Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – January 28, 2019

It’s hard to believe but the end of the first month of 2019 is almost here. In the short time the new year has been around there has been no shortage of activity in the markets. As timing would have it, however, we’re just a few days away from Groundhog Day, the Super Bowl and despite the reopening of the U.S. government, a possible round two of a government shutdown.

With news clearly going to tilt towards what’s happening in the U.S., we thought it would be a propos for this edition of the roundup to take a deep look at slate of quarterly earnings calls from US online brokerages, to gauge what sentiment was like with these leading firms and as a proxy for what DIY investors here in Canada can expect to see over the course of the year. Of course, there is also some regularly scheduled Canadian content to look forward to in the roundup, with DIY investor tweets featured as well as what online investors were chatting about in the investing forums.

Reviewing U.S. Online Brokerage Trends for 2019

With the Super Bowl just around the corner, it was fortuitous timing to also check in on US online brokerages as their calendar Q4 earnings calls took place this past week. Even though the primary focus for SparxTrading.com is on the Canadian discount brokerage market, the fact remains that the U.S. online brokerages offer a very interesting window into the business of being an online brokerage and can serve as a proxy for what Canadian DIY investors can expect to see (or not see) anytime soon.

We reviewed the earnings call transcripts from three major online brokerages in the U.S. – Interactive Brokers, TD Ameritrade and E*Trade Financial and while there’s certainly lots of inside baseball about the financial performance of each of these companies that was discussed, there were also a number of interesting insights about the state of each business and the industry as a whole that was revealed.

While the financials and quantitative side of the earnings discussion describe an interesting perspective of online trading in the U.S., we zeroed in on a few qualitative items that we think are shaping the U.S. online brokerages and, in turn, that could impact how Canadian online brokerages ultimately end up delivering services to Canadian DIY investors.

Byting More Off

One of the first themes that jumps out across the three online brokerages is that there is a concerted push towards automation.

Interactive Brokers is by far the leader when it comes to automation, with an ingrained culture of attempting to automate “anything that moves” this kind of wholehearted commitment to automation has, in their view, enabled them to offer low cost trading, stringent risk management and incredible scalability.

Fundamentally, they are not only becoming the choice of retail investors but also institutional investors and advisors who believe in the technology. The proof, as it were, is in the earnings pudding. Interactive Brokers operates at an enviable 60%+ operating margins while offering among the lowest cost of trading. The implications of this culture of automation are vast, but one crucial area that it impacts is account growth.

Interactive Brokers’ growth strategy is to build a trading experience that clients will want to refer to other investors to. In fact, according to Nancy Stuebe, Interactive Brokers’ Director of Investor Relations on the conference call – “The majority of our new customers come to us by recommendation of existing customers, so the more we do in order for our customers to have a successful experience, the more likely they will enthusiastically recommend our platform to others. The more new customers we onboard now, the more customers they will bring to us in the following weeks and months.”

Again, we have yet to see a month in Interactive Brokers’ history over the past decade where client account growth has contracted. On a year over year basis, their client accounts are up a staggering 24%.

Why we’ve spent so much time on Interactive Brokers is because their playbook is one that other online brokerages are clearly chasing when it comes to automation and digitization. Both E*Trade’s CEO Karl Rosser and TD Ameritrade’s CEO Timothy Hockey cited the importance of technology and innovation as drivers to competing in the online investing space going forward.

Pragmatically, this means organizations switching to agile development environments (something we’ve seen in Canadian online brokerages). As Hockey also highlighted, this path towards increased digitization means removing the inefficiencies that accompany filling/keying in client information manually (e.g. paper forms).

What that means for Canadian online brokerages is clearly that online account openings and digital experiences are going to be the standard. With several online brokerages in Canada still working on online account opening and still requiring some forms to be printed, signed and submitted, the “old way” of doing things will actually make certain online brokerages less accessible to younger investors who don’t have a printer and don’t want to bother trying to get access to one.

Focusing on China

Another really big talking point that emerged in the different conference calls was China. Specifically, Interactive Brokers – who has clear ambitions to become the world’s most dominant online brokerage and TD Ameritrade, who is venturing into the Chinese online investor market space, clearly see online investing in the Asian markets as another path to growth.

What was interesting about the conversations is the fact that these two leading American online brokerages referenced deploying WeChat integrations and citing dynamics in the Chinese markets as impacting financial performance of the online brokerage itself. In other words, there are idiosyncratic experiences of Chinese investors that U.S. online brokerage leadership have had to familiarize themselves with and stay on top of.

For Canadian online brokerages, there are really only two online brokerages (HSBC InvestDirect and Interactive Brokers) that offer a well-telegraphed access to foreign – and Asian in particular – equity markets.

With Lunar New Year just around the corner, it will be interesting to see which Canadian online brokerages also recognize this as an opportunity to tap into a highly prized investor base with direct and indirect ties to trading in Asian markets. We had noted some interesting developments at National Bank Direct Brokerage, for example, in 2018 with their sponsorship of an Asian-focused investing conference in Vancouver and prior to that, Questrade’s special promotion for Chinese New Year as well as TD Direct Investing offering educational sessions in Mandarin and Cantonese.

Clearly there is already activity from a handful of Canadian online brokerages to connect with segments of the Chinese-Canadian population and the movements from TD Ameritrade and Interactive Brokers also reiterate the importance of this trend across the industry.

Suite Tooth

A third (but by no means final) interesting theme to emerge from these conference calls is that the “new” business model for online brokerages goes beyond just DIY investing.

Even though TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and Interactive Brokers may have started as pure DIY investing platforms, the reality of trends in the past three to five years has been a realization that digital wealth management and advice services, are services that their clients may actually be interested in taking advantage of. Extending this point out a bit further, it clearly appears that online brokerages in the U.S. want to become more than just places for an investor to place a trade.

There is a clear effort to go beyond just DIY investing and provide digital wealth management (i.e. robo-advisors), banking services and human advisors as potential service offerings to DIY investors.

Even though Robinhood spectacularly blundered the roll out of their cash management program, Interactive Brokers did not, and launched a new program to pay interest to clients holding less than $100,000. E*Trade, by comparison, has seen a direct benefit for offering a high interest savings account option to clients.

The line between online brokerage and wealth management firm and traditional bank is blurring.

As financial services gets increasingly more digitized, the comments and activities highlighted in each of these three conference calls clearly point to a convergence of financial services. For Canadian DIY investors this likely means a combination of more choice when it comes to services available at the non-bank owned online brokerages (Questrade’s shift to include traditional wealth management is a good example of this) as well as being marketed to about advice services (digital or human) at the bank-owned online brokerages.

What it Means for Canadian Online Brokerages

In looking across the online brokerage industry in the U.S., it is evident just how different in terms of scale their market is to the Canadian one. That scale becomes important in the Canadian space since the smaller market size in Canada restricts the speed of innovation or the scale of undertaking simply because the business case is harder to make here.

For that reason, it is important to keep a pulse on what’s going on in the U.S. because there are developments to trading platforms, account services, and more that will surface in that market before they show up in Canada. Only the most compelling features, however, will seriously get discussed and acted upon at Canadian online brokerages.

Nonetheless, there is one principle that stands firm at U.S. online brokerages: putting the customer experience first. Fortunately this is something that transcends borders, however tactically, what Canadian online brokerages are able to do versus U.S. online brokerages is evidently quite different.

For a lengthy but informative example of the thinking by U.S. online brokerages on how to become a best-in-class online brokerage, Karl Rosser from E*Trade, provided an answer (quoted below) worth reading.

“So, when I think about customer experience, I think about and I talk about quite a bit what our vision is internally right, as E*TRADE. And when we talk and it’s plastered on all of our walls around our sites it’s on our employees’ desks and their computers, it’s to be the number one digital broker and advisor to traders and investors known for ease of use and completeness of offering, right.

So, the last two I think address your question in the biggest way which is ease of use and completeness of offering. From the first touch, as a customer, you need a mobile device, a mobile application, easy to download, easy to sign on to, ease of use on an online application, easy to find tools and services, a very simple chat pop that you can interact with if you don’t like to talk to a human being or a very nice customer service rep on the other side if you need help and you want some handholding, right. That’s the beginning of it all.

And then, what happens once you sign in and you log into that environment and now you’re in E*TRADE’s site, right. So, you’ve gone in, you’ve logged in, you are a customer. Does it look the same? Does it feel the same? Is it easy to move around? Can you get what you look for in one click, right? Can you drop down a menu, not a hamburger and one of the sites that you have that’s very hard to pull down, but can you sort of hover above it and see everything you want to see on that site and get right to it without getting confused? Is the education offering complete? Is it easy to use? Is it easy to understand, right?

So, I like your time horizon, but we need to get there a lot quicker. I think we are very good today. We need to be great tomorrow, right. That’s what E*TRADE has to be. We’ve always been the innovator and a disruptor in this space. To me, today, innovation has to start with what does your customer want, right. What kind of interaction does your customer want from you? What do they demand out of the device? What do they demand from your platform? You have to read that upfront, you have to have the right data and analytics and you need to drive it home all the way across your platform and site and every person in your organization from the first touch all the way through senior management, all the way up to our Board, needs to know that that customer is first and foremost in our existence and reason for being, right.

So, it’s a long-winded answer. But over a three-year period, that’s where we need to be. But, it doesn’t stop at three years. You’ve got to constantly innovate. You have to constantly listen to the feedback loop. What are your customers saying? What are the new market entrants, right? We talk about all the time as a management team. Yeah, there’s a lot of really cool technology out there, really easy apps to use, really nice things that people can do. What can we learn from that? What type of customer does that draw? What type of account does it open? How often do they interact? What types of balances do they bring? Do we want to offer that type of service? Does it cannibalize what we have? That’s what we think about every day.

So, the question you just asked is at the centerpiece of everything we strategically do as an executive committee here at the firm, all the way through our reason for being. So, it’s a great question and I think it has to start with customer first, completeness of offering, ease of use. It’s as simple as that.”

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Go Short

This forum user is changing the pace with short term investment options. See what these forum users suggest in tailoring plans to get the best options with what’s currently being offered.

Investing Playbook

Due diligence goes a long way as this forum user notes their investment process and takes to the Financial Wisdom Forum to see if there’s room for improvement. Fellow forum users jumped in to provide their feedback with their advice on managing investments. See what they had to say.

Into the Close

That’s a wrap on the biggest online brokerage news for the past week. From political footballs to actual footballs, the news channels and social media channels alike will be scrambling to keep up with all of the action. Layer in earnings announcements and it’s bound to be a volatile week. Regardless of whether you’re bullish or bearish though, it’s best to remember that past performance doesn’t predict future results. Unless you’re Tom Brady.

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