2018 Canadian Discount Brokerage Review & 2019 Preview

What a difference a year makes. In December of 2017, “investors” were HODLing for Bitcoin and weed stocks and were tripping over one another to open up new trading accounts as well as overloading trading systems and customer service lines at online brokerages across Canada.

While it didn’t catch everyone by total surprise, the online brokerage industry in Canada awoke in January to the undeniable reality that investors, in particular younger investors, are an important (and vocal) driver of the growth of online investing space in Canada.

The rise of the millennial investor in 2018 is one of the most important themes that emerged in the DIY investing space in Canada and underpins many of the milestones referenced in the latest series of submission from Canada’s online brokerages for the 2018/2019 edition of the ‘look back and look ahead’ series.

From the desire to participate in exciting online investing stories to the technology and experience that these digitally savvy and untethered investors expect, to prices they’re willing to pay for trading commissions, the impact of millennial investors to the online investing industry is staggering.

Canada’s discount brokerages certainly have their work cut out for them.

They have to balance catering to a very important group of older clients who have different preferences than another group of younger, and not yet as affluent, clients. All the while, they have to do so in the face of falling commission prices, increasing competition and higher technology spends.

So, how did Canada’s online brokerages fare in 2018 and what are they saying about 2019?

Theme 1: Digitization is Accelerating

Looking back on 2018 and into 2019, it is clear that Canadian online brokerages are moving more quickly and efficiently at creating a fully digital experience for online investors.

Online account opening has been a game changer for those discount brokerages who’ve rolled this feature out and has become a priority feature to deploy in 2019 for those yet to do so. Increased spending on technology, as well as creating agile teams mean online brokerages are starting to function more like tech companies in their pace and approach to change. As a result, they’re starting to catch up to the robo-advisors that have, up until recently, enjoyed the unencumbered digital edge that comes with building technology enterprises from the ground up.

Theme 2: Barriers are Dropping

Another way in which the rise of the millennial investor has impacted online brokerages in 2018 is the improved accessibility to online investing. Aside from technology improvements, there have concerted efforts to deliver accessible (and original) content about investing, notably from the largest players in the space, TD Direct Investing and RBC Direct Investing, as well as reductions in pricing for trading commissions.

Bank-owned brokerages, like CIBC Investor’s Edge, introduced young investor pricing on trading commissions while others, like National Bank Direct Brokerage, lowered the threshold to qualify for their commission-free trade offer down to $5,000.

Although it may not have been a direct catalyst in 2018, Canada’s online brokerages are also actively bracing for commission-free trading coming from Wealthsimple Trade. As this edition goes to publication, Virtual Brokers just launched a new, lower standard commission rate, which makes theirs one of the lowest for Canadian DIY investors.

Theme 3: Go Big or Go Home

If pressures to innovate with technology, and deliver more for less are headwinds, the counter to those is scale. Specifically, when it comes to being able to provide a robust online brokerage experience, size is beginning to matter.

Consolidation in the online brokerage space in late 2017 and through 2018 saw several important online brokerages merge or be acquired by larger entities. The result, independent or non-bank online brokerages became much better funded and are now even more formidable competitors to larger bank-owned brokerages.

In 2018, Jitneytrade was acquired by Canaccord, and in an exclusive announcement in their submission, they’re announcing a new direction and push towards mainstream investors, including a feature set that would put them on par with many existing online brokerages (and perhaps ahead of others).

The merger between Qtrade Investor and Credential Direct under the umbrella of Desjardins-backed Aviso Wealth has created an exceptionally strong competitor that has the scale and focus to hold its own in the bank-owned brokerage market.

CI Financial’s acquisition of BBS Securities, parent to Virtual Brokers, and robo-advisor WealthBar has created a significant online investing product suite for other online investing firms to now contend with.

Finally, Wealthsimple’s launch of Wealthsimple Trade that will let investor’s trade commission-free was a massive bet that this “no cost” model could work in much the same way as it has for Robinhood in the US. Backed by Power Financial, this challenger-brand in the managed wealth space is now hoping to disrupt the DIY market as well.

Although subtle, it is also interesting to note that unlike in previous years, online brokerages this year were much less shy to disclose or advertise how many online trading accounts they have as well as the assets under management present at their firms. Online brokerages like Questrade, CIBC Investor’s Edge, and TD Direct Investing, for example, shared a bit more openly the size and scale of their online brokerage client base.

Shift Happens

While the old paradigm in financial services was about permanency the new paradigm appears to be adaptability.

It is our view at SparxTrading that as financial services companies continue to digitize, they will undoubtedly also adopt a technology company-like approach, communicating about (and subsequently delivering on) improvements and enhancements will increasingly be the metric of choice for younger investors looking to choose an online brokerage.

In other words, how “innovative” an online brokerage is will start to matter more as pricing comes down and competition increases. In a constantly and rapidly changing landscape, the challenge to Canadian online brokerages is whether they evolve with it without reducing the perceived quality.

Before diving in to this year’s submissions, we’d like to thank all of the online brokerages for sharing their updates and forecasts for Canadian DIY investors. This look back on 2018 and preview to 2019 offers a unique window into each of the organizations who participated and gives DIY investors another important set of data points with which to make their decisions around who to choose when opening an online brokerage account.

Now without further ado, below is the list of Canadian online brokerage’s who’ve participated in the look back to 2018 and look ahead to 2019. Click on the links to go directly to each submission or use the page numbers to navigate between them.

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