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    Key points

    The DIY investing datapalooza continues this month. Check out the latest in-depth review of online brokerage pricing to find out which brokerages rank as the cheapest, and why measuring cost isn’t quite as simple as it sounds.

    With the weather starting to warm up, flowers aren’t the only thing springing up at every turn. This month, it seems like DIY investing data continues to bloom, offering some very colourful perspectives on the current online trading landscape.

    In this edition of the Roundup, we dig into yet another treasure trove of online brokerage and DIY investor data and find out why measuring the similarities between online brokers is challenging. Also, we’ve got reactions by DIY investors to interesting survey results and more in the forum chatter.

    Reviewing Online Brokerage Pricing: Latest Rankings Challenge Perceptions of Low-Cost Online Trading

    Another week, another big online investing data report to talk about.

    This past week, fees at Canadian online brokerages were under the microscope, as Canadian financial services research firm Surviscor published a significant analysis of the fee structures at 15 Canadian online brokers and found some surprising – and at times controversial – results.

    If there’s been any recurring theme to the coverage of the reports we’ve analyzed over the past few weeks, it’s that context matters. In particular, while it is tempting to focus on the headline results, it is often crucial to understand the methodology underpinning a study to properly understand the outcomes.

    In the case of this latest analysis by Surviscor, this is especially true, because question at the heart of this study is “Who is Canada’s lowest cost online brokerage?” As any long-time reader of the Weekly Roundup will know, however, the answer is usually “it depends.”

    So, before diving into the results, we’ll start by looking at the methodology and process information provided about this study which will better enable readers to understand how the results were ultimately arrived at.

    Method Matters

    One of the most interesting features of the Surviscor online brokerage fee analysis is sheer number of different factors that it considers. Like anything, however, the devil is in the details.

    At a high level, the following six cost categories were measured:

    1. Equity trades
    2. Options trading commissions
    3. ETF commissions
    4. Data costs
    5. Account interest rates
    6. General account fees
    Stock commissions

    When it comes to equity trades, over 12,600 simulated equity orders were analyzed. Specifically, 6,300 buy and sell orders for Canadian and US equities, respectively, were measured. The prices and volumes of securities varied and ECN fees were applied where applicable.

    Options commissions

    Treated as a sub-category, options commissions on a total of 340 option orders, split into 170 Canadian and US buy and sell orders (of various price and contract levels), were measured.

    ETF commissions

    Over 350 ETF orders consisting of over 175 Canadian and US buy and sell orders were analyzed, each order consisting of 700 shares per order.

    Data costs

    Market data fees were examined in this category, and consist of the fees charged by firms to provide real-time quotes, streaming quotes, trading dashboards, and “enhanced” research and tools.

    Account interest

    This category measured debit and credit interest for both non-registered and registered accounts in Canadian and US accounts.

    General account fees

    Fees included and measured in this category refer to inactivity fees, non-registered and registered account annual fees, charges to transfer assets, confirmation fees, closure fees, and account investigation fees.

    Another important methodological point to understand is that profiles of traders/investors were broken into the following five categories based on the number of trades made per month:

    1. 0-4 trades
    2. 5-9 trades
    3. 10-33 trades
    4. 34-49 trades
    5. 50+ trades

    Results & Analysis

    The table below shows the rankings of all the Canadian online brokerages measured as part of this study.

    RankOnline BrokerageScore
    1National Bank Direct Brokerage93%
    2*Wealthsimple Trade86%
    3Desjardins Online Brokerage83%
    4HSBC InvestDirect77%
    5CIBC Investor’s Edge76%
    6Qtrade Investor (now Qtrade Direct Investing)61%
    T-7RBC Direct Investing54%
    T-7Scotia iTRADE54%
    T-7Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage54%
    T-10TD Direct Investing53%
    T-10BMO InvestorLine53%
    12Virtual Brokers50%
    13Questrade45%
    14Canaccord Genuity Direct42%
    15Interactive Brokers22%

    The online brokerage that took the top spot in this edition of the online broker cost ranking was as much of a surprise as two of the bottom three rankings.

    Starting from the top of the podium, National Bank Direct Brokerage came out on top in this study with the highest score of 93%.

    Although it was not entirely clear based on the methodology what the percentage refers to exactly, on a relative basis it is clear that this bank-owned online brokerage managed to outrank its competitors because of lower standard commission pricing (which impacts equities and commissions trading), as well as the fact that it offers commission-free ETF buying and selling when at least 100 ETF units are either bought or sold.

    Taking second place with 86% was a name that many newer investors and much of the popular press on online investing has characterized as the lowest cost online brokerage: Wealthsimple Trade. There was a heavily telegraphed caveat to the results of this study (the elephant-sized asterisk) when it came to Wealthsimple Trade, which, for several reasons to be covered below, makes them a very controversial pick for second place overall in this ranking.

    In third place was Desjardins Online Brokerage – the direct rival to National Bank Direct Brokerage – who scored 83%. Desjardins Online Brokerage was the winner of this ranking last year, and depending on whether or not to include Wealthsimple Trade’s limitations, this online broker might have ended up in second place overall.

    Aside from Wealthsimple Trade, what is noteworthy about two of the top three online brokerages in the fees ranking is that they are both heavily focused on the Quebec market. Not that many Canadian online investors outside of that province are likely to know about these two providers.

    The fact that both of these brands compete aggressively with one another means that there is pricing available for active traders at each of these firms that is unheard of at other online brokerages across Canada. Desjardins Online Brokerage, for example, charges $0.75 per trade if more than 30 trades per month are made. By comparison, National Bank Direct Brokerage charges $0.95 per trade for clients who make 100 trades per quarter.

    Looking at the top five ranked firms in this latest study, it shows that having a low standard commission price significantly improves the ranking position. Again, excluding Wealthsimple Trade, four of the top five online brokerages in this latest ranking have a standard commission rate that ranges from $6.88 to $6.95 per trade. Also worth noting is that the only big-five bank-owned online brokerage to appear in the top five is CIBC Investor’s Edge, however, both National Bank Direct Brokerage and HSBC InvestDirect (which placed fourth overall) are bank-owned online brokerages.

    Thus, one of the biggest findings that this study helps put into focus is that value-conscious online investors can find competitive pricing and convenience with banking products, all in one online brokerage.

    Another interesting set of results emerged with the three online brokerages tied for seventh place and two that tied for tenth. The scores for online brokerages that ranked seventh were 54%, while the scores for tenth place were 53% – a razor thin margin. While it seems strange to be focusing on this middle-of-the-pack group, four of Canada’s biggest five banks have an online brokerage that appeared in either seventh or tenth place when it came to fees. Perhaps the most shocking or surprising finding is that relative unknown Laurentian Bank Discount Brokerage was tied with RBC Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE, and it managed to do better from a cost perspective than TD Direct Investing and BMO InvestorLine.

    That so many of the biggest bank-owned online brokerages in Canada performed so closely to one another is a signal that when it comes to fees, these brokerages are virtually indistinguishable. This result likely reinforces the perception that there is no real difference when it comes to commission or trading price for big-bank-owned online brokerages. The differentiators will come in features or service elements.

    While the bottom ranked online brokerages typically don’t get much attention in online brokerage reviews, this time seems different. Specifically, three big names often associated with low cost of trading online managed to make up three of the bottom four spots. Virtual Brokers, Questrade and Interactive Brokers, ranked 12, 13 and 15, respectively.

    One feature that each of these three online brokerages have in common when it comes to pricing is that they have a variable component to how they charge for trading stocks. Virtual Brokers and Questrade, for example, charge $0.01 per share with a minimum trade cost and maximum trade cost. Similarly, Interactive Brokers charges $0.01 per share with the maximum charge being 0.5% of the trade value.  

    Arguably, aside from the variable pricing, there are also ECN fees which factor into the total commission cost for trading with Virtual Brokers, Questrade, and Interactive Brokers. So depending on the type of order placed (e.g. limit order versus market order), the cost of executing a trade can be far higher than just the commission price.

    Method Determines Measures

    Why it was so important to start this exploration of the Surviscor report by highlighting the methodology is because the way in which certain components were measured influenced the overall ranking outcome.

    One example that stands out is with respect to ETFs. Recall that according to the ETF component of the cost evaluation, 700 “shares,” or units, was used as the standard buy or sell amount. It is difficult to say what the “average” or even the weighted average number of ETF units would be during a typical transaction. However, for many investors, that could represent a significant dollar purchase.

    Consider, for example, the cost for purchasing 700 units of one of the most popular ETFs among Canadian online investors – VBAL. The last price for this ETF was $29.15 so an order to buy 700 units would cost $20,405 before commissions.

    This transaction would be commission-free at National Bank Direct Brokerage, Wealthsimple Trade, Questrade, and Virtual Brokers. If, however, the number of units purchased was lower, say 50 units, then the commissions for the transaction (buy and sell) would see Wealthsimple Trade come out on top with zero commissions, followed by Virtual Brokers and Questrade, while the transaction at National Bank Direct Brokerage would cost $13.90 ($6.95 for each of the buy and the sell).

    That picture changes dramatically, however, if the transaction was for a US-listed ETF. For an ETF like VTI, which had a closing price (at the time of publication) of $215.54 US, 700 units before commission would cost $150,878 US. The commission prices for National Bank Direct Brokerage, Questrade. and Virtual Brokers would be zero. However, at Wealthsimple Trade the foreign exchange fee would be 1.5% times the corporate foreign exchange rate (which at the time of publication was $1.21070). In this example, that means the rate of $1.2289 would apply, which means that instead of costing $182,668 CAD, the forex conversion cost would work out to $185,408 CAD, and would mean a difference in cost of $2,740.

    It is for that dramatic difference in potential cost to consumers that, as part of this cost analysis, Wealthsimple Trade comes with a very substantial asterisk. Certainly, there are some situations, such as trading Canadian securities, where Wealthsimple Trade could come out ahead in terms of cost relative to other Canadian discount brokerages. However, any substantial transactions taking place for US-listed securities would be significantly more expensive.

    Given that Wealthsimple Trade also has restrictions on the securities and markets that DIY investors can trade on, whereas many other online brokerages do not, it becomes harder to rank Wealthsimple Trade on an apples-to-apples basis.

    It is unclear how Wealthsimple Trade was graded for the US-listed securities that would have been traded (700 shares/units of US ETFs and which US stocks) as part of the testing framework, as well as how Wealthsimple Trade was graded for options trading and margin lending (which are not currently offered by Wealthsimple Trade).

    Without knowing which securities were used in the test and which order types, it is harder to pinpoint why Wealthsimple Trade ranked as highly as it did, despite limitations for currency conversion and trading certain securities that other online brokerages would have no issues with. Similarly, this could potentially have an impact on other online brokerages such as Questrade or Virtual Brokers, where buying ETFs is commission-free, or for Qtrade Direct Investing and Scotia iTRADE, where there are certain ETFs which are completely commission-free to trade.

    Takeaway

    With so much data being analyzed, it is no small feat to be able to organize and score all of Canada’s online brokerages even on something as quantifiable as cost.

    Surviscor’s latest evaluation of online brokerage costs reveal the challenge of trying to deconstruct a lot of intentional differentiation effort on the part of Canadian online brokerages. If it is not easy for the professionals to do it, it is certainly a lot harder for DIY investors to run these kinds of deep analysis exercises to find the cheapest (or best value) online brokerage.

    There are other variables, such as age of the investor, or what ticker symbols or the amounts of stock/securities being transacted, that can influence what kinds of costs a DIY investor pays for commissions or account fees.

    One of the most interesting consequences of Surviscor’s latest analysis, however, is that the low pricing structures of online brokerages such as National Bank Direct Brokerage, Desjardins Online Brokerage, and HSBC InvestDirect are going to pique the curiosity of more and more investors.

    Despite having a major focus on the Quebec market of DIY investors, based on the exposure this latest evaluation is getting online, National Bank Direct Brokerage will benefit from the attention. By implication, the bigger bank-owned online brokerages and traditionally viewed “low cost” providers will have to adjust course to compete even more aggressively with brokerages who are able to provide the convenience and confidence of a bank with a price point that, as yet, cannot be beaten by most online brokerages.

    From the Forums

    Price of Fame

    Continuing on the theme of low cost online brokerages, reddit was abuzz discussing the findings of the latest Surviscor report. Check out posts here and here for users commenting on National Bank Direct Brokerage’s latest win and what DIY investors think about commission pricing at Canada’s online brokerages.

    Flipping the Switch

    Moving between RRSP providers can be nerve wracking. In this post, one redditor looks for community guidance in choosing between two very popular online brokerages.

    Into the Close

    That’s a wrap on another data-filled episode of the Roundup. Admittedly it was hard not to drop a doge reference into the whole article so what better way to channel “long” energy than by signing off on a meme-filled ending ahead of the long weekend! Be safe!

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