The 2010s have been a boom era for online stock brokers. According to Statista, between 10% and 15% of all U.S. adults used an online broker at least once in 2018. While some major brokerages have remained the same (Charles Schwab), others have gone through mergers and acquisitions (E*TRADE acquired OptionsHouse; TD Ameritrade and Scottrade merged; TradeKing is now Ally Invest), and a new generation of millennial-focused brokers (like Robinhood and Acorns) has kept the old guard on its toes by lowering commission rates and minimum deposits. After digging into 25 trading platforms, here are the factors that set our top picks apart from the crowd.
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Choose your trading partner wisely. To trade stocks you need a broker, but don’t just fall for any broker. Pick one with the terms and tools that best align with your investing style and experience. A higher priority for active traders will be low commissions and fast order execution for time-sensitive trades (like our picks for best online platforms for active traders/day traders). Investors who are new to trading should look for a broker that can teach them the tools of the trade via educational articles, online tutorials and in-person seminars (see NerdWallet’s round-ups for the best brokers for beginners). Other features to consider are the quality and availability of screening and stock analysis tools, on-the-go alerts, easy order entry and customer service.
There are risks associated with investing in a public offering, including unproven management, and established companies that may have substantial debt. As such, they may not be appropriate for every investor. Customers should read the offering prospectus carefully, and make their own determination of whether an investment in the offering is consistent with their investment objectives, financial situation, and risk tolerance.
If you’re trying your hand at stock trading for the first time, know that focusing on anything but long-term results will expose you to frequent bouts of agita. Most investors are best served by keeping things simple and investing in a diversified mix of low-cost index funds to achieve — and this is key — long-term outperformance. Because, oof… the short-term ups and downs in the market can be brutal.
The capital gains tax rate favors long-term investments. An investor who buys and sells their stocks within a few months will face a higher capital gains tax rate (25%) on their profits than an investor who buys and holds their stocks for a full year (15%). The larger your investment, the bigger the difference. Granted, there’s a risk to holding an investment for longer, but if you’re close to that one-year cutoff, it might be worth it to sit tight for a few more weeks.
Measure your returns against an appropriate benchmark. This is essential advice for all types of investors — not just active ones. The bottom-line goal for picking stocks is to be ahead of a benchmark index. That could be the Standard & Poor’s 500 index (often used as a proxy for “the market”), the Nasdaq composite index (for those investing primarily in technology stocks) or other smaller indexes that are composed of companies based on size, industry and geography. Measuring results is key, and if a serious investor is unable to outperform the benchmark (something even pro investors struggle to do), then it makes financial sense to invest in a low-cost index mutual fund or ETF — essentially a basket of stocks whose performance closely aligns with that of one of the benchmark indexes.
Unlike most online stock trading platforms, Robinhood doesn’t charge a commission fee every time you buy or sell stocks, ETFs, or options. If you’re a high-volume trader, or a beginner without much cash to spare, that makes Robinhood an attractive alternative to the $5 to $7 fees per trade offered by competitors. However, Robinhood does rake in “payment for order flow” by rounding regulatory fees up to the nearest penny and pocketing the difference. “That means if you buy a stock for $100.00, Robinhood earns 2.6 cents from the market maker,” says co-founder and co-CEO Vlad Tenev, whereas “other brokerages earn rebates and charge you a per-trade commission fee.”
E*TRADE does require an investment minimum for new brokerage accounts ($500), which may seem like more than a novice would like to throw in. But you’ll need at least that much to see real growth, and compared to the minimums of traditional brokerages, $500 is an incredibly welcoming threshold. Additionally, if you can commit to a $10,000 deposit, you can get 60 days of commission-free trades.
Have you ever asked yourself, "What is stock?" or wondered why shares of stock exist? This introduction to the world of investing in stocks will provide answers to those questions and show you just how simple Wall Street really is. It may turn out to be one of the most important articles you've ever read if you don't understand what stocks represent. Find out the answer to "What is Stock?" and how it comes to exist ...
News sites such as Yahoo Finance and Google Finance serve as a great resource for beginners. For in depth coverage, look no further than the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg. By monitoring the markets each day and reading headline stories investors can expose themselves to trends, 3rd party analysis, not to mention economic concepts and general business. Pulling quotes and observing fundamental data can also serve as another good source of exposure.
Forums can be another source for question and answer. Two recommendations include Elite Trader and Trade2Win. Just be careful of who you listen to. The vast majority of participants are not professional traders, let alone profitable traders. Heed advice from forums with a heavy dose of salt and do not, under any circumstance, follow trade recommendations.
We found Robinhood’s trading interface — both via its mobile app and its website — the most user-friendly of all candidates, making it a perfect option for the first-time trader. The design is minimalist, interactive, and easy to navigate. “Robinhood is a good fit for new investors because it offers a slick, modern app that allows you to trade efficiently,” says James Royal, a stock analyst and investing and wealth management reporter at Bankrate. “And of course, it's free, allowing you to invest money that would have otherwise gone into a broker's pocket.”
The most recent annual report – While reading the annual report, you'll want to pay special attention to the letter from the Chairman, CEO, and sometimes CFO or other high-ranking officers to see how they view the business. Not all annual reports are created equally. Generally, the best in the business is considered to be the one written by Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, which you can download from free on the holding company's corporate site.
Finally, the other factor: risk tolerance. The stock market goes up and down, and if you’re prone to panicking when it does the latter, you’re better off investing slightly more conservatively, with a lighter allocation to stocks. Not sure? We have a risk tolerance quiz — and more information about how to make this decision — in our article about what to invest in.