By SARAH MORGAN
Until recently, an investor who wanted to, say, bet on the rise of the euro basically had two choices: call a full-service brokerage or head to Europe with an empty suitcase. Today, with 16 online brokerages vying for the business of a rapidly-growing group of main street currency traders, going long the euro -- or the real, or the baht is as easy as a few clicks of a mouse.
With the mini-boom, choosing one of these services is almost as hard as forecasting the movements of the currency markets. Like most individual currency traders, all of these services are relatively new to the game. So are the regulators, who have only just begun to play catch-up with the growth in specialty trading services. And the choices are evolving quickly: In the last six weeks, Deutche Bank announced the sale of its retail forex trading division, and TradeStation launched a new forex subsidiary, then nine days later announced its own acquisition by a Japanese broker.
Then there are all the regular points of comparison an interested investor cares about in a brokerage, with special tweaks unique to forex. Costs are far from standardized, and they're typically embedded in variable spreads, not spelled out in fixed-rate commissions. Because tracking the economic forces at work in hundreds of countries is nearly impossible, a brokerage's technical analysis and charts can be critical. And with so many of the estimated 465,000 currency traders just getting oriented to the markets, a site's educational materials and practice accounts are important as well.
SmartMoney reviewed 16 brokerages that offer currency trading and found a motley crew. The field is still dominated by privately-hed companies, which are under no obligation to release even the most basic information. (Two major firms went public this winter, and their filings have already started to shed light on the industry.) The smallest firm we surveyed had fewer than 5,000 clients, the biggest more than 139,000. Most focus exclusively on forex, although a few firms, including popular discount broker TD Ameritrade (AMTD), offer forex along with stocks, bonds and other assets.
In the interest of helping to clear up a still-murky picture, we spent dozens of hours reviewing educational materials and testing demo accounts. We compared the cost of trading among firms, and pestered customer services with basic and sophisticated questions. In the end, we asked the brokerages themselves to answer for our findings. Here's how they stacked up:
Winner: TD Ameritrade
Most investors are new to currency trading -- the number of active traders has tripled in the last five years and sadly, there's not much beginner's luck. Most forex dealers report that about two-thirds of their clients are losing money, and while there may be many possible explanations (including the speed and relentlessness of the markets and the risks exacerbated by leverage), most dealers highlight their educational materials as a possible solution.
By now, most of the brokerages have created their own educational materials, which typically include plenty to read, lectures, and video explanations of the site's services and technologies. Some also offer interactive webinars, where viewers can submit questions in real time. The topics range from basic explanations of, for example, the most commonly-traded currency pairs, to the truly advanced, like Fibonacci retracements (just one of dozens of technical strategies forex traders use).
None of this, of course, is beach reading, so the question becomes not breadth of material most brokerages offer a full syllabus but how easy it is to understand. TD Ameritrade's thinkorswim platform gets a gold star here for providing intro-to-forex materials from the National Futures Association, a third-party organization that regulates futures brokers. They were clear, accurate, and we liked the explanation of the risks associated with currency trading something other sites conveniently short-shrifted. GAIN Capital/Forex.com gets an honorable mention for some clean, simple videos as well as well-written introductory materials that include key points other firms didn't mention, like the fact that rising interest rates tend to strengthen the value of a currency.
The loser in this round was FXDD, with a hard-to-navigate series of hard-to-follow written materials. The site's explanation of the main theories of technical analysis, for example, don't include a single chart. A spokesman for the firm notes that they also offer webinars that traders can participate in live or play back later, as well as a separate site, FXDDOnDemand.com, that includes video tutorials and "FXDD TV" market updates. The spokesman said they're working to make that content easier to find and that they plan to "ratchet up" its webinar training schedule this year.
Loser: TD Ameritrade
Intro-to-forex lessons are helpful, but when it comes to putting real money to work, software becomes crucial. Forex traders tend to rely heavily on technical analysis to find mathematical patterns in real-time price movements. That means they need access to historical data plus real-time prices, and several options for technical analysis.
Even within brokerages, traders have options. Almost every firm has at least one proprietary downloadable software package (called a trading platform) and a web-based version that enables investors to trade from any internet-connected computer; many also offer a third-party platform called MetaTrader 4, popular with active traders for its technical analysis tools. A third of GAIN's clients use the platform, and at smaller rival MB Trading, that number rises to 58%. "People like it a lot, because it's intuitive, it has all the tools you need, and it's a known quantity," says Javier Paz, an Aite Group analyst. And if you move your account, you don't have to learn new software, he says.
MetaTrader doesn't differ among brokerages, so SmartMoney tried out each firm's proprietary trading platform using play-money demo or practice accounts. FXCM's platform offered the best balance of rich data and robust charting tools within a not-too-cluttered layout. At first glance, it can feel busy: On the left, bid and ask prices for several pairs of currency constantly update; on the right, there are a bevy of charts. But it's easy to customize and focus on one or two pairs. A couple of nice features: once you've made a trade, a clear line appears on the chart to show the level where you bought or sold, making it easy to see where prices are moving in relation to where you hoped they'd move. And a readable profit-and-loss summary is prominently displayed but not so frenetically flashing as to provoke anxiety.
For a trader focused only on forex, TD Ameritrade's thinkorswim platform is a bit more cumbersome, as it offers forex alongside stocks, futures, and options. It'll take some tweaking for the forex-focused trader to display the same depth of information about multiple currency pairs at once that pure forex platforms offer by default. To be fair, currency trading isn't a specialty for the broker, and the firm isn't focused on attracting traders who only trade currencies, says Nicole Sherrod, the managing director of TD Ameritrade's trader group. "It's not something we're actively promoting," Sherrod says, but the firm offers it to make its product mix as broad as possible. "If [clients] are going out and playing 18 holes, they need a full set of clubs," Sherrod says.
All investors know how important costs are: Every penny you pay is a penny that can't earn returns. But forex brokerages make it maddeningly hard to figure out how much, exactly, they charge. Unlike stock or bond brokerages, most forex dealers don't charge straight commissions. They make their money from the bid-ask spread or the difference between what buyers want to pay and what sellers want to get, measured in "pips," or the fourth digit after the decimal. Traders never know how much of that spread is based on market forces and how much is the dealer's take. Disclosure isn't consistent (some firms release "typical" spreads, others offer spreads "as low as") and all dealers note that spreads can and do change as market conditions change.
With all that in mind, picking an absolute "winner" and "loser" wasn't easy. Of the dealers we tested, Oanda came out ahead in a tight race, reporting "real-time" spreads when we checked of around 1 pip for the euro-dollar, the most widely traded pair, and around 1.7 pips for the Australian dollar-U.S. dollar, a less commonly-traded pair. Runners-up included TradeStation FX, with average spreads on the euro-dollar of between 1 and 1.5 pips, and MB Trading, with a very narrow 0.7 pip spread plus a commission that brings the transaction cost to 1.49 pips. FXCM says its typical spread for the euro-dollar is 2.3 pips, more than double Oanda's. At the higher rate, on a $50,000 euro-dollar trade, the customer would pay an extra $6.50 in fees. That may not seem like much, but active investors may make that trade several times a day, and even small differences add up, especially when magnified 50 times over by leverage. FXCM gets prices from several banks, then passes on the best-available spreads with a one-pip mark-up, says Jaclyn Sales, a spokeswoman for the firm. Firms that take the other side of customers' trades can afford to offer tighter spreads because of the potential to profit when customers take losing positions, Sales says.
The widest spreads we found weren't necessarily the worst deal: FX Solutions offers a fixed spread for the euro-dollar at 3 pips. Right now, that's high, but Joseph Trevisani, the firm's chief market analyst, says there are times when customers will come out ahead. "When the markets are very volatile, that's when there's both the greatest risk for loss and the greatest possibility for profit," he says precisely the moment at which a trader would want a stable spread. "If you don't trade during news events, it doesn't make sense to pay that premium," the Aite Group's Paz says, but "if you're trying to execute during volatile times, that's when the FX Solutions advantage comes in."
Can't decide? TD Ameritrade's thinkorswim platform offers the option of commission-based FX trading as well as the more common "commission-free" model (where the commission is embedded in a markup on the spread). For the euro-dollar pair, that commission is $1 per 10,000 units. Their commission-free model averages a 1.9 pip spread for the pair. Customers can switch back and forth between models from trade to trade, and the company says trading costs should be similar for both models.
Winner: PFG Best
As expected with web-driven businesses, almost all the brokers SmartMoney surveyed encourage customers to use real-time, online chats with customer service representatives, though all also offer email addresses and phone numbers to call as well. As a group, they were quick to pick up the phone: The longest on-hold time SmartMoney suffered was 4 minutes (at FXCM, although the firm was one of the fastest to answer email). In general, email was the least-effective way to get answers five firms took more than 6 hours to return emails, and only four responded in less than an hour.
PFG Best was a standout in this category, responding to questions via chat and phone immediately, and responding to an emailed question in just 21 minutes with a personalized message from the same representative we'd talked to earlier. FXCM's representatives responded to our chat within 3 minutes and quickly answered our questions, but after resolving our question, the representative asked to follow up with a phone call trying to talk us into a live account, explaining that we could access more educational materials and technical signals if we put a few hundred dollars in an account, even if we didn't place trades.
Alpari offered the least-satisfying online customer service experience retrieving our demo account details via chat took almost 20 minutes, and the representative let us sit in suspended silence until we asked for a progress report. The firm also took almost four hours to respond to an email, although the phone response was quick and helpful. An Alpari spokeswoman acknowledged that customers who submit questions via chat may experience some delay and said that emails are answered in the order they are received. The fastest way to get assistance, she said, is by phone.
For dabblers: TD Ameritrade
For beginners: Gain Capital or FXCM
For veterans: FX Solutions
It would have been nice if one single firm had distinguished itself head and shoulders above the rest. But ultimately, the best brokerage site depends as much on the trader as it does on the firm. For active stock and bond investors who may make a few currency trades from time to time, we'd recommend TD Ameritrade. The company won second place in our equity-broker survey [LINK], and its pricing is more like the straightforward commissions stock traders are used to paying. For beginning forex traders, the educational materials at GAIN Capital and FXCM were outstanding, and both are public companies, a fact that adds a layer of oversight and accountability the other firms don't offer. For experienced traders who thrive on the volatility of the currency markets and want nothing more than to dive into the choppy waters of the euro-dollar's reaction to the U.S. non-farm payrolls report, we feel FX Solutions' fixed spreads could present real value.