Table Of Contents

    Key points

    After making it through 2020, there are few things that would count as truly surprising anymore. Between COVID-19, the wild US presidential election and everything else that has unfolded this past year, 2021 can’t come fast enough for many of us. For Canadian DIY investors and Canada’s online brokerages, despite a wild year of volatility, […]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Theme 1: Agility

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

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

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

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

    Theme 2: Communication

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

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

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

    Theme 3: User Experience

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

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

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

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

    Silvio Stroescu, Head of Digital Investing, BMO Wealth Management

    BMO InvestorLine

    By Silvio Stroescu, Head of Digital Investing, BMO Wealth Management

    No one could have predicted the global challenges we’d be facing in 2020, but at BMO, we’ve been determined to meet those challenges head-on. COVID-19 has increased the demand for digital investing, acting as a tailwind for our investment platform BMO InvestorLine. We’ve seen an influx of younger investors entering the market directly under digital channels, hoping to find market opportunities that may arise.

    Earlier in the year, like many other businesses, we had to rethink how we were operating. In order to keep our team members safe, many of our teams established remote-working models. Spikes in volumes to our call centres forced us to be flexible: To provide the most help to our clients, we redeployed team members to our call centres and shifted resources to support our back-office operations team.

    As physical distancing changed how we interact with our clients, we knew it was important for our digital experiences to evolve as well. MyWealth, which launched earlier this year, in March, is InvestorLine’s new digital account opening application – it offers clients a full-serve and remote onboarding experience, complete with electronic signatures and real-time account openings. Thanks to MyWealth, we were able to handle a surge in new account applications (>100% YoY), and we enabled our clients to start trading without having to leave their homes.

    Plus, we’re looking forward to the imminent launch of InvestorLine 2.0, available for both Self-Directed and adviceDirect clients. This is the largest update we’ve made to the InvestorLine platform in over a decade, and it includes a suite of upgrades for our clients: an updated design that is easier to use, greater access to meaningful investment data, customizable components to fit any investor’s needs and a streamlined trading experience. It’s part of a bigger push to know our clients: who they are, how they invest with us and what we can do to serve them better.

    We’ve been incredibly proud of how quickly our team has been able to meet client demands, especially during the early peak of the pandemic. Thanks to our team’s responsiveness, we continue receiving top marks from third-party reviews of discount brokerage providers in Canada.

    Looking ahead to 2021, we believe the demand for digital advice will continue to rise: Investors want to control their investment decisions, but they want help making those choices. Our adviceDirect platform is designed specifically to meet this need, as it combines InvestorLine’s ease-of-use with professional advice that’s tailored to each investor. For clients who might be on the fence about adviceDirect, we’ll be launching the Portfolio Health Check. This lightweight, zero-cost tool compares a client’s existing portfolio holdings against a self-identified investor profile. It can give clients a general overview on if their portfolio matches up with their chosen profile and suggest how adviceDirect could help them better achieve their goals.

    We’re also excited to continue evolving InvestorLine 2.0. Soon, clients will be able to use the new experience to purchase mutual funds, HISAs and GICs; next year, options quotes and trading will make its way to the new platform. Continuing with digital advice, we’ll be creating a market data and research hub that is personalized to each client’s holdings and watchlist items. Enhanced transaction history and order history will be coming soon, too, giving clients the ability to filter their order history and quickly renew expired or filled orders.

    When looking at upcoming trends and features that will interest DIY investors, personalization is key: It’s important to give clients an experience that meets their unique goals and investment strategies. Planning and ideation are also key, making sure investors know what actions to take toward their goals and empowering them to take those actions. To that end, InvestorLine 2.0 will introduce enhanced screener tools for equities, ETFs and mutual funds, while adviceDirect clients will be able to add personalized filters to refine buy recommendations based on more detailed criteria, including ESG scores and third-party ratings.

    Attilio Montanari, Vice President, HSBC InvestDirect

    HSBC InvestDirect

    By Attilio Montanari, Vice President, HSBC InvestDirect

    HSBC InvestDirect, the self-directed brokerage arm of HSBC Securities (Canada) Inc., is an online brokerage suited for globally minded investors, which provides access to 30 domestic and international markets. With HSBC InvestDirect, you can access an integrated suite of research tools and trading capabilities right at your fingertips.

    2020 has been an interesting year so far, to say the least. COVID-19 has brought with it significant uncertainty to the world, and it has also brought unprecedented volumes to HSBC InvestDirect and the brokerage industry as a whole.

    HSBC InvestDirect has been working under a split-site protocol since March, with staff at the main office, at our BCP site and working from home. We have been dealing with extremely high volumes in phone calls, emails, trading and new accounts due to the market volatility surrounding the impact of the pandemic. To put the volumes into perspective, March 2020 was HSBC InvestDirect’s highest trading month on record, followed by April 2020, which was the highest new account month in our history.

    In April 2020, HSBC InvestDirect introduced a special pricing promotion of $0 for online North American equity and ETF trades for Active Traders (150+ trades per rolling three-month period). The Active Trader rate of $0 is valid until December 31, 2020. Effective January 1, 2021, the Active Trader rate of $4.88 for online North American equity and ETF trades will apply. This program has been an unbelievable success and exceeded our expectations. (Terms and conditions apply.)

    In addition to the Active Trader special pricing promotion, we also launched a Free Trading promotion for new accounts that ran from July until the end of October 2020. The offer entitled all new accounts (new or existing clients) to 60 calendar days of free North American online equity and ETF trading (up to a maximum of 60 trades) through the new account.

    So far in 2020, we have been focused on system enhancements and resiliency to minimize any potential system downtime and to improve the overall customer experience. With the high level of market volatility that we saw during the beginning of the pandemic, we optimized several popular pages on the trading site by including quick order entry and execution from all pages, in addition to improving the performance of our market data database and adding extra capacity to effectively handle increases in site usage and volumes. We also launched the electronic delivery of tax forms, introduced several client forms with e-signature capabilities and made improvements in our onboarding process to make things easier for our customers to get things done.

    The high level of market volatility and unprecedented volumes experienced were motivating factors for the system enhancements performed in 2020, along with our commitment to providing a stable and highly effective trading platform. Although several of our enhancements were behind the scenes, client feedback has been very positive with regards to our enhancements and modifications.

    HSBC InvestDirect has a great deal to be proud of this year. We are extremely proud of the way our team rallied around each other and our customers to support them when dealing with the numerous challenges that they encountered as a result of COVID-19.

    HSBC InvestDirect has a lot in store for 2021. We will continue to listen to feedback and focus on what is important to our customers. We are excited to continue to provide our customers with innovative products and services, along with a secure trading platform and innovative tools to assist them in managing their investments with ease and confidence

    Our customers can look forward to a redesigned website with improved navigation and education, on top of the introduction of a mobile app within the next 12 to 18 months, which will include an integrated view within the HSBC Bank Canada mobile banking app.

    We feel that DIY investors are constantly looking for good value, a high level of customer service, high-quality tools and resources and a reliable platform with quick access to the markets. Offering more educational pieces has been an important trend in the industry, as information and knowledge are key. HSBC InvestDirect has supported customer education by partnering with the TMX this year in virtual options training, and we are looking forward to providing our customers with access to more events such as these along with access to additional Investor Insights from our HSBC affiliates.

    HSBC InvestDirect is pleased to welcome many beginner investors each year. Beginner investors can expect a redesigned website to help them find what they are looking for with ease. They also have access to our interactive demo and demo videos that highlight functionalities of the trading site for different investment products. When you become a new customer of HSBC InvestDirect, the first thing you should expect is to receive a warm welcome call from one or our highly trained Investment Representatives with an offer to walk you through our trading platform and to answer any questions that you may have.

    Active Trader investors are very important to us, as shown from our Active Trader special pricing offer of $0 commissions for online North American equity and ETF trades, which started in April and runs until December 31, 2020. (Terms and conditions apply.) HSBC InvestDirect Active Trader pricing is amongst the best in Canada. We are also looking to provide new tools for Active Traders, such as a streaming data portal.

    User experience is extremely important to us. Service is key, and that all begins with our customers’ user experience. We take great pride in our service, and we are always looking at ways to take it to the next level and to ensure that we always provide a fast and reliable platform. We continue to optimize our customer journeys and accessibility to information, to allow our customers to manage their investments effectively.

    HSBC is a leading international bank, and HSBC InvestDirect uses that international reach to set us apart from the pack. Our customers can expect:

    • Dedicated client support in four languages (English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin)
    • Global access to 30 domestic and international markets, with settlement in 10 currencies
    • Best-in-class commission structure, currently offering $4.88 for Active Traders ($0 until December 31, 2020) and $6.88 for all clients on North American equity and ETF online trades (Terms and conditions apply.)
    • Fast, reliable and secure website
    • Integrated brokerage/banking combination
    HSBC InvestDirect is a division of HSBC Securities (Canada) Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of, but separate entity from, HSBC Bank Canada. HSBC Securities (Canada) Inc. is a member of the Investment Industry Regulatory Organization of Canada and the Canadian Investor Protection Fund.
    Claude-Frédéric Robert, President, National Bank Direct Brokerage

    National Bank Direct Brokerage

    By Claude-Frédéric Robert, President, National Bank Direct Brokerage

    Note from the President, Claude-Frédéric Robert
    Claude-Frédéric started working at National Bank in 2011 and has been president of NBDB since 2018. Under his leadership, the management team of NBDB has generated many innovations that have significantly improved the client experience, ranging from the deployment of a new platform to the launch of the best pricing in Canada for bank-owned direct brokers.

    Claude-Frédéric plans on simplifying the client experience even further and increasing the pace of change by continuing to launch new services and tools.

    To learn more about National Bank Direct Brokerage, visit nbdb.ca.

    How 2020 went

    2020 was a fantastic year for us and our clients. We are very pleased that we delivered several important initiatives, including the launch of the best commission pricing in the industry. Our goal was to offer pricing that met the needs of our clients, particularly active investors. And we succeeded! This is not the first time that National Bank Direct Brokerage has led on pricing in the direct brokerage industry: we were the very first to lower commission fees on ETFs to $0.

    2020 also saw the launch of our new transactional platform, more adapted to the needs of active investors. We have made several improvements along the way, listening to our clients’ feedback, to ensure that the platform is exceptional, and we are very proud of the result.

    In addition to our new transactional platform, which was conceived with the goal of facilitating transactions, this year we added the Market-Q transactional application, again with the goal of improving our clients’ experience.

    Throughout the years, we have always held numerous educational events, and despite the turmoil caused by the pandemic, we continued supporting our clients to become more self-directed by offering all kinds of events. In fact, we’ve even done more! Knowing that our clients needed to stay home, we offered daily online webinars. We created the “NBDB Break…” events, a series of 15-minute webinars that allowed participants to learn a little something during their breaks. Currently, we are also offering a series of options webinars, to further educate clients on this product that, at first glance, may seem complex.

    2020 was certainly marked by many unforeseen events, but thanks to our powerful tools and our knowledgeable and dedicated employees, we were able to navigate through the crisis with ease. All of these factors allow us to say with conviction that we are leaders in the direct brokerage industry. And this is only the beginning!

    What we’re looking forward to for 2021

    We have lofty ambitions for the year 2021. True to ourselves, we want to be a driving force of positive change in the direct brokerage industry. We are preparing an unprecedented offer that will delight investors of all stripes.

    National Bank Direct Brokerage wants to meet the needs of all its clients and wants to offer them the best in class. This year, we will go even further and offer new tools and services for self-directed investors that are not yet available at other discount brokers. We will be the direct broker that offers you the most innovative solutions.

    Before the end of 2020, we will be the first broker to offer access to OptionsPlay, a financial education and analysis tool specializing in options. OptionsPlay will allow you to visualize and compare trading strategies, let you easily find additional technical analysis, and help you find and choose covered calls. Training programs will continue to be our priority, in order to educate and empower our clients and thus help them better manage their investments and have a better-performing portfolio. Be on the lookout: We will be holding a number of online and in-person events throughout the year, if the situation permits.

    We will also be the first bank-owned direct broker to launch a pilot project on a retail securities lending program. NBDB clients will be able to earn additional income on their fully paid shares in their cash and margin accounts.

    By Christine Zalzal, Senior Vice-President, Head of Qtrade® Investor and VirtualWealth®

    Qtrade Investor

    Empowering Canadian investors during the industry’s largest surge in trading growth

    By Christine Zalzal, Senior Vice-President, Head of Qtrade® Investor and VirtualWealth®

    It’s been quite a year. Words like “unprecedented,” “unmatched” and “extraordinary” have been bandied about, but 2020 almost defies description.

    Trading volumes in the Canadian online brokerage industry doubled in the second quarter of 2020, the highest growth in its history. Qtrade® Investor was no exception; we saw account openings and trading volumes reach two to three times our normal trends. Of course, we’ve seen significant trading volume spikes before, like 20 years ago, when the tech bubble burst, or in 2008/9, with the global financial crisis. Then, as now, Canadians have been eager to take advantage of market volatility.

    The industry experienced a surge in growth in the spring of 2020 as Canadians responded to market volatility by opening online brokerage accounts. Qtrade Investor was well positioned to address online investor needs. We empower our clients with secure online access, a reliable technology platform and an award-winning customer service team, with which we extended service hours to handle the record volumes of client inquiries. Utilizing our robust educational resources and timely market commentary, our clients were able to navigate significant market volatility with greater confidence.

    In an environment with so many new investors, we also recognized that clients needed more tools to help them invest with confidence. In April, we launched new portfolio analytics tools – Portfolio Score™, Portfolio Simulator™ and Portfolio Creator™ – giving our clients unrivalled access to the most advanced risk analysis and portfolio-building technology in the Canadian online brokerage industry. As always, we’re committed to the continuous improvement and innovation of our platform to empower Canadians in their investment choices.

    The unprecedented surge in trading volumes and customer service inquiries put an incredible amount of pressure on Canada’s online brokerage industry. I’m proud of the Qtrade Investor team for keeping their focus on the client experience during these challenging times – all while transitioning to working from home.

    Looking forward to 2021

    At Qtrade Investor, we’re always looking for ways to create more value for clients, to provide innovative tools and resources that help them make investment decisions with confidence. A focus on the client experience drives our platform-design decisions, and that focus was top of mind when we integrated our new portfolio analytics tools into the Qtrade Investor platform.

    For do-it-yourself investors, knowledge is power. Qtrade Investor’s new portfolio analytics tools are a comprehensive set of risk analysis and portfolio-building tools that can help investors make informed investment decisions and manage their risk exposure as they navigate market volatility. Portfolio Simulator™ lets clients test investment scenarios in a simulator mode, to explore ideas and fine-tune their investment strategy. Portfolio Score™ provides a second opinion by grading a portfolio, helping investors understand their diversification and risk exposure and scoring selected securities across five key dimensions. If an investor is looking to build an ETF portfolio, with just a short series of questions, Portfolio Creator™ generates a portfolio, customized to their investing preferences, that will help them maximize risk-adjusted returns.

    In 2021, we’ll enrich the overall platform experience by adding guided how-to paths to walk investors through our platform. We’re also developing ways to achieve faster account opening, streamlining and automating our processes to get clients trading sooner. Enhancements to our existing interactive charting tools are planned for next year, so clients can make more-informed trading decisions.

    Qtrade Investor has won Best Overall Brokerage awards 22 times over the past 15 years, which reflects our commitment to continuous platform innovation and improvement, and our focus on the client experience. As part of that ongoing commitment, we’re interested in looking outside our industry at other sectors’ best-in-class online and customer experiences. I look forward to seeing how we might be able to adapt to better serve Canadian investors in the years ahead.

    Questrade

    2020 was a year of unprecedented change, not just for Questrade but for the entire industry. While online investing has been getting more popular since we opened our doors back in 1999, the pandemic significantly increased interest in doing more of your financial transactions online, including investing.

    In 2020, Questrade saw enormous growth across the board. As Canada’s fastest-growing online broker, we saw a surge in customers switching over and opening accounts at an unprecedented rate. Essentially, more and more Canadians are choosing to move away from high-fee investments and retire wealthier with Questrade.

    With Questrade you enjoy low fees and keep more of your money.

    • Trade stocks from 1¢/share (min. $4.95 to max. $9.95)
    • Buy ETFs commission-free
    • No annual account fees
    • No account opening or closing fees
    • All accounts are dual-currency accounts

    Not only did we see growth in new customers but we also saw growth among customers switching their accounts from other financial institutions and taking advantage of our “transfer for free” promotion, where they could transfer any account, of any size, from any financial institution and we rebated the transfer-out fees (up to $150) those institutions charged for moving the account.

    This year Questrade was ranked #1 in investor satisfaction by J.D. Power among self-directed brokerages, and we were also ranked #1 for commission and fees and #1 for account information. For J.D. Power 2020 award information, visit jdpower.com/awards.

    We are proud to add this J.D. Power win to the growing list of accolades:

    • 8X winner of Canada’s Best Managed Companies
    • $18 billion in assets under administration
    • Well over 100,000 new accounts opened annually
    • Rated #1 as Best Online Brokerage – MoneySense 2019
    • Rated #1 in customer service

    This year we eliminated inactivity fees. Low fees are what customers expect from us, and this change continues to show our commitment to making investing more accessible to everyone.

    For 2021, as always, our focus is on our customers and making it easy for them to invest, with low fees. We have already significantly increased our customers’ onboarding resources, so they not only know how to invest with Questrade but also have a foundational knowledge about investing generally. We are developing an entire video series, so customers can learn the platform and get started trading quickly.

    You can count on us to continue to find ways to bring low fees to investors. And add education and new features to our platforms that make them even more powerful.

    RBC Direct Investing

    By Stacey Petersen, Vice President Strategy, RBC Direct Investing

    Our focus at RBC Direct Investing for 2020 was continuously improving the online experience for our clients, bringing exceptional value for investors seeking direct access to markets at a low cost. We accomplished a great deal this year, with more to come!

    Looking Back on 2020

    Mobile Investing Experience

    In May, we introduced a refreshed Direct Investing mobile-friendly experience within the RBC Banking app, providing investors easy access to great resources like analyst ratings, news and charts on the detailed quote page for both Android and iOS devices. For RBC Online Banking clients with a Direct Investing account, there’s the added convenience of being able to easily toggle between banking and investing profiles.

    Work did not end with the launch. Refinements to the design in response to client feedback are ongoing, and we’ve added new functionality to the mobile experience, such as the ability to open a new Direct Investing account through the app.

    Market Data

    Building on the launch of free real-time streaming quotes for all clients in December of 2019, in April we introduced Level 2 quotes on TSX/TSX-V, free for all clients. Real-time streaming on the online Standalone Watchlist went live in June. This competitive differentiator is free premium market data available to all clients, without the need to qualify on the basis of trade volume or asset level.

    Client Service

    RBC DI Contact Centres serve clients in English, French, Cantonese and Mandarin; we are proud to offer a domestic call centre for times when clients have questions. Call volumes spiked during the early days of the pandemic, at a time when we were prioritizing the health and safety of our contact centre representatives. As part of meeting that challenge and ensuring that we continue to deliver on our promise to Royal Circle clients that they will have access to our most experience licensed representatives, we introduced authenticated call routing at our call centres.

    Modernizing Our Platform

    A number of design and navigation improvements were made to our platform over the year to ensure that key information and resources are easily found and accessed. The Detailed Quote page, our Analyst Ratings page and the way we display transactions have undergone a series of significant changes to make them more client-friendly.

    Investor Education

    Our digital Inspired Investor newsletter is widely read, providing helpful tips and insights to build investing knowledge. A special print-magazine edition was distributed through The Globe and Mail in February to mark our 30th anniversary. Inspired Investor is available by subscription to DI clients, and the public can now subscribe, too.

    Those looking to grow their investment knowledge can tap into Investing Academy for a deeper dive on investment related topics like “Why Buy Stocks” or “How to Invest in Options.”

    And Sometimes It Isn’t What You See

    We’ve approached the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disability Act – which comes into effect in January – as an opportunity to review our platform and public sites to ensure they are welcoming and easy to use for investors with accessibility needs. We consider the legislation as a minimum standard and strive for an exceptional experience for all clients.

    LOOKING AHEAD TO 2021

    We’re paying close attention to client feedback to continuously improve in the areas that matter most. Here’s a look at what lies ahead.

    Our Platform

    We will build on platform and digital enhancements in the coming months and look forward to sharing updates about the active-trader experience with you soon.

    In 2021, we’re building additional resiliency into all areas of our ecosystem, as we know that it is key to ensuring clients continue to have uninterrupted access to the markets.

    In the near term, clients will see refinements to Order Status pages and more intuitive order filtering.

    Making It Easier to Open Accounts

    We’ve made great strides on improving our online account open experience. Online applications for our most common account types can be completed by RBC Online Banking clients in 10 minutes or less. In the next few weeks, many non-RBC clients will be able to take advantage of this as well. More to follow!

    Research Resources

    Work is underway to make it easier to find existing news and research across our platform as we continue to explore new research partnerships.

    Stock Screeners

    A more robust Stock Screener is in the works, with improved charting and additional filtering. We’ll also look to refresh the ETF and Mutual Fund Screeners.


    We look forward to sharing updates about these initiatives in the coming months and throughout 2021!

    Surveying the Canadian Online Brokerage Landscape

    Highlights from more Canadian online brokers

    What about the online brokerages not already featured? Not all brokerages chose to submit a review, but we still saw interesting developments worth reporting on. Keep reading to see what we spotted in 2020 and some possible trends to watch for in 2021.

    CG Direct

    By all measures, it was a year spent under the radar for CG Direct, the online brokerage arm of Canaccord Genuity. Aside from small website updates, there wasn’t much in the way of publicized information by or about CG Direct directly. Earlier in the year, however, US giant Morgan Stanley did select the parent of CG Direct, Canaccord Genuity Wealth Management, as a platform and a custody and clearing services provider for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management Canada. Indirectly referenced in that relationship is the self-directed online investing capabilities of Canaccord. There is clearly the potential for 2021 to hold some interesting developments for this online brokerage.

    CIBC Investor’s Edge

    Like many Canadian online brokerages, CIBC Investor’s Edge hit some turbulence during the most volatile patches of market trading. As the year progressed, however, they were able to regain their footing and get back to some of the original projects scheduled for 2020. One big milestone was the launch of their new online investing experience. Though still undergoing development, the new look and feel to their site is a promising upgrade that is generating buzz with clients. Also, heading into the end of the year, CIBC Investor’s Edge launched a competitive cash-back promotion that runs through RSP season in early 2021.

    Desjardins Online Brokerage

    After starting off 2020 with a significant restructuring to pricing for commissions for both the Disnat Classic and Disnat Direct platforms, the storm that was COVID-19 struck. In some respects, the timing for very active investors worked out, as the active trader pricing is among the lowest available at Canadian online brokers. That said, it appears from a features or activity standpoint that the focus was on improving client experience. An updated mobile app generated some positive responses with clients. For the moment, it seems Desjardins Online Brokerage will continue to pace itself and take its competitive cues from local competition rather than national players.

    Interactive Brokers Canada

    The Canadian arm of the popular US online brokerage maintained its usual pace of product and feature launches based on its larger US parent. In a year characterized by volatility, Interactive Brokers seemed relatively unfazed, a testament to both their technological prowess as online brokers as well as the fact that their clients are attracted to the kinds of volatility 2020 has brought with it. Of course, not even Interactive Brokers was immune from technological missteps, having to absorb losses on trades when oil futures amazingly went negative. With that in the rearview mirror, however, Interactive Brokers has maintained its positive growth among active, price-sensitive traders. One important milestone feature being rolled out by Interactive Brokers is their Impact Dashboard, which is geared to helping investors identify companies that align with their personal impact values.

    TD Direct Investing

    As one of Canada’s most popular bank-owned online brokerages, TD Direct Investing is no stranger to being in the spotlight. Of course, that kind of fame is a double-edged sword, as trading interruptions or other client service issues also get amplified. Momentum, however, was on the side of TD Direct Investing in 2020, as they experienced record-breaking account growth. After a relatively quiet summer, the fall saw a ramp-up of activity related to investor education culminating in the release of a flagship mobile trading feature called TD GoalAssist. The roll out of commission-free trading among Canadian online brokerages has been spotty; however, with GoalAssist, TD Direct Investing has put commission-free trading of ETFs into the spotlight. Looking ahead to 2021, it is likely this new app will feature prominently in TD Direct Investing’s strategy.

    Scotia iTRADE

    Compared to the other bank-owned online brokerages in Canada, Scotia iTRADE was remarkably quiet through 2020. As such, it is more the story of what didn’t happen in 2020 – rather than what did – that makes Scotia iTRADE stand out. A previously vibrant (or semi-active) social media stream went largely dormant except for client service responses. Instead, it appeared that iTRADE leaned into paid advertising to stay visible with new investors and continued providing its usual rotation of investor education webinars. After staying out of the deals and promotions section for most of the year, Scotia iTRADE did flash signs of life with a strong cash-back plus discounted trade or commission-free trade offer.

    Virtual Brokers

    Larger forces were at play in 2020 for Virtual Brokers. The historically active and visible online brokerage also kept a relatively low profile after the early part of the year. Likely contributing to that was behind the scenes activity related to the consolidation of multiple wealth management brands under the CI Financial (parent company to Virtual Brokers) umbrella. Though there was a change of pace in terms of visibility, Virtual Brokers did manage to achieve some important milestones in 2020, such as the launch of an updated mobile app experience. With some important branding changes on the horizon, there are some open questions on what from the existing Virtual Brokers suite will carry forward to the CI Direct Investing platform.

    Wealthsimple Trade

    It was a huge year for the challenger-brand online brokerage. The wave of zero-commission trading enthusiasm that swept across the US online brokerage marketplace in 2019 helped to propel Canada’s only full zero-commission online broker into the spotlight. 2020 saw record new-account growth at Wealthsimple Trade as well as the launch of new and innovative features. Cryptotrading – a first among online brokerages – was launched this year as well as a desktop version of the previously mobile-only trading app. Finally, in the promotions department, Wealthsimple Trade pulled off yet another clever move with a limited time “free stock” promo that sounds very similar to a promotion offered by popular US online brokerage Robinhood. Expect Wealthsimple Trade to continue to make waves in 2021 with new features released on a regular basis.

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