IT'S BEEN 20 minutes and still the "live chat" option with online broker WallStreet*E has failed to respond. "Thanks for your patience," we are told often, before we give up. "An operator will be with you shortly." Still searching for strong service, we move on to OptionsXpress, which promises reliable phone reps to answer questions. But when we start asking questions, our representative is of little help. We are told to read more on the firm's Web site. Well, thanks.
You know the story. You love your broker; you hate your broker. You wonder if there's anyone better. And in the agonizing market of 2008, those feelings can swing as quickly as your portfolio, diving with each market swoon and stumbling back with each rebound. Indeed, by all accounts brokers are under more pressure this year from the market, spooked customers and each other as they work overtime to swipe customers from rivals.
Each year we take an in-depth look at the industry's performance, and this time we noticed a blurring of the lines between key players. For years online brokers could be divided into two camps discount brokers known for cheap trades but not much else, and "premium" discount brokers with higher prices but more products and services. Now that's pretty much out the window. Scottrade may be a discount broker, but it's also opening new branches so fast that it now has more outposts than Charles Schwab. And some traditional "premium" discount brokers are rivaling discounters on price: The average commission charged by discounters like Firstrade is about 15 percent less than that of premium players like Fidelity, down from nearly 50 percent just four years ago.
For our 16th annual survey, we assembled a list of the best and worst online brokers. But we came up with winners and losers in six categories, too. Our analysis includes opening accounts, noting how long it took to find certain information, and evaluating Web sites for their research, navigation and trading tools. And as WallStreet*E and OptionsXpress discovered, we also put customer service through the wringer by calling and e-mailing questions to each firm. The rankings and commissions we report are based on a customer who trades up to 20 times a year with $50,000 in a brokerage account.
COMMISSIONS & FEES
Best: Interactive Brokers
If you're working with a discount broker, commissions are probably important to you. They're also pretty critical to the discount-broker industry, which has accumulated more than $3 trillion in investor assets over the past three decades. Firms like Ameritrade and Charles Schwab got their start pitching low fees. But lately, the discounters have made it all a little confusing: Commissions vary by the frequency of trades, number of shares and even price of the shares.
We also looked at how much the companies charged for broker-executed trades and found that the gap can be huge from $4.95, at TradeKing, to $112.50, at Fidelity for the same equity trade. Only two firms don't offer trades through a broker: ShareBuilder and Interactive Brokers. But Interactive still scored the best overall in this category. The reason: few account fees and rock-bottom commissions ($2.50 for 1,000 shares).
A better price is, well, no price. Zecco Trading doles out 10 free equity trades monthly for investors with as little as $2,500, while linking a bank and brokerage account at Banc of America or WellsTrade gets up to 360 and 100 free trades per year, respectively. Otherwise, expect commissions to start at $14 at Banc of America and $19.95 at WellsTrade. (That price, plus other fees, puts WellsTrade at the bottom in this group.) Executives at both firms say most investors have bank accounts with them, giving them discounted or free trades.
Best: TD Ameritrade
Worst: Zecco and SoGoTrade
Research firm J.D. Power says customers rank decent research ahead of things like trade execution and customer service when it comes to determining overall satisfaction. Among the new bells and whistles: The "quotes and research" section of E*Trade's site includes links to outside experts who provide intraday commentary on stocks and sectors, and the firm's bond and mutual fund centers have been redesigned so that clients need less time to find advanced charts and screeners. While Fidelity earned high marks for the most in-depth research, TD Ameritrade rose to the top for having tools like its "portfolio planner," which lets you manage where your investments get allocated. Its site was also the easiest and quickest to navigate.
While it took us less time to search the sites at SogoTrade and Zecco, these firms got some of the lowest scores for their research. Neither offers customers analyst reports, bond screening or portfolio-analysis features. Both firms say they plan to roll out new research tools later this year.
Best: E*Trade and TD Ameritrade
Traders looking for an edge in a cutthroat environment want more from their discount broker than just swift executions of trades. Both TD Ameritrade and E*Trade last year's champ in the premium category of our survey provide breaking news on thousands of stocks. Customers can also check their account balances and make trades over a smartphone. If you want a personalized stock ticker, TD Ameritrade, E*Trade and a growing number of competitors can give you that, too.
The social-networking area on TradeKing's site includes a blog where the firm's "trading coaches" analyze trades made by other members of the online community. Still, some of the firms we studied offered fewer than half of the 13 tools we were looking for WellsTrade, Zecco and, finally, ShareBuilder, which doesn't have much more than a dividend-reinvestment program. While the firm's CEO, Dan Greenshields, says that customers can trade via BlackBerry in the future, a lot of the other tools we inquired about are "geared toward a heavy trader. That's just not our customer."
Ultimately, the quality of trades counts, so we teamed up with Gomez, a Web site-monitoring company, to calculate the average time it took to log in, fill out and preview a trade order in 2007. TD and E*Trade virtually tied, at just under five seconds. Scottrade clocked in at four seconds, but others took a lot longer 21 seconds for WellsTrade. Jeff Cornman of WellsTrade says recent improvements have cut the response time to 16 to 17 seconds.
To find out how the discount brokers performed with banking services, customer service, and mutual funds and investment products, see the June issue of SmartMoney.