Discount Brokerage Weekly Roundup – April 5, 2021

Discount Brokerage News

April 05, 2021

Published April 05, 2021

10 Minute Read

Table Of Contents

    Key points

    This week, we review the latest online brokerage deals and what they might signal for DIY investors heading into the spring and summer. Also, we take a look at why markets rising have some investors staying away.

    Despite the short week last week, markets didn’t mind and leaped ever higher. While patient investors were rewarded, not everyone was so hoppy, it seemed.

    In this edition of the Weekly Roundup, we jump into the latest deals and promotions activity spotted at Canadian discount brokerages in April, and the trends that seem to be emerging from the latest offerings. Next, we take a look at why some investors are not so keen on markets grinding upwards and what that could mean for Canadian online brokerages through the rest of the year. Tweets will be off for a few weeks, but we’ll wrap up with interesting discussions taking place on investor forums.

    Online Brokerage Deals Spring Into Action

    There’s good news for DIY investors on the hunt for a deal when opening an online trading account. April brings with it more than just rain and signs of spring, as another Canadian online brokerage has also decided to step into the deals and promotions pool, bringing the post-RSP season count of new deals to two.

    It might seem unusual to make a big deal out of just two online brokerages doing anything, however, it’s not just any two online brokers. While it’s too soon to call something a trend outright, there are some interesting parallels that make a case for a possible pattern emerging.

    To start off the month, HSBC InvestDirect launched a new commission-free trading offer that features 60 commission-free North American equity or ETF trades which are good for use for up to 60 days. The offer, which launched at the beginning of April, runs through the end of June and is available to both new and existing clients.

    Midway through last month, National Bank Direct Brokerage also launched a massive commission-free trading promo, ponying up 100 commission-free trades which were good for use for up to one year.

    With a competing commission-free trading offer already on the market that is both larger and longer in duration, why might Canadian DIY investors consider HSBC InvestDirect’s promotion?

    One of the reasons that HSBC InvestDirect’s new offer might appeal to new clients is because HSBC InvestDirect has the lowest standard commission rates for a Canadian bank-owned online brokerage, at $6.88 per trade. It might seem like a few pennies per transaction when compared to National Bank Direct Brokerage’s or CIBC Investor’s Edge standard commission of $6.95 per trade. However, investors who are ultra-price sensitive and who want to have the convenience that a bank-owned online brokerage affords, as well as the potential security of one provider for their personal financial and wealth management needs, can find all of these with HSBC InvestDirect.

    Another key reason why investors might lean towards HSBC InvestDirect is because this online brokerage is fairly unique among most Canadian online brokerages in that it enables trading on international stock exchanges, something that is of increasing appeal. It is why in the fine print of the new offer by HSBC InvestDirect, trading is restricted to North American equities and ETFs. No other online brokerage makes it a point to stipulate that commission-free trades apply only to these geographies.

    In comparing the commission-free trading offers from HSBC InvestDirect and National Bank Direct Brokerage, both show that the numbers of commission-free trades being offered are relatively high. By comparison, Questrade, one of the online brokerages that has a long-standing promotion for commission-free trades, comes in at a much more modest range (up to 18 commission-free trades), depending on how commission credits are used.

    Based on our long-term deals and promotions research, commission-free promotions are less appealing to DIY investors than cash back offers. That said, some investors will find free trades valuable when considering opening an online brokerage account. It might be just the component to help tip an investor in the direction of either one of these non “big five” bank-owned online brokerages.

    The fact that the two newest online brokerage promotions to come to market after RSP season are commission-free trading offers points to a possible preference by online brokerages to use this kind of deal to stay on the radars of online investors.

    The good news in the near term for DIY investors is that Canadian online brokerages appear to be shifting from taking a passive stance on promotions to taking a more active one. This means there are likely other online brokerages (that aren’t the “big five”) which will consider launching offers in the coming weeks and months.

    In terms of timing, launching a new promotional offer at this point in the calendar year might offer some advantages, because the competition for attention isn’t as fierce (and therefore expensive) as it is leading up to RSP season, or into the end of the year.

    One of the big milestones in April is the deadline for filing income taxes at the end of the month. We have already observed that Wealthsimple is using products in its ecosystem, Wealthsimple Tax (formerly Simple Tax) and Wealthsimple Trade, to combine these two worlds in a very unique promotional offer. Users of Wealthsimple Tax’s paid feature can be eligible to receive a free stock in their, wait for it, Wealthsimple Trade account. No other online brokerage has this streamlined marketing capability between the world of taxes and the world of investing, despite how tightly intertwined these two worlds actually are (especially this time of year).

    For any Canadian online investors who couldn’t, or didn’t need to, capitalize on the offers from online brokerages in the first calendar quarter of this year, the good news is they can now choose from two sizable commission-free trade deals and, if history is any indicator, perhaps a few more as the spring progresses.

    For Canadian online brokerages, the fact that another two bank-owned online brokerages stepped into the deals and promotions pool with commission-free trade offers is a signal that this kind of offer is one possible way to stay visible with online investors while keeping costs low at the same time.

    Commission-free trades are not as costly as cash back programs to administer, and thus offer greater flexibility. For example, the minimum deposit requirements for cash back promotions tend to be higher than for commission-free trade promotions, which in turn makes it less likely for potential clients to sign on.

    The current market climate for online investors is also something worth considering.

    Unlike the same point in time last year, there is much greater clarity and certainty available to the stock markets on the direction of the major global economies. Yes, it appears that the return to “normal” will be slow, but already markets have seen a significant drop in volatility and therefore opportunity for rapid wealth growth (or loss).

    Thinking longer term, however, this year will be interesting for commission-free trade incentives overall.

    In Canada, there is already one online brokerage that offers standard commission-free trading (Wealthsimple Trade), and there was recently news of another commission-free online broker possibly launching towards the end of 2021. There is also the possibility that Tastyworks shows up with an ultra-low standard trading commission structure for Canada this year, too. With so many commission-free providers in the mix, it could prove to be the catalyst for most Canadian online brokerages to have a standard commission-free trade offer if they don’t want to lower their commissions to zero right away.

    As always, we’ll simply have to wait and see how the rest of the spring and summer play out as far as promotions. With the launch of these recent deals and the looming uptick in commission-free trading offers, we find it hard to believe that most online brokerages won’t be taking this opportunity to ramp up their marketing efforts, including using incentives, to solidify their own growth goals.   

    Have We Reached Peak “YOLO”?

    This past week, the S&P 500 closed above 4,000 points for the first time ever, and it seems that some investors have had enough.

    With volatility decreasing while indices like the S&P 500 make new highs, the get-rich-quick crowd appears to have hit a wall.

    For anyone paying close attention to the world of online investing, especially over the past year, one of the biggest catalysts for investors jumping headfirst into the markets was the massive shock to stock prices that followed initial news of the pandemic lockdowns. With the outside world in chaos, individual investors hunkered down inside. Whether they were working from home or just at home, one of the only places that had any signs of life was the stock market.

    Online brokerages in Canada and the US saw this play out firsthand.

    It started as a surge in online account openings followed by backlogs in call centre wait times. One other odd thing occurred too – many Canadian online brokerages started to retreat from offering deals and promotions. The reasoning was clear: demand was so strong that they didn’t have to create even more by running incentives. We believe, however, the pendulum of investor interest in trading is about to swing back.

    This past week, Interactive Brokers released their monthly operating metrics. However, in those numbers was a stunning figure: a 21% m/m decline in new account opens. This is the second consecutive month of double-digit drops (February saw a 35% m/m decline) and while that might normally be a shocking occurrence, on a year-over-year basis, Interactive Brokers new account opens are up 51%.

    These massive drops in new account openings in 2021 are the result of a statistically anomalous period for investors being interested in trading the stock market, and the sharp drops from the highs in January underscore numerically just how strange the push to begin the year has been. The fact that these numbers at Interactive Brokers are dropping, however, suggests the heightened enthusiasm might be waning.

    Other sources point to this online investor pullback being true as well.

    According to a recent article analyzing US retail investor behaviour, there has been a staggering drop off of stock buying, to the tune of 60% near the end of March, and estimates of traffic decreases to US online brokerage Robinhood’s website are pegged at 63%.

    In Canada, an article from the Globe and Mail describing the allocation of CERB money to online investing also conveys a sentiment of caution, rather than the frenzied “YOLO” trades that were taking place at the end of January or during this point last year in various beaten down travel stocks.

    DIY investors simply aren’t jumping into the markets because there isn’t the perception of opportunity that comes with stable markets. That said, the data now suggests that while the big surge may be over, interest in stocks and trading remains elevated as a result of those who did enter the markets during 2020 and 2021.

    So, what could this shift in investor interest mean for Canadian online brokerages?

    One of the most immediate consequences is that new account openings will likely continue to drop off. Interestingly – perhaps almost counterintuitively – new account openings might be inversely correlated to the volatility of stock markets, which would force a rethink of how online brokerages position themselves for choppy markets.

    While volatility has historically been a warning signal to stay away from markets, there is now a cohort of investors who have seen that doing the opposite actually pays off. Going forward, Canadian online brokerages will likely have to be prepared to bolster systems to deal with the increased interest that accompanies volatility.

    Another near-term consequence will likely be how online brokerages approach attracting new clients.

    The surge in investor interest over the past year exposed gaps among various online brokerages, in terms of being ready to take on new clients. Those online brokerages with online sign-up processes already in place were able to win clients more quickly than those who had not invested in these systems. As such, new clients found the path of least resistance into markets.  

    With a pullback in investors wanting to trade, however, we expect there to be heightened deals and promotions activity among Canadian online brokerages, especially at brokerages agile enough to deploy these offers.

    Marketing campaigns can take weeks or months of planning, so it is safe to assume that the planning for promotions in November through March of next year will be discussed during the summer. The fact that there will likely be fewer new investors coming to market means that online brokerages will have to factor this into their planning.

    Also, as mentioned above, with new entrants to the Canadian online brokerage market on the horizon and fewer new investors, promotions pricing will be a key lever to get and keep attention.

    The “new normal” in terms of online investing is already presenting itself. Stock markets tend to be future focused, so it is perhaps no surprise that investor behaviour might serve as a bellwether for other sectors of the economy. Many investors found their way into the markets because of rapid drops in prices of big-name stocks and a hope of getting rich fast. As life returns to “normal” and these larger names see appreciation in prices, there are fewer places for investors to find fast-money opportunities.

    If there’s one thing that the “YOLO” investors don’t like, it’s when things get too hard. And, as any veteran of the market could tell you, doing nothing in the markets is a lot harder than it looks.

    From the Forums

    I Do Declare

    Some big news coming out of the Canadian securities regulators prompted a wave of discussion among online traders in this reddit post. Cryptocurrency trading platforms operating in Canada will soon have to be registered as investment dealers with IIROC, the same governing body that oversees online brokerages. Check out the frenzy of discussions as confusion sets in over how this is all going to work, and what investors think of the move towards increased regulation.

    Sibling Remedy

    Helping family members with financial affairs can be dicey at the best of times. In this post on reddit, one younger sibling steps in to help an older one plan for a retirement that’s not too far away. There were many tips on to help navigate a touchy subject.

    Into the Close

    That’s a wrap on this edition of the Roundup. Even though it was a short week, there were still lots of egg-citing developments taking shape. Economic numbers continue to point towards the US economy starting to recover, and the new frenzy du jour here in Canada is real estate, where despite a recession and pandemic, housing sales numbers continue to skyrocket. If there was any question as to where the get-rich-quick crowd might have turned to after stocks and crypto have started to become less volatile, this might be a clue.

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