Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – October 7, 2019

You have to hand it to October. For whatever reason, this is the month of the calendar year where there happens to be more volatility than usual in stock markets. It even featured prominently in the Back to Future franchise as the date in which travelling through time would be achieved. Although time travel in a DeLorean may not be here, it seems like for Canadian DIY investors, the future of online trading is.

In this week’s Roundup, the commission rate carnage in the US takes centre stage. With all major online brokerages in the US dropping trading commission rates to zero, it was an historic time to be witnessing this seismic shift in this industry. Speaking of history, our follow up story is about a Canadian bank-owned brokerage who marked their 30-year anniversary as an online broker with a timely video on how much has changed. Of course, staying on top of the comments on social media and in the forums is standard fare, and these close off this edition of the Roundup.

US Online Brokerage Commissions Rocked

There are big deals, and then there are the kinds of weeks like the one the online brokerage industry in the US had. In what could genuinely be characterized as the most explosive (or implosive) week in online brokerage history, investors, media, and online brokerages alike all watched in jaw-dropping awe as commission prices for trading online collapsed to zero. Everywhere.

Within one week of the already low-cost online brokerage Interactive Brokers announcing that they would introduce zero-commission trading as part of IBKR Lite, the entire suite of online brokerage players in the US followed. Starting on October 1st with Charles Schwab, then TD Ameritrade, and finally E*TRADE on October 2nd, billions of dollars in commission revenues were vapourized, along with market caps for the publicly traded US online brokers.

With the moves catching many in the investment world (surprisingly) by surprise, stock prices for the US online brokerages were hit hard. Charles Schwab dropped by 9%, TD Ameritrade was decimated to the tune of 25%, and E*TRADE fell by 16%. The blow back even hit Canadian bank TD for a drop of 2%, which owns 42% of TD Ameritrade.

There is certainly lots to unpack, and likely still many more stories to emerge from what just happened. One thing that does stand out, however, is just how fast the industry as a whole followed the lead of Interactive Brokers.

As we mentioned in last week’s Roundup, the “Z Day” playbook had likely already been written, with many online brokerages in the US aware of what could or would need to happen if one of the major competitors took commission rates to zero. For that reason, although it was painful to do so, the industry was prepared to respond quickly in the event the nuclear option was triggered.

As part of the fallout, the question many Canadian investors are asking (if not outright demanding an answer to) is when online brokerages in Canada will move to full zero-commission trading.

When the online brokerages in the US finally hit the big red button, Schwab was offering standard commissions at $4.95 and both TD Ameritrade and E*TRADE were at $6.95 (all dollar amounts in USD).

For an apples to apples comparison, the “standard” commission rates for Canadian online brokerages range from $4.88 at HSBC InvestDirect to $9.99 (at Scotia iTRADE and TD Direct Investing). Other online brokerages offer variable pricing of $0.01/share with minimums of $1 (Interactive Brokers), $1.99 (Virtual Brokers), and Questrade ($4.95) so depending on the order size, it may be cheaper to execute certain trades there than by paying a fixed fee. And, as we reported last week in the Roundup, National Bank Direct Brokerage will soon be launching their active trader pricing at $0.95. Flat fee pricing for active traders at Virtual Brokers is $3.99, and $4.99 at Scotia iTRADE.

The key takeaway is that the point of no return has likely already been passed for Canadian online brokerages’ commission pricing. For some quick context, Schwab’s $4.95 USD converts roughly into $6.59 CAD.

So, it seems that Canadian online brokerages are going to be counting on the “inertia” effect of Canadian DIY investors as long as they can, hoping that investors don’t want to go through the “hassle” of switching online brokerages if the perceived benefit is not really worth it.

It is worth pointing out that the majority of the word “meh” is comprised of “eh” and that might be appropriate to characterize what the response would be here if Canadian online brokerages took down their pricing to the near zero level. As such, it is likely that Canadian online brokers have much more time than their US counterparts to bring commission rates down. And that time buys flexibility.

One of the important differences between the Canadian and US online brokerage marketplaces is that the level of competition is nowhere nearly as intense. So, while the impact of publicly traded online brokerages taking their commission rates to zero makes headline news and moves markets in the US, there are no publicly traded online brokerages here in Canada to make the same kind of splash.

If zero is not the right number, then what is? Would it really be worth it for passive investors to switch online brokerages if the commissions they paid per trade were $3 or $2 or just $1?

For example, it might not be inconceivable that a Canadian online brokerage attempts to try the gym membership strategy of charging a monthly fee whereby traders can make as many trades as they want (subject to some very well thought out terms and conditions).

Alternatively, Canadian online brokerages could take their rates down to a “toonie” or a “loonie,” and the rates could seem inconsequential. A round trip using a cash fare on the TTC (Toronto’s transit system) costs $6.50 (as of the writing of this post) so a round trip for a stock trade that came in at less than that (without the risk of similar delays hopefully!) would be easy marketing fodder.

Perhaps the biggest ace up the sleeves of bank-owned online brokerages in Canada would be the bundling of banking relationships to achieve the best commission rates. National Bank Direct Brokerage’s latest pricing move is a perfect example of this approach where clients of National Bank get a break on commission pricing at NBDB. A much larger online brokerage competitor could, however, afford to take pricing even lower than the $6.95 watermark. For the non-bank-owned (or non-credit union-owned) brokerages, this latest pricing cut is a bellwether to move faster to cut rates and figure out other value drivers. Dragging their heels is not an option any more.

There will undoubtedly be lots to continue to watch unfold as the US industry tries to adjust to a new commission rate environment while still trying to remain profitable. One of the main forecasts for what will happen next is that industry consolidation will take place.

Sustainability in the online brokerage space lies in scale, which for now will be achieved through acquisition, so it won’t be surprising to see E*TRADE surface again an as acquisition story. Potentially, however, so could Robinhood. It has been structuring itself for an IPO and has been operating as a zero-commission broker from day one, so it not only has the infrastructure and critical mass of key client segment baked in, but it also has founders and their backers looking for a liquidity event. Add to that the terrible climate for tech IPOs in the US at the moment, and it seems like paying a premium for a Robinhood now would likely leapfrog an acquisition of E*TRADE. Like other brokerages, E*TRADE’s forecasts are going to be revised downwards, which means they’re also likely to be acquired at somewhat of a discount if they do get acquired at all.

For Canadian online brokerages, it is likely that the battle for DIY investors will further its split into either passive investors or active ones. With lower commission fees will likely come more trading, and more active traders need better tools – like trading platforms, and data, to time their entries and exits. With zero commissions, frequent trading is likely to see a resurgence, so those novice “day traders” on the sidelines will undoubtedly be enticed to step back in.

On balance, it seems that online brokerages who can offer a better trading experience are going to likely earn higher praise than those who simply offer lower pricing. Any broker who offers both a great trading platform and lower price for commission (*ahem Interactive Brokers*) will be a natural contender for Canadian DIY investors going forward. Throw in the convenience of managing banking, credit cards, line of credit or a mortgage, and you’ve got a trifecta for DIY investors.

The only question now is how long Canadian DIY investors will have to wait before someone claims the mantle of being the first to offer all three in this brave new commission-free world.

RBC Direct Investing Celebrates 30 Years as an Online Brokerage in Canada

The universe can be somewhat poetic in its timing. Amidst the backdrop of all of the activity in the online brokerage space in the US, this past week RBC Direct Investing officially celebrated the incredible milestone of 30 years as an online brokerage for Canadians.

To mark the occasion, the team from RBC Direct Investing opened the market at the Toronto Stock Exchange and produced a video commemorating the journey from 1989 to 2019.

It will undoubtedly be an exciting year for all the online brokerages, but in particular for bank-owned online brokerages like RBC Direct Investing for the remainder of 2019 and 2020.

No stranger to jumping ahead of their bank-owned brokerage peers in lowering commission prices, RBC Direct Investing was the first of the big bank-owned online brokerages to lower their commission rates down to $9.95 a trade in 2014. Like their peers, it’s clearly a question of when, rather than if, commission prices will drop again and by how much.

We’re keen to see whether RBC Direct Investing will once again set the pricing pace among the bigger brokerages and especially given the spotlight being shone on zero-commission rates in the US (and further afield in Europe and Australia). Given the volatility in the space right now, we’re curious where the next 30 (days) takes Canadian DIY investors.

Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

From the Forums

Unluck-eh

While applying for a permanent residency, a Redditor who’s new to Canada is having trouble opening a TFSA and has asked the DIY investor community for their advice. Read the full discussion here.

Uncomfortable Questions

A Redditor with a managed portfolio is curious about index funds but worries that the inquiry will offend their financial advisor. DIY investors discuss the situation and the potential profit outlook here.

Into the Close

Staying on the throwback to the 80s, it was 30 years ago in 1989 that the video game Zero Wing was launched, which eventually gave rise to the meme “All your base are belong to us.” Video games, like the online brokerage industry, have changed dramatically since then. What the events of the past week have shown, however, is that the future can show up faster than expected and that those clamouring for commission-free trading (at least in the US) have now received what they wished for. While we now chuckle at how silly the games 30 years ago look compared to today’s, it is also remarkable to think that one day it will be considered equally silly that online brokerages were able to charge as much as they were for trades for so long.

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