Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – August 5, 2016

Citius, Altius, Fortius – the Latin version of the motto of the Olympics which translates into faster, higher, stronger – seems to be an appropriate jumping off point for this week’s roundup, especially as the US stock markets hit new ‘personal bests.’ As with the Olympic games in Brazil, competition between Canadian discount brokerages is quite fierce – which definitely forces brokerages to step up their game.

This week’s roundup features an interesting review of one of the areas that Canadian discount brokerages continue to battle it out with one another and what that means for DIY investors and the industry as a whole. Next, we take a look at one online broker that may have finally stumbled after putting up strong performance numbers for many quarters in a row. From there we take a look at the chatter from investors on social media and in the investment forums.

Deal Pendulum

Like an intraday reversal, this month’s promotions and deals from Canadian brokerages appeared to show a bit of a pullback at the start of August but have inched up to show signs of coming back to life now that we’re a week in.

An extension of BMO InvestorLine’s summer promotion, an investor data partnership offer from Desjardins Online Brokerage and another contest from Virtual Brokers (this time to celebrate their 7th anniversary) helped to offset the expiring offers from Scotia iTRADE and Virtual Brokers at the end of July and brings the total number of advertised offers we’re tracking to 23.

Virtual Brokers’ choice to go with a contest offer was also in line with its last set of offers, which were also contests. In this case, their latest offer is a bit more engaging requiring individuals to hunt around the VB website in order to get a unique link that they can then enter the contest with.

A quick overview of offers shows that transfer offers remain the most popular, but contest/other offers appear to be gaining ground, especially over and above the cash back or commission-free trade promotions.

Of the several interesting developments this month, one of the more notable observations is that Desjardins Online Brokerage has crept up to four active offers, the same as long-time leader in this space Questrade. Last month it was Scotia iTRADE that mounted a challenge to top Questrade however with the expiry of iTRADE’s “TSX shopping spree” contest along with the accompanying transfer fee coverage offer, Scotia iTRADE now has two active offers in play.

Another interesting observation about the deals/promotion space is that there appears to be a relatively low number of referral offers.  In an industry where competing for new clients and growing an account base is so important, referral bonuses not only keep the costs of acquiring new clients low but they also signal, albeit indirectly, that a discount brokerage believes that their clients will find reasons beyond the financial incentive to endorse the company to their friends/family or colleagues.

Finally, it is also curious to observe that brokerages are not using their cash-back promotion structure even though brokerages are willing to extend coverage of transfer fees – effectively paying for clients. The paradox is that new clients, who don’t require complicated migration of holdings, are actually less expensive, and yet they are not the ones being offered an equivalent cash-back or commission credit incentive.

For DIY investors, although the choice of promotional offers has certainly thinned since the spring, the fundamental picture looks good for incentives to grow. There are more brokerages than there are clients rushing out to open a DIY investing account and brokerages are going to have to get creative to stay within budget while also attracting and retaining new clients.

With US markets hitting new all-time highs, the roll-out of CRM2 and Canadian investor sentiment ramping up, the winds are blowing in favour of online brokerages getting creative with their marketing. On the other hand, given the size of the Canadian pool of DIY investors, the opportunity to grow will largely go to the brokerage that moves the fastest and boldest.

Hitting the Hurdle

Even the best runners in the world occasionally stumble.  For the online brokerage space, Interactive Brokers has been fortunate enough to post strong metrics for so long that the recent announcement of their July performance numbers rattled investors in the stock (IBKR) and revealed an interesting angle on the DIY investing market.

First the stats. While Interactive Brokers continued to grow their account base – now at a whopping 360,000 (and up 1% over the previous month), what those clients were doing (or not doing) is what led to more than a few eyebrows being raised.

For the month of July, trading volume through Interactive Brokers fell 8% year-over-year and 6% month-over-month to 602,000 trades per day. In addition, the number of options contracts were down about 29% compared to a year ago and down 12% compared to June. Finally, on a year-over-year basis, margin lending was down 12% to $15.9B (USD) but up slightly (6%) compared to last month.

Stepping back from the numbers, it is interesting to reflect on what might be at play.

On the one hand with more accounts there should be a greater likelihood that trading, or more specifically, that trading revenue increased. That was not the case here, however, where there were more Interactive Brokers clients but fewer trades being made. Could this be a signal that IB is now attracting a slightly less active segment (or less profitable) client type and thus becoming more “mainstream?” While it is difficult to say for sure, another possible explanation is that traders are finding less to trade and are somewhat uncertain as to what the near term market direction will be (read: US elections) so they’re stepping back.

The next 100 days will be telling as to whether or not the US presidential race will introduce some major volatility into the markets.

With more clients signing on to IB, there are likely more traders waiting for that volatility to show up in force to find some interesting trading opportunities – something that bodes well for Interactive Brokers despite the pull back in activity. The lesson for all those who make a living from the markets though is that as much as earnings and performance numbers help to inform decisions, trading at its core is about speculating on future events and right now there are some very crazy possibilities ahead.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

This week’s tweets featured a good cross-section of interesting positive and negative feedback about Canadian brokerages. Mentioned this week were Questrade, Scotia iTRADE, TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers.

From the Forums

Flow of Funds

The less obvious costs of DIY investing are things that all traders should make an effort to find out about.   In this post from reddit, one community member the personal finance Canada group tries to get a better handle on the administration fees associated with moving money into, around or out of Questrade.

In the Red

For many investors learning the ropes of trading sometimes means learning the hard way that some account types let you spend more than you actually have. This post from reddit’s personal finance Canada section provides a good lesson to beginner investors to make sure they understand what kind of account they’re trading with and what happens if they incur a negative balance on the account.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap for this week. The Olympic games are officially underway which means that for most of us, we’ll be watching really fit people exercise on TV. Hopefully the games bring a welcome reprieve from the recent misery and misfortune that has cast a shadow on the games. Best of luck to all the Canadian athletes – bring home the gold!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*