The Online Broker Race to Zero Fees

In 2018, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) launched its online investing platform, You Invest Trade, which allows commission-free trading of stocks, ETFs, and options. When another brokerage launches a service that allows “free” trading, the buzz about the race to zero gets louder.

Initially You Invest allowed customers 100 commission-free online stock and exchange-traded fund (ETF) trades for one year. After that year had elapsed, any free trading was dependent on your relationship with the various businesses Chase operates, with You Invest charging $2.95 per transaction outside of the commission-free trades. But in late 2019, You Invest switched to commission-free trading.

So is this really such a big deal? Merrill Edge already has a commission-free plan in place for customers on stock, options, and ETF trades. You can use Robinhood’s app to place free transactions for stocks and options, though its analytical capabilities are close to non-existent. Tastyworks charges no commission for trades that close a position, whether that is stocks, ETFs or options, and its fees to open positions is reasonable given the capabilities of their platform and mobile app. 

We asked executives of several online brokers what the launch of You Invest means to them and whether they would engage in further lowering their fees. Tastyworks’ Tom Sosnoff got right to the point, saying, “I believe rates are already as low as they can go unless, the online firms 1) stop giving streaming data, 2) stop building software 3) stop supporting clients through a trade desk 4) stop providing content. It’s ultimately a horrible trade-off.” 

Barry Metzger of Charles Schwab Corp. (SCHW) says, “We’re always happy to see firms improve their offer — that’s good news for investors. And that’s been something we’ve focused on for a long time.” Metzger couldn’t say whether his firm, or anyone else’s, would make a similar move though. 

Fidelity said, in a statement issued when JPMorgan made their initial announcement, “Fidelity believes investors should look closely at the overall value provided by their brokerage firm.” Fidelity focuses on the quality of its trade executions, saying that clients receive an average $16.15 of price improvement on a 1,000 share marketable order vs. the industry average of $2.61. ”Fidelity can achieve this level of price improvement because we do not take payment for order flow for equity orders,” their statement concludes. They also offer 500 free trades to be used within two years when a customer deposits $100,000 or more into a new or existing brokerage account. 

Steve Sanders of Interactive Brokers dives a little deeper into what you’re really getting from an online broker. “We do not have any plans to drop our commissions and we don’t consider JPMorgan a competitor,” he states. Looking at the bigger picture of what an online broker offers clients, Sanders says, “The JPMorgan savings is a drop in the bucket compared to the incremental interest revenue and the savings in interest expense most clients can expect to achieve at Interactive Brokers.”

You Invest, at launch, only allowed trading of U.S.-based stocks and ETFs, but now includes options and mutual funds. That’s just a fraction of the possible investments open to retail traders, but they’re the most popular with newer investors. Signing up for an account is simple if you’ve already an account of any flavor with Chase. I was able to pre-fill the account application with information from a credit card I hold at Chase. Unlike most other brokers who allow you to open an account online, though, you might have to wait at least one business day for your You Invest account to be approved. It took about 90 minutes for my account to appear on my Chase login page. 

Once logged in, the website and app are very simple. You can set up a watchlist, but the display is static – the quotes do not stream, so for updated quotes, you’ll have to refresh the page. Each company’s page shows an overview of the firm, a summary of JPMorgan research and estimates, and a small chart that displays end of day pricing over the last three months. You can switch the chart to one day or one year, but those are your only choices. If you switch the chart view, You Invest reverts to a three-month chart the next time you get a quote. There’s also a list of recent headlines at the bottom of the page. 

That said, there’s a little more there on You Invest than you’ll find on a Robinhood quote page, but the app is extremely simple. If you’ve already got a relationship with JPMorgan or Chase Bank, it might be worth having the app available to place a quick trade. 

But be wary of “free” trades. You don’t get what you don’t pay for. You will likely get less-than-optimal fills for your transactions since the broker has to make money somewhere. Free trades are generally paid for by routing to market makers, who pay the broker for the order flow, but who do not prioritize price improvement. 

Steve Sanders warns, “Brokers that give away so-called free or cheap trades make their money by paying next to nothing on idle balances, executing trades at inferior prices, and charging exorbitant borrowing fees which is costly to those that don’t do their homework.” He notes that Interactive Brokers pays 1.42% on idle cash balances, charges 3.42% or less to borrow, and offers stocks, options, futures, forex, and bonds all around the world at low commissions. 

If commissions do head to zero, brokers will find other ways to make money. Idle cash in customer accounts is a profit center, as these zero-commission brokers pay no interest on it. They also make money by lending securities to short sellers, and keeping the loan proceeds. Just remember: if you’re not paying for the service, then you are the product. 

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