than just business – it has taken on almost a cultural significance.

While many industry observers and consumers might view the vision of Robinhood to “democratize finance” with skepticism and discount it as marketing, the reality is that through a combination of design, technology, and pricing (and marketing – which they also have spent a fortune on), Robinhood has carved out a space for itself that enables it to compete – on some level – with much larger and longer established brands in the same space.

What was perhaps most striking about the vision for the company as laid out in the IPO filing, was the desire to become the “go-to” app for personal finance, just as Gmail is the go-to app for email and Google Maps is for maps. And, just like those apps, the market that Robinhood is eyeing goes beyond just the US, and is looking at Asia and Europe as additional destinations.

Without question, the Robinhood IPO is going to be in focus and discussion throughout July – which is being forecasted as the launch date for the IPO. To add to the conversation, Robinhood has set aside a significant portion (between 20% to 35%) of its shares to make available to its customers at the time of IPO, meaning that clients will be able to access the actual IPO pricing rather than have to wait until the stock starts trading to get those shares.

From a big-picture perspective, it is fascinating to have witnessed Robinhood launch from inception and grow into an internationally recognized financial services brand worth billions of dollars. The lesson for Canadian online brokerages is clearly that fintech firms can and will come in and displace market share for existing stakeholders. It is already happening in Canada with Wealthsimple Trade, and if Robinhood’s IPO journey is any indicator, there’s an even stronger impetus for Canadian online brokers to pay attention to design and features or risk being forced to play catchup.

From the Forums

Day Trading Up

Fast money and high stakes trades aren’t for everyone. Rare as they might be, DIY investors interested in day trading need to know which online brokerage is best when it comes to supporting this kind of activity. Find out which online broker was a unanimous choice in this reddit thread.

In-formed Opinion

When it comes to opening an online brokerage account, one of the least enjoyable parts of the experience is the sheer number of forms and agreements that need to be completed. One common anxiety-inducing form is the W-8BEN. Find out what one DIY investor went through in this post.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on this early-July edition of the Roundup. Now that we’re into the second half of the year, and things are opening up again, trips and get togethers will be in focus. Of course, for any hockey fans, the Stanley Cup is in focus as is the cool rink the games are being played in. Stay cool out there!

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Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – March 22, 2021

Spring has officially arrived. And while the arrival of the new season didn’t fall on a quadruple witching day, in the online brokerage world it nonetheless lived up to its reputation of bringing change, volatility, and the promise of sunnier days ahead.

In this edition of the Roundup, we look at the latest trading commission price drop from a bank-owned online brokerage and the potential consequences it will have for DIY investors and fellow online brokerage competitors. Next, we jump into some interesting deal activity that’s taken place this month, including the launch of a new offer that might trigger even more promotions to start sprouting this spring. As always, we’ve got chatter from DIY investors courtesy of Twitter and the investor forums.

National Bank Direct Brokerage: Commission Price Drop

The days of the $9.95 standard commission pricing for trades at Canadian online brokerages are numbered. How much lower they go from here and how quickly these changes take effect will depend on who among the larger or more popular players decides to act. A recent commission pricing drop by National Bank Direct Brokerage, however, is likely to add significant cause for other Canadian online brokerages, big and small, to revisit their own commission pricing structures.  

This month, we noted that the standard equity commission pricing at National Bank Direct Brokerage (NBDB) dropped about 30%, from $9.95 down to $6.95 for all clients. Previously, NBDB charged $9.95 per trade to all clients, but for those clients who were also a client of National Bank – the parent brand to NBDB – a discounted price of $6.95 was available. That restriction is no longer in place, and the $6.95 price is available to all.

Why NBDB chose to lower their commission rate to the $6.95 level and why they decided to do so now are a good indication of how the industry as a whole has approached lowering their commission prices, even in the face of a growing competitive presence in Canada of zero-commission trading and increasing expectations (thanks to Robinhood and other US online brokerages) that trading online should be commission-free. Online brokerages in Canada, for the most part, are taking a measured and stepwise approach to lowering commission pricing, taking cues from competitors as a way to estimate the prices for commission rates that can be supported.

One important driver for National Bank Direct Brokerage is likely competition from its longtime local competitor, Desjardins Online Brokerage.

The drop in standard pricing brings National Bank Direct Brokerage in line with Desjardins Online Brokerage, which lowered the standard commission pricing for the “everyday investor” product, Disnat Classic, to $6.95 in early 2020. While there are still pricing gaps between these two Quebec-focused online brokerages at the very active trader pricing segment, the interesting consequence to National Bank Direct Brokerage enabling all clients to have access to the $6.95 pricing is that National Bank is pursuing an expansion strategy across Canada, implying that NBDB would now also set their sights on other markets outside of Quebec.

The takeaway for the online investing space in Canada is that a much more robust bank-owned online brokerage offering is now available to Canadian DIY investors. Unlike the lower-cost non-bank-owned online brokerages, National Bank Direct Brokerage brings with it many of the features and the convenience of a big five bank-owned online broker. This means that someone looking for the lower cost pricing typically available at an independent online broker but the convenience and perceived security of a larger institution will now have a serious look at NBDB as an online broker. And, once they start looking, there will be some interesting things for investors of all activity levels to find.

For young investors, for example, National Bank Direct Brokerage offers 10 commission-free trades per year and an even lower commission pricing of $4.95 per trade, simply for being 30 years old or younger. No other Canadian bank-owned online brokerage (yet) has this double feature set. Also, the threshold of 30 years old is higher than at several competitors, where the definition of “young” typically ends at age 25 or 26.

Very active traders at National Bank Direct Brokerage also have access to deeply competitive pricing, at $0.95 per trade, and an advanced trading platform, Market-Q. While Desjardins Online Brokerage’s active trader brand, Disnat Direct, does have cheaper pricing, at $0.75 per trade, the reality is that at the sub-dollar-per-trade range, the other factors of banking convenience might come into play.

Lowering commission pricing is something that Canadian online brokerages have seen as inevitable. That said, how quickly the commission pricing drops has shown itself to be highly dependent on who is the one setting the pace.

Despite the existence of a zero-commission provider, for example, there haven’t been any other Canadian online brokerages that have felt compelled to drop their standard commission prices to that level. Instead, we have observed that certain products, such as ETFs, have become the entry point into zero-commission trading, with firms such as Qtrade Investor, Questrade, Scotia iTRADE, and most recently with TD Direct Investing’s Goal Assist. In the category of commission-free ETFs, National Bank Direct Brokerage has also been somewhat of a leader among the bank-owned segment of online brokerages. In 2017, they launched completely commission-free ETF trading – both buying and selling, albeit with minimum purchase requirements.

For NBDB to capitalize on this latest pricing shift, the challenge, it seems, will be to overcome the marketing and advertising hurdle created by the likes of Interactive Brokers, Questrade, TD Direct Investing, and Wealthsimple Trade in markets outside of Quebec. Another online brokerage that has significant market awareness with large markets across Canada is Qtrade Investor, courtesy of their multiple wins and strong finishes in the online brokerage rankings of influential financial research sources. Each of these brokerages commands significant awareness, and, as a result, NBDB has their work cut out for them to start becoming part of the mainstream conversation of online brokerages.

That said, with 14 Canadian online brokerages for National Bank Direct Brokerage to compete against, their pricing immediately makes them worthy of a top-five or -six consideration. When competing against bank-owned online brokerages, however, they could potentially move into the top three.

Undoubtedly, TD Direct Investing would be high on the list of bank-owned competitors, followed, potentially, by BMO InvestorLine in terms of active marketing and advertising. Clearly, by lowering their standard commission rates to $6.95 per trade, National Bank Direct Brokerage has just earned themselves a major advantage relative to their peers. The online broker with the biggest risk of being displaced is CIBC Investor’s Edge, which, up until now, had retained the position of offering the lowest standard commission among the big bank-owned online brokerages.

When we first reported the pricing drop by CIBC Investor’s Edge to $6.95 per trade in 2014, the impact among DIY investors was immediate. Our data showed that DIY investors soon came to see CIBC Investor’s Edge as a value-based option for trade execution. Even so, the pricing structure reflected some of the limitations for active trader experience at Investor’s Edge.

In this case, National Bank Direct Brokerage has pricing for the “passive investor” but also has platforms and pricing for very active investors and young investors. This makes them unique among the “banking” peer group.

Given the propensity of Canadian online brokerages to make smaller moves – especially among the bank-owned online brokerages – we expect that standard commissions might not be the starting point to match the new pricing at National Bank Direct Brokerage. Other places that online brokerages might be able to target to retain clients would be in their definition of “young” investors, which NBDB defines as 30 and under, or with commission-free ETF trading.

National Bank Direct Brokerage’s latest commission pricing move has made them an option that many DIY investors will be hard-pressed to ignore going forward. As a result, it may not be too much longer before the bank-owned online brokerages cannot ignore them either, and yet another wave of commission pricing drops ensues.

So long as the commission-pricing at NBDB stays quiet, the online brokerage industry in Canada won’t have to move quickly. That said, in a day and age of Reddit threads and social media reach, all it might take is one post for that to change.

Deals & Promotions Updates

March is synonymous with spring and with the changes that accompany a new season. While the beginning of the month saw a significant reduction in the number of Canadian online brokerage offers from larger players, we predicted that it would likely not be too much longer before new offers sprouted up again. And, it turns out, we didn’t have to wait that long after all.

This month, we’ve already seen BMO InvestorLine replace an outgoing deal with a new cash-back promotion, and, excitingly, this past week we noted that National Bank Direct Brokerage also launched a new 100-commission-free-transactions offer. More on that in just a moment.

Starting with the BMO InvestorLine cash-back promotion, the new promotion, like its predecessor, is a tiered cash-back offer. The starting deposit tier for the latest offer is higher, however, starting at $25,000, compared to the previous $15,000. Cash-back amounts have also been scaled back significantly at most deposit tiers. Starting tier deposits qualify for a $50 cash-back (compared to $150 the last time), and the highest deposit tier, $1 million and over, still qualifies for a bonus of $2,000.

For National Bank Direct Brokerage, this has been a big month, with newer pricing (see above) and the revival of a 100-commission-free-transactions offer. The new offer provides 100 commission-free trades, which are good for use for up to one year after the account is opened. This new promotion runs until the end of June and is open to new and existing clients so long as the account type is new.  Interestingly, the offer applies to trades of stocks and options (and ETFs), which are sometimes not available during certain commission-free trade promotions.

The (re)launch of a commission-free trade offer from National Bank Direct Brokerage, along with their new pricing offer, might prompt other online brokerages to consider coming to market with an offer this spring as well. Interest in investing and trading remains elevated among DIY investors. However, if the thesis that the catalyst for the surge of interest was individuals working from home or putting stimulus money into investing products, then the reopening of the economy (and sports and travel) could lead to decreased interest or availability of individuals to continue actively trading.

Most Canadian online brokerages elect to take a “wait and see” approach to emerging trends rather than risking taking the position as a leader in innovation. With that in mind, deals and promotions offer a proven method to continuously stay on the radar of investors – especially those who might be lured to leave because of dissatisfaction with pricing or service.

What deals and promotions cannot do is solve for technology or service gaps (even though we have seen compensation in the form of trading commissions help smooth out some service shortcomings). So, it is likely – perhaps even sound business strategy – for those online brokerages who are confident in their ability to deliver strong service and technology to lean into promotional offers at a time when other firms are struggling or lagging. As such, a promotional offer could be seen as a sign of confidence and strength in the service delivery model, and an absence of one – at least in the near term – might have DIY investors asking why certain brokerages are choosing to stay out of the spotlight.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

My Definition Is This

In this post, an investor who is unsure and nervous about how the Canada Revenue Agency defines day trading asks if it’s okay to sell stocks from a TFSA after owning the stocks for just a few days. The CRA doesn’t provide a clear definition, so Redditors weigh in with their opinions.

New Tuber in Town

A new investor asks in this Reddit post if the Canadian Couch Potato method of investing is still relevant in 2021. An in-depth discussion ensues, touching on ETFs, meme stocks, and more.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on another week. While markets and investing are the focal point of the Roundup, there’s also a human side to this, and this past week was a dark chapter for the AAPI community. Sadly – and, frankly, unacceptably – the level of hate crimes against women and Asians in particular has increased during the pandemic. It is up to all of us to speak up against racist behaviour wherever possible.  Here are some steps from Stop AAPI Hate that anyone can take to assist a person experiencing a racist attack or hate crime:

  • Take action: Approach the targeted person, introduce yourself, and offer support.
  • Actively listen: Ask before taking any actions, and respect the other person’s wishes. Monitor the situation if needed.
  • Ignore the attacker: Using your discretion, attempt to calm the situation by using your voice, body language, or distractions.
  • Accompany: If the situation escalates, invite the targeted person to join you in leaving the area.
  • Offer emotional support: Help the other person by asking how they’re feeling, and assist them in figuring out what they want to do next.