Table Of Contents

    Key points

    Having had such a terrible start to the trading year, this past week offered a reprieve from the bad news. Of course the recent stock market performance has many skeptics shouting from the rooftops but, as it always is, it will be the market that has the last word. For Canadian discount brokerages, the market […]

    Having had such a terrible start to the trading year, this past week offered a reprieve from the bad news. Of course the recent stock market performance has many skeptics shouting from the rooftops but, as it always is, it will be the market that has the last word.

    For Canadian discount brokerages, the market they need to be paying attention to is DIY investors. Specifically listening to what they’re asking for and finding a way to deliver it. While many brokerages are looking for ways to innovate, it’s clear that what investors want will ultimately drive popularity and this past week we saw some interesting developments take shape.

    In this week’s roundup we take a look at the latest promotional offer from an online brokerage getting creative with ETFs. Next we take a look at a recent review and ranking of online brokerage service and why Canadian online brokerages received a failing grade. As usual, we’ll take a look at what DIY investors were chatting about online and showcase upcoming investor education events.

    Canadian ETFs go commission-free at National Bank Direct Brokerage

    ETFs continue to make headlines and waves with retail investors and several Canadian online brokerages are looking to leverage this attention.

    National Bank Direct Brokerage has once again opened up commission-free ETF trading, making them, at least until the end of June, the fifth Canadian online brokerage to offer up some form of commission-free ETF offering. The offer is open to both new and existing clients and no promotional code is required to take advantage of the commission-free ETF trading program however there are some important conditions.

    One of the important distinctions between National Bank Direct Brokerage’s offer and that of the other brokerages is that NBDB’s promotion is limited to Canadian ETFs only. Given the rise in popularity of ETFs, the list of Canadian ETFs numbers somewhere close to 510 (as of December 2015), which technically speaking, would be the highest number of completely commission-free ETFs (i.e. buying and selling are commission-free) being offered by any Canadian brokerage (see table below). So, even though investors may be missing out on trading some of the approximately 1600 US ETFs commission-free, there’s definitely lots for investors to choose from. With the Canadian dollar also being where it is relative to the US dollar, not having to worry about the currency factor is also another bonus of having access to such a wide range of commission-free ETFS, a few of which are US currency hedged.

    Online Brokerage commission-free ETF buying only commission-free ETF buying AND selling # of fully commission-free ETFs Notes
    National Bank Direct Brokerage No Yes* 511** *Canadian ETFs only; minimum purchase 100 units;
    **estimated as of Feb. 2016
    Qtrade Investor No Yes 60
    Questrade Yes No n/a
    Scotia iTRADE No Yes 50
    Virtual Brokers Yes Yes 150

    Another important detail for investors considering this offer to take note of is that there is a minimum quantity of 100 units to be purchased in order for this offer to qualify as commission-free. Thus, the offer may be less appealing for investors who fine tune and rebalance their portfolio with small (or odd lot) quantities of purchases and sales.

    Finally, the list of ETFs eligible for this promotion is the one published by the Canadian ETF Association found here. The most recent list (at the time of publishing this piece) was from December 2015 however it appears that the list is generally updated monthly (for the previous month’s total) around the middle of each month.

    For Canadian DIY investors, having another online brokerage offer up commission-free ETFs is certainly a big plus. If there is a limitation to this offer, however, it is that it is only offered up for a short amount of time.

    This is not the first time NBDB has run a promotion offering commission-free ETFs nor are they the only Canadian online brokerage to offer the same kind of promotion (CIBC Investor’s Edge also ran a similar promo last year). Given how fiercely competitive the online brokerage space is, and factoring in the rise in popularity of robo-advisors, if this offer proves to have traction with DIY investors, it seems fair to assume that this won’t be the last time we see National Bank Direct Brokerage (or one of their competitors) roll out an ETF-based program such as this.

    Service Shuffle

    At a time when client service is starting to become a bigger focus at Canada’s financial services firms, it seems that providing speedy resolution via email is out of focus at Canadian discount brokerages according to the latest assessment by financial services firm Surviscor. Ironically, while email has been the de facto method to communicate online since the internet turned mainstream, today’s investors have so much access to so many digital touch points that it has become a challenge for brokerages, big and small, to keep pace with where there clients are. As a result, the notion of what constitutes ‘service’ has become a much more fluid concept for investors, rankings agencies and brokerages to agree on.

    Earlier this month Surviscor announced the results of their latest Service Level Index (SLI) ranking, formerly known as the Customer Email Responsiveness program. This analysis program measures the speed with which different online brokerages respond to online requests for support (via ‘mystery shop’ requests) and uses that as a measure of how strong (or weak) a firm’s service response levels are.

    To help provide additional context, Surviscor also applies a tiered rating system according to how quickly a response is received from a brokerage. The rating system ranges from Platinum, which is awarded to firms with a response time of under 2 hours to Bronze which is awarded to those with response times of 8 to 12 hours.

    In Surviscor’s latest assessment, which took place over the full year (2015), Qtrade Investor earned the best “Service Level Index” score whereas Desjardins Online Brokerage had the best response time of the brokerages listed. Both firms were close in score, separated only by 2 percentage points however Qtrade Investor scored highest with 88%.

    Unfortunately, there were no online brokerages that achieved either a ‘platinum’ or ‘gold’ standard ranking this year meaning that none of the firms assessed had a consistent response time of faster than five hours via email.

    What was particularly interesting, however, was just how poorly most brokerages ranked on this assessment. The average ranking for the group worked out to be a meagre 45% with 9 out of the 14 brokerages studied falling beneath that average, with RBC Direct Investing earning a grade of 10%.

    In short, according to the Surviscor assessment, “2015 was not a banner year for self-direct brokerage firms….” It seems that according to the numbers shown above, that might be an understatement.

    Of course with most of the rankings, ratings and reviews of Canadian online brokerages, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Specifically, the method used to gauge these service levels may not be the only nor the best way to reach an online brokerage representative for support.

    For example, Questrade, who ranked 13th (out of 14) on Surviscor’s SLI assessment, has both live chat support during business hours and also has a Twitter handle which is well monitored (as shown on numerous occasions in our weekly roundups). They also have their own forum on which individuals can submit questions and support requests and they are the only online brokerage to be actively responding and covering popular investor forums, including Reddit.

    No other Canadian brokerage, including firms that ranked above Questrade assessment have so far shown the same kind of breadth of coverage.

    Another example of alternative support channels can be seen with TD Direct Investing. Unlike most of their bank-owned brokerage peers, TD Direct Investing has dedicated coverage on its support forum TD Helps, it also has its own Twitter feed (although this is a recent development) and both of these appear to be relatively quick methods to get resolution or a proper response to an inquiry, as shown just this past week in the following Twitter interaction:

    Recent Twitter interaction between TD Direct Invest and online user.

    Interestingly the parent bank of TD Direct Investing placed second in Surviscor’s assessment of the banking services levels showing that the customer service experience in one channel (i.e. banking) might create high expectations for other areas that the bank may be involved with, making it all the more important for bank-owned brokerages to create a consistent brand experience.

    The take home message for DIY investors is simply this: that with any ranking or rating it is important to know what is being measured.

    In the case of “service” it is even more important to be clear on exactly what that term means since different interpretations of what comprises “service” are (quite evidently) possible, especially in a world where online investors turn to multiple online sources for support.

    It would be fair to say that based on Surviscor’s latest ranking of service levels, overall email response times could stand to improve at most Canadian brokerages.

    Unfortunately for consumers, with so many brokerages ranking so poorly, it seems that email-related service experience would not be something DIY investors could really expect a strong positive experience with. That said, for those brokerages that have done well, their commitment to providing quick turnaround times via email stands out even more this year and may continue to be an investment that pays off with existing and prospective clients.

    Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

    This week there was a good cross section of responses from DIY investors on Twitter. Mentioned this week were Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTRADE and TD Direct Investing, Virtual Brokers. Interestingly, the Twitter push from CIBC Investor’s Edge seen last week was surprisingly silent.

    Event Horizon

    The days are getting longer, and it’s an illuminating week ahead for discount brokerage-sponsored investor education events. Here are some upcoming sessions that may be of interest to options enthusiasts and yield hounds. Short selling, trading strategies, and a market outlook round out this week’s selection.

    February 20

    TD Direct Investing – Market Outlook

    February 23

    TD Direct Investing – Introduction to Fixed Income

    Scotia iTRADE – Strategies for Bear Markets – What Goes Up When the Market Goes Down with Pro Market Advisors

    February 25

    TD Direct Investing – Options Fundamentals

    NBDB – Short Selling – [Fr]

    From the Forums

    Too late to say sorry?

    Saying good-bye to a brokerage is a common occurrence for many DIY investors. Regardless of the reason, sometimes the exit is not nearly as seamless as investors like. In this post on Reddit, one Questrade user submitted their frustration with the process. Interestingly (especially given the story above) Questrade replied. Worth a read for those considering a switch.

    Next stop…the world

    Which brokerages will let DIY investors trade internationally? It’s a question that more and more investors are asking yet surprisingly fewer brokerages are answering the call for. In this post, also from Reddit, one user was curious about online brokerages that offered international trading. Of course there were also some alternatives provided which were interesting approaches to international exposure.

    Into the Close

    Even though the trading week was short, it seems that markets favoured the long trade. But, all may not be as it seems as the bears still have quite a bit of support heading into next week. And, don’t forget, bears are resilient bunch. This story of the ‘water bear’ (tardigrade) coming back to life after surviving being frozen for 30 years might offer some food for thought – especially to all of those in parts of Canada that feel more like Antarctica and of course, those holding onto losing positions in their portfolio. Have a great weekend, keep warm but stay frosty into the week ahead!