For most Canadian investors and traders who place their trades online, the details of what happens after they press ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ on their stock trades is largely a trivial matter. Should one start to think about it, however, the process of matching up millions of orders, confirming trades and documenting what went to whom and where can get fairly complicated very quickly. Penson Financial Services Canada, a company that specialized in tackling that complexity by tracking those orders for a number of Canadian discount brokerages (such as Questrade and Virtual Brokers), has decided to wind down its Canadian operations. The decision appears to primarily impact the back office operations of Questrade, Virtual Brokers and Disnat.
According to the release on their website, Penson Financial Services Canada has estimated that the wind-down will take approximately six months commencing October 1st, 2012. During this transition phase, client accounts will be referred along to new “carrying brokers” or “custodians”, with many of those clients being handed off to Fidelity Clearing Canada ULC in a deal struck between the two organizations. It was on the heels of this announcement by Penson Financial Services Canada that both Questrade and Virtual Brokers announced their intentions to form their own in-house clearing arms (you can read the official news releases for Questrade here and for Virtual Brokers here). Although not formally announced, it appears Disnat too will be moving clearing and settlement operations in-house.
For Questrade and Virtual Brokers, both these companies felt that the move to clear trades in-house was a natural progression in their evolution as businesses, with the timing of Penson’s closing provided a natural window for them to make the transition. Most of the major Canadian bank-owned discount brokerages already do the clearing and settlement activities in-house, with only a handful of Canadian discount brokerages, such as Jitneytrade and HSBC Investdirect outsourcing this back office activity to third parties.
For the clients of Questrade and Virtual Brokers, the respective brokerages have promised the transition to be seamless. In the case of Virtual Brokers, for example, their systems have been running in parallel with Penson’s for three years, so there has been ample time to ensure when the time to go it alone came, they would be ready. In addition to technical requirements, rigorous audits, planning and monitoring protocols have also been developed to support this transition. Ultimately, depending on how efficient the back office functions are, the savings from not having a third-party clear and settle trades, maintain records and prepare and distribute client statements and trade confirmations, could result in more competitive pricing than is already being offered. Like all things of this complexity though, it will be easier said than done.
While the impact of the closure of Penson Financial Services Canada on retail investors will likely (and hopefully) go unnoticed, one of the most interesting aspects of this turn of events is that it points out that even the ‘middleman’ can get squeezed out, a lesson full-service discount brokerages have learned all too well.