INVESTING DIY – 2 – Choosing a brokerage firm

In due time you will discover that not managing your own money leads to losses more times than gains. Probably sooner than later. In a strong economy, the lack of skills of the so-called “agents” is not so obvious. Yet when the mutual fund they chose for you charges 2.5% MER while losing 12% in value every year, things look clearer.

Don’t beat yourself. It took me more than 5 years to make the step. I thought I didn’t have enough money and thought to myself – what difference can 2-3-4% make on, let’s say, 5000$?! And, oh, my gosh, how difficult it can be to figure all those things out. And then, when I was ready, in 2007, personal things made me lose my focus and I dropped everything again. By January of this year, when I started taking the matter in my own hands, I had 10% less than the money I put in. Not so good for a 6-7 years investment, eh?! Well, that’s life! There is a right time for everything. But I also had the support and encouragement that a very good friend – Sergiu Preston –, a person with a vast life-experience and long track in investing, gave me to start this new enterprise, the act of investing by myself. He pounded on myself all these advantages I describe here, like – I am sure – he did for many other people. I am simply trying to pass-it-forward and to make the path to self-investing much easier.
In any case, when you will be ready to step in this brave new world, the first thing you will do is try to figure out who should keep your money. The comments I make below are mostly focused on Canadian brokerages. In the US, options are much wider, deals are much sweeter and things might be different but the base criteria for selecting a brokerage remains the same. Please also read the fine print and try to understand where you qualify. If you still have unclear things, don’t hesitate to contact the brokers with your questions BEFORE you sign, because later it will cost you a dime and a nickel.

Instead of doing my own research – because I am lazy and lazy is sometimes good – I googled it and I found this excellent breakdown for Canadian brokerage firms: Stingy Investor

As you check the brokerages, you will notice the wide-range variation of fees and commisions. Some are well-established and they are cheap… but only if you do >100 trades/quarter or if you keep +50,000$ in their account. For a beginner, that number of trades is unimaginable. Some charge as much as 29$/trade. Well, if you make 20 trades that is a 600$ – so you really want to pay the brokerage instead of getting that LCD TV for the bedroom?!

Ask yourself a number of questions:

  • Will I be trading in USD or other foreign currency?! Why is it important?! Because if the brokerage charges you a currency-conversion commission, you need to take that in consideration. In Canada, traditional, well-established brokerage firms will charge you 1% to change the money in USD, and when you sell the equity/mutual funds, they transform it back automatically in CAD, charging you another 1%, although you might as well desire to purchase something else from NYSE. It has been allowed to keep USD in RRSP (Canadian 401K) since 2006 , yet very few had adjusted their systems to allow such a thing.
  • How much will I be charged if I change my mind and want to transfer my funds elsewhere?!
  • What kind of customer support they have?! How does their trading platform looks like? How can I access it? Google it and see what other people say but take that with a grain of salt – might represent a particular failure and pretty much all brokerages have their share of bad stories they don’t want us to know.
  • What are the perks I can get by signing with them?! Brokerages in US sometimes pay incentives and don’t shun the 100$ you get or 100 free transactions they offer because it is, indeed, free money.
  • Do they allow DRIP (Dividend Reinvestment) and if they do, do they allow fractional investment?! (Explanation: If the company X pays you 40$ every month, it is a good idea to reinvest it by purchasing the stock of the company. But if the company is trading at 37$, buying it directly means at least 5$ spent for 1 share. DRIP allows you to have that purchase made without any fees. Fractional DRIP means the brokerage allows purchasing 0.98 units of that same share – some don’t, so if the stock is now 43$, they will place the 40$ in your account)

In short, try to imagine what you want to do, read all the publicity and fine print, tick them off with questions and pick up a firm that will satisfy your PARTICULAR needs.

But enough with the theory. Why did I chose QUESTRADE?!

  • low fees. 5$ for up to 499 shares, 0.01/share after that; 9.95$ for mutual funds
  • 1% rebate on mutual funds’ MER: but to qualify you need a certain amount (still, I can live without since I purchase funds with MER < 1% anyway)
  • 50 free-trades in the first 3 months and 100$ of free trades for every friend you refer (and he/she gets 50$ in free trades in those 3 months)
  • keep both USD and CAD in the account; the conversion is 0.5% and once changed the currency stays that way, unless I purchase something in another currency
  • while their customer service is less than perfect, and speaks with a funny accent (I have a funny accent too, Eastern European one :), they post good FAQ and I mostly rely on written documentation
    the joining process was simple and documented, most of the steps were done online.

Of course, nothing is perfect:

  • now I know that you have to log on 3 websites to see all features: one for Penson (the one that holds registered accounts), one for the main account settings, statements etc. and one for trading) – yet I can live with that.
  • Estatements are somewhat late – 10th of each month for the previous one
  • the free trading interface (one has options for paid ones – probably much better) is not great but does the trick. Now and then they list things in a way I don’t understand (i.e. USD currency kept in account was listed as a number, like a company).
  • While they allow for DRIP, they don’t allow for fractional re-investment.

Yet, I am with them and unless they screw-up badly, I will stay with them because I have no-thrill needs – and I hope that you will not try to become day-traders before you can walk 🙂

Next time I will present some basic strategies for picking up solid AND profitable investments.

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