Table Of Contents

    Key points

    It’s hard to believe but here we are at the end of April. For some, it’s a sprint to the tax filing deadline. For sports fans, it’s been a lottery filled week with ‘mathletes’ trying to calculate who pick up prospects in the NFL and NHL. Of course, Canadian discount brokerages know all too well […]

    It’s hard to believe but here we are at the end of April. For some, it’s a sprint to the tax filing deadline. For sports fans, it’s been a lottery filled week with ‘mathletes’ trying to calculate who pick up prospects in the NFL and NHL. Of course, Canadian discount brokerages know all too well the value of being a first round pick for DIY investors – and they also fortunately know not to tweet embarrassing videos of themselves (at least they haven’t yet).

    In this week’s roundup, we take a look at the latest Canadian discount brokerage comparison to see which brokerages ended up gaining accolades. Next, we take a look at a fascinating court case involving a trade gone wrong and a discount brokerage on the bad end of an unhappy trader. From there we cap off this week’s roundup with a look at more unhappy traders in the discount brokerage tweets of the week and close out with chatter from the investor forums.

    Comparing Canadian Online Brokerages

    This past week, the latest ranking and comparison of Canadian discount brokerages hit the digital news stands as Monysense published its guide to online brokerages (the digital edition of the June issue is now available to digital subcribers). Authored by Dan Bortolotti with research and commentary provided by Glenn Lacoste of Surviscor, this is the fourth year in which Moneysense has collaborated with Surviscor to provide an overview of the Canadian discount brokerage space.

    Comparing online brokerages is not an easy task. With more than a dozen providers and so many features to consider, it’s great to have summaries and commentaries to help provide some perspective and hopefully narrow down the research required.

    Unlike most of the other rankings and ratings of Canadian discount brokerages, the Moneysense approach tends to segment out top brokerages by key features or by the specific types of investors (e.g. beginner investors) that would find a particular brokerage attractive. In addition to the commentary, they usually also provide a good summary table that organizes a lot of the information DIY investors care about.

    This year’s edition of the table has a neat inclusion of robo-advisors ETF services available at three brokerages: BMO InvestorLine, National Bank Direct Brokerage and Questrade (although most of these brokerages would not characterize their service as a “robo-advisor”).

    Of course, when it comes to comparing brokerages, the devil is always in the details. And, as a recurring reminder to readers of, it’s important when looking at rankings and ratings to try and understand exactly what’s being measured and driving the title of “best online brokerage”.

    To that end here are a couple of interesting items that stood out.

    First, it was interesting that instead of crowning a “best online brokerage” overall Moneysense chose two categories that distinguish brokerages: either bank-owned brokerages or independent brokerages. The following table shows the breakdown of category winners and honourable mentions.

    Category Top Pick Honourable Mention
    Getting Started BMO InvestorLine Virtual Brokers
    Ease of Use Scotia iTRADE Questrade
    Fees & Commissions Questrade Qtrade Investor
    Customer Service Qtrade Investor Scotia iTRADE
    Reporting & Record Keeping Scotia iTRADE BMO InvestorLine
    Market Data TD Direct Investing Credential Direct
    Best Overall Bank-Owned Scotia iTRADE BMO InvestorLine
    Best Overall Independent Qtrade Investor Questrade

    While the distinction between bank-owned and independent does exist, the piece did not really dive into why this was a critical distinction to make.

    As a result it was a challenge to get an ‘apples to apples’ view of the online brokerage field especially since both independent and bank-owned brokerages were compared side by side according to particular features.

    Another interesting component to the comparison was the reporting of the average time to respond. As was drilled into me by multiple university stats profs, the average alone is not as informative as knowing both the average and standard deviation. Reporting the range and number of attempts at each firm would give a much clearer picture of how consistent that average really is.

    Finally, a place in which readers should be cautious with this comparison is in the standard commission fee category.

    Given the importance of the standard online commission fee for equity trades to consumers who want to find out how much they would presumably have to pay per trade, the way in which these numbers were reported was slightly confusing.

    In particular the standard equity trade for Scotia iTRADE is reported as $9.99 per trade which happens to only be true for individuals whose account is worth at least $50,000. For individuals who do not achieve that threshold, the standard equity commission is at least $24.99 per trade. Unfortunately the “basic” commission at Scotia iTRADE according to this table seems like it is $9.99 (the fact that it is $24.99 is reported in the next row). The fact that a minimum account value is required in order to receive a ‘basic’ value is confusing, especially since it would imply that $50,000 is a ‘basic’ balance. Further, it would mean that HSBC InvestDirect’s commission would be $8.88 per trade at that balance level and not the $9.88.

    Another caution is in the choice was to not mention CIBC Investor’s Edge as having the lowest commission structure under the fees & commissions section. At $6.95 flat per trade, this is one of the most competitive standard equity trade commissions available to DIY investors, including those investors making frequent small trades. In particular it is the fact that the commissions are capped (inclusive of ECN fees) that makes CIBC Investor’s Edge (and any brokerage that caps fees) a compelling choice.

    While the Moneysense discount brokerage ratings do offer a unique, user oriented overview, it’s clear that there’s lots of information for DIY investors to try and digest when comparing.

    Ratings and summaries such as this do help with navigating the maze of data however it is always important to check brokerage fee schedules and the fine print as many of the terms/conditions can’t easily be captured or communicated in one easy view.

    Oh no he DI-n’t

    If you’ve ever been blown out of a bad trade and/or been on the unfortunate other end of a margin call, it can be about as much fun as a root canal, perhaps less so. Examples abound on Twitter and in forums, however, of traders who’ve had trades go the wrong way on them in a hurry and as a result have to take a significant hit. When it happens, it’s not pretty.

    That said, there was an incredibly interesting (for those keenly following the discount brokerage space) case where one trader got caught (or taken) offside and tried to take their online brokerage to court for over $340M in damages.

    The brokerage in this case was TD Direct Investing and (sorry for the spoiler) no, the trader was not successful in his attempt to claim anything back for his trades gone wild.

    Given the length and detail of the examination and case, there is a trove of interesting stuff in the court filings. For those that don’t want to wade through the 14 thousand words, here are some of the highlights:

    First, options trading is risky. And, while risky is a term that is synonymous with trading, it’s important to spell it out: when DIY investors trade, they risk losing their money. And when trading on margin it means that you can lose a considerable amount of it.  For added edutainment, here’s a South Park clip from Margaritaville that nails it:

    The trader in this case (Frank Oktay Turkson) got caught offside when a company he had written put options on went belly up (the stock was GTAT). So, while he did manage to get himself a premium of about $14K (and paid a commission of $47.49 USD) the loss more than wiped out any gains he would have received (he also had to pay $43 commission for the assignment). The fact that he had his other securities liquidated to meet the margin call was a rather unpleasant lesson in the powers that brokerages have to ensure that an account is kept within its stated risk limits.

    In this case, it was interesting to see it pointed out that ‘discount brokerages’ do NOT provide advice or recommendations on where or how to trade. Discount brokerages simply communicate over and over again in the terms and conditions, and in the sign up forms (account opening documents) that trading involves potential for financial loss and that by opening an online brokerage account, DIY investors accept that they could lose money.

    This is even more so the case with options. This was a case where in spite of having gone through the terms and conditions, and having signed that they understood them, a trader got burnt and tried to go after the brokerage for margin call and loss on the position.

    One of the most interesting revelations from this court case was that a brokerage has the option to liquidate a margin position whether or not the position is at a loss. This implies that even a high flying gainer on margin can be shut down at the brokerage’s discretion.

    If there’s one takeaway it’s that the documentation that brokerages provide at the outset of opening an account basically protects them from having to take responsibility in the case that things go wrong on a particular trade. Discount brokerages are a business and they are not prepared to take on someone else’s risk or subsidize a risky trader with margin.

    DIY investors need to be aware that the risks of trading and financial loss are seldom presented with as much excitement or fanfare as the prospect of winning or the ease with which trading can occur. The conversation is definitely in favour of “making money” and how easy it is to trade rather than stating how easy it is to lose money.

    Options are especially risky so it is important to be clear on how they work and how to manage the risks associated with them before trading them. Unfortunately for the trader, they had to learn a very expensive and hard lesson that when it comes to DIY investing, it’s every party for themselves.

    From the Forums

    Counting Potatoes

    While the ‘couch potato’ approach to investing is popular with many investors, it’s important to know what buying and rebalancing will cost in terms of trading commissions. In this post from reddit’s Personal Finance Canada section, one investor heeds some handy math when considering RBC Direct Investing for their ETF investing strategy.

    Need a Joint?

    Wedding season is soon to be upon us. As couples tie the knot they may start to find their finances starting to also get a little more complicated. In this post from Canadian Money Forum, one user asks about a potential joint TFSA with Credential Direct. Find out the interesting feedback that helped shed some light on how TFSA’s work and how to access a spouses account.

    Into the Close

    That’s a wrap for this week. In case you missed it, today was also International Dance Day and there was a running man challenge, both of which were captured in this football themed video courtesy of ‘Gronk’ of the New England Patriots. That’s a whole lot of meme action to close out the week (triple witching meme?). Enjoy the rollover into May and have a great weekend!