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    Key points

    Crisis and opportunity. For traders it’s often two sides of the same coin. The human toll of the tragic events in Fort McMurray are impossible to quantify however for those seasoned veterans of markets who can only watch in disbelief at this surreal disaster, the scale and impact of these wildfires are what need to […]

    Source: Twitter

    Crisis and opportunity. For traders it’s often two sides of the same coin. The human toll of the tragic events in Fort McMurray are impossible to quantify however for those seasoned veterans of markets who can only watch in disbelief at this surreal disaster, the scale and impact of these wildfires are what need to be traded around – which means speculators are trying to quantify the impact to oil, the Canadian dollar and the insurance industry. That said, like markets, it is encouraging that because of the bravery of first responders and the steely resolve of those displaced by these unrelenting fires, individuals are looking to the future, patiently awaiting the chance to rebuild.

    In this edition of the roundup we’ll take a look at the latest deals and promotions to hit the stands at the outset of the month. Following that, we do a lightning round of small updates at several brokerages which show that the ground is still shifting and highly dynamic. We close out the roundup with chatter on Twitter and in the Canadian investor forums.

    Making a Market for Promotions

    Even though markets seemed to have had a solid bounce off their February lows, for online brokerage deals, it seems that the case is quite the opposite. The number of deals and promotions from Canadian brokerages has steadily receded so that heading into a new month we’ve now spotted 17 advertised promotional offers.

    Despite a couple of brokerages flashing bearish signals on offering DIY investors deals, the great thing about competitive markets is that there are other brokerages who are bullish, and as a result, the next few months should have some really interesting changes start to take shape.

    Since March, it appears that Questrade and Scotia iTrade in particular have turned bearish on deals. After years of promotional activity that typically resulted in a new offer every few weeks, these firms have been noticeably more quiet – perhaps too quiet. In such a dynamic space, sometimes it not what players do but what they don’t that raises eyebrows. In this case, such a longstanding practice of headline grabbing offers suddenly pulling back is sign that something is definitely up.

    In contrast, Virtual Brokers has decided to pick up its promotional pace in 2016. They head into May with a contest driven promotion ($500 Apple gift certificate prize draw) and more recently they’ve also teamed up with 5i Research to provide special access to this newsletter/information service to VB’s clients whose balances are greater than $4,000 (this is being marketed directly to existing clients for the moment although it is open to new clients).

    Another brokerage that stepped back into the promotional arena this month was National Bank Direct Brokerage. In NBDB’s case, they are once again sponsoring the Horizons Exchange Traded Funds “Biggest Winner” ETF trading competition. The simulated trading competition involves contestants trading Canadian ETFs to see who can have the best performance over the 6-week competition. Top prize for the ‘biggest winner’ is $7500.

    Incidentally the contest sponsorship coincides with National Bank Direct Brokerage’s commission-free ETF offer (for Canadian ETFs only), so the contest promotion has some overlap with the free ETF promotion as well.

    Overall, the number of actively advertised deals has declined since the start of the year, owing in large part to the retracement of Questrade in this space.

    That said, certain brokerages are running unadvertised marketing campaigns to select clients and there are already brokers that have signaled a pickup of deals activity heading into the fall.

    While brokerages may not be too enthusiastic about dishing out free trades or cash-back incentives, the challenge of attracting new clients and standing out from one another still remains. It looks like the strategy across multiple brokerages is to stay away from price drops and focus on the value added experience (i.e. getting additional research or getting promotional items).  The fact there are several brokerages actively running contests as part of their incentive program could be signs of an early trend emerging.

    Whatever the route that brokerages choose to take, the reality of attracting new clients while staying ahead of the competition has only gotten more complex. The notion that you have to ‘give to get’ is one that will remain true for brokerages, so it will be interesting to see who does the giving and what form those gifts take.

    Lightning Roundup

    This week there were a number of small developments across the online brokerage space. Though they might be small, however, they do highlight that this space is still a dynamic one, even heading into the second half of spring.

    Qtrade Shifting the Focus

    In an interesting shift of messaging on the front end of their website, Qtrade Investor has replaced their now-expired deal announcement with an image focusing on the customer service aspect of dealing with Qtrade.

    Source: Screenshot of Qtrade Investor website

    The choice of what to make front page news on a company’s website homepage is a deliberate and important one. In Qtrade’s case, the focal point on good service is one they most likely want to ensure gets equated with their brand.

    This is another in a series of front-facing improvements Qtrade has made so it is interesting to see what this evolves into.

    Interactive Brokers Trading Metrics

    Interactive Brokers once again released their trading and company metrics for April. While there were mixed performances across different metrics, what continued to show consistency is their account growth. On a month over month basis, client accounts grew by 1% but on a year over year basis, this figure was +15%.

    Interactive Brokers continues to attract more clients than they lose, a sign that traders are still stepping up to the plate. Looking a little deeper, they are continuing to maintain their dominant position with highly active traders with the average number of trades per client estimated at 444/year.

    The Digital Transition

    One of the biggest advantages that bank-owned brokerages have enjoyed over the non-bank owned brokerages has been the fact that there is the convenience of a physical branch to go into. That notion of convenience, however, is clearly becoming increasingly digital.

    An area in which that has become particularly evident has been in investor education. Specifically, in looking at the educational events provided by TD Direct Investing, there has been a noticeable shift away from doing in-person/live events and towards doing online webinar style events.

    Here are two images comparing the educational events across Canada from 2014 and that same picture heading into May 2016. It is interesting to note that there are more in-person events taking place in BC than there are in Ontario, despite the population size difference. Further, there are now fewer (if any) in person events in Quebec and regions outside of Ontario, Alberta and BC. For what it’s worth, TD Direct Investing also does in person events (such as their Tastytrade event in Toronto last fall) which are bigger in scale and offer much more of a spotlight on their brand than perhaps the network of small educational seminars could offer.

    Source: Screenshot TD Direct Investing Seminars Page

    Interestingly, looking at other educational event providers at the bank-owned brokerage level, Scotia iTrade tends to hold almost all of their educational events as online webinars while their in person events are largely as a sponsor of Larry Berman’s educational ‘road show’.

    National Bank Direct Brokerage, on the other hand, does not tend to do large/big name events and tends to concentrate their efforts primarily in Quebec. Over time they’ve shifted from being mostly in-person events to now about an even split between online and in-person events.

    The reality of busy people today is that technology exists to give investors the convenience of webinars rather than forcing them to commute and coordinate being in a room to listen and learn. Although this transition has clearly taken some time to manifest, the trend towards digital transition in financial services is evident and there’s really no going back from here. As everything around consumers gets more and more digital, the expectation that banks and online brokerages demonstrate leadership and agility with technology will be key to their survival. It is perhaps why Scotiabank announced a mindboggling spend of $275M to upgrade their technological infrastructure. The technology arms race has already begun so it will be interesting to see how and where online brokerages continue to digitize going forward.

    Discount Brokerage Tweets of the Week

    It looks like customer service in the digital age includes being able to connect on Twitter. Online brokerages that had their customer service skills tested included BMO InvestorLine, CIBC Investor’s Edge, Questrade, RBC Direct Investing, Scotia iTrade, TD Direct Investing and Virtual Brokers.

    From the Forums

    As they say in the markets, sometimes the volume thins out. This week in the forums discount brokerages weren’t making waves. Nonetheless, there were a few ripples in the water.

    Questrade vs Wealthsimple

    The battle of the brokerages has now spilled over into the robo-advisor arena. This post from reddit’s personal finance Canada section is a great example of what might be facing brokerages with and without their own robo-advisor service.

    Mutually E-xclusive

    In this post, also from reddit’s personal finance Canada section, there was an interesting example of an individual seeking some direction on how to access the TD e-series low cost mutual funds and the kinds of information they encountered along the way.

    Into the Close

    It’s been an incredibly tough week for the folks in Fort McMurray. While we typically hope for sunnier skies for the weekend, here’s hoping that Fort McMurray gets the rain and relief it needs.

    Amidst the tragedy and fear, there are tremendously courageous folks who are going above and beyond the call of duty to help. Thank you to all the good Samaritans and first responders for their efforts and for Canadians for being Canadian when it counts the most.

    On a slightly different and more positive note, here’s a great reminder of what Canadians know about one another when it comes to rising to the occasion.