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.
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.”
Robo-advisors like Wealthsimple, Wealthfront, and Betterment use algorithms to determine your investment strategy. You just plug in your time frame and risk tolerance and their computers do the rest. And because they’re targeted for a younger crowd, fees are rock bottom. Wealthsimple and Betterment both have no account minimum, while Wealthfront requires $500. Wealthsimple charges an annual 0.5% advising fee; Wealthfront and Betterment charge just 0.25%.
Since Vanguard is the largest mutual fund provider in the world, it doesn’t charge a fee for most mutual fund trades. However, other kinds of trading are more expensive, with $7 per option and up to $20 per stock/ETF. For that reason, we don’t recommend Vanguard for beginning or low-volume traders. However, Vanguard is an excellent choice for retirement investors interested in long-term, high-volume earnings, or those looking for a place to take their IRA. In fact, Vanguard is one of our picks for the best IRA accounts.
TD Ameritrade has been a powerful player in the online stock trading ecosystem for years. The flipside to such robust platforms? Cost. Even though TD Ameritrade lowered its fees in 2017 from $9.99 to $6.95, pretty much every other major discount broker slashed its prices, too. TD Ameritrade remains one of the more expensive options out there, even with more than 100 commission-free ETFs. Though its pricing structure is more expensive than those of some of the other discount brokers, there are many traders who think it's a best-in-class trading platform.
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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.
Passive investing is what long-term investors do — and the intent behind their actions is very different. Their approach to buying and selling stocks is considered passive in that they tend not to transact often. Instead of relying mostly on technical analysis (as active traders do) and trying to time the market, passive investors use fundamental analysis to carefully examine the strength of the businesses behind the ticker symbols and then buy shares with the hope that they’ll be rewarded over years — decades, even — through share price appreciation and dividends.
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One drawback of Robinhood’s simplicity is that as of 2019, you can only trade stocks, ETFs, and options on the platform — not bonds, mutual funds, or futures, and you can’t short-sell. But Robinhood is our “Best for Beginners” pick, and most first-time investors will probably want to stick to the basics. If you’re interested in bonds and mutual funds, Ally Invest has the best rates of our top picks. If you want to try futures trading, E*TRADE and Charles Schwab are your best bets.
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