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Thursday, February 06, 2014

Net Neutrality Ruling Could Hurt Small Investors, Brokers

If court’s decision stands, small investors and brokers may have to pay more or settle for less.

Thanks to the recent U.S. court ruling striking down parts of “net neutrality,” small traders could end up paying more for speedy transactions and data, and small brokers could find themselves at an added competitive disadvantage.

The changes would result from the U.S. Federal Appeals Court ruling on Jan. 14 that undermined the Federal Communications Commission’s basic Internet operating philosophy – that no one could restrict lawful network traffic by blocking applications or unreasonably discriminating against a transmission. Verizon Communications challenged the FCC’s position that all traffic had to be treated equally, regardless of its point of origin or intended audience, and won.

As a result, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Verizon can now set up what are in essence high speed lanes for prioritized traffic, according to TD Ameritrade’s John Hart, director of trader product development. “The idea is to generate additional revenue by charging businesses on the supply side of the data for access to their subscriber base,” explains Hart. An ISP could decide to block or slow access to a site’s data, which Hart worries could shift the balance of information even more toward big institutions that can afford to pay for faster service.

“This issue only affects those end-users that consume data via the Internet,” says Tom Heffernan, vice president of marketing at online broker MoneyBlock. “Banks and other institutions access data typically using direct connections, [avoiding] the Internet, so there would be relatively little impact on their businesses,”

Smaller retail customers, however, have relied on “net neutrality” to keep the flow of data available to them via the Internet. Now, the ISPs will have the right to charge either the online brokers or their clients more to get the same information. Frequent traders and high net-worth customers are likely to get the best deals from brokers because they generate more commissions and fees than their smaller counterparts. Because institutional investors deal directly with exchanges without the Internet they won’t feel the change at all.

The most likely first effect all online traders will see is a longer list of legal disclosures and disclaimers from their brokers. Heffernan points out that retail traders already agree to a long list of instances in which online brokers aren’t deemed responsible for disruptions in data speed. More disclaimers are likely so the online brokers can protect themselves.

For investors who invest in mutual funds or buy and hold stocks, the effect will be minimal because they don’t rely on real-time time data. The funds also conduct their transactions after the market has closed.

But for big, frequent traders, who are the most sought-after clients for many online brokers, the stakes will be higher. Given their need for data and speed, they will be quicker than their smaller counterparts to sign up for premium delivery in order to have meaningful real-time data like real-time options chains, that can involve thousands of pieces of data every few seconds as the information is updated. It’s not as dense as a high definition streaming video from Game of Thrones, but slowing it down slightly will have a big impact.

There will be effects on the brokers, too.

Ending net neutrality could produce more regulations for broker/dealers, including the disclosures about any deals they might make with ISPs to speed the data along the pipes.

Heffernan envisions one scenario in which a large trading firm cuts an exclusive deal with an ISP that guarantees the broker the fastest data transmission speeds. That would give the broker lots of opportunities to take business from smaller, slower firms that can’t afford the higher speeds. An inability to transmit data on a timely basis to customers would severely restrict a brokers’ ability to compete.

We’re already seeing promotions from AT&T offering businesses the opportunity to provide their customers with “sponsored data” on mobile devices. Under these deals, a retail customer can download an app and get the data, which is paid for by the app provider. That means the customer’s monthly data allotment isn’t affected. But it also raises the possibility that the data could be blocked or slowed because a sponsor isn’t footing the bill.

Consumer groups as well as the FCC are working on an appeal to the ruling, and there is still some possibility that the FCC can just classify internet services as telecommunications services, which would keep the concept of neutrality in place. FCC Chair Tom Wheeler said, in a statement, “We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.” Small investors included.

Published in Barron’s Online, January 31, 2014. 

Posted by twcarey on 02/06 at 01:23 PM
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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Where to Search for a Financial Advisor Online

Where to find the Yelp of financial services and others.

We’re going to offer you some long- and short-term ways to make additional money. First, we’ll suggest some Websites that can help you find a reliable financial advisor and then detail an innovative new pricing program for heavy traders, from TradeStation.

Barron’s speaks frequently with financial advisors, providing insights into what they think about the markets and how they manage their businesses. But what do the clients think of their advisors? A new Website, Wallethub (wallethub.com) lets its readers take over, allowing them to search through more than 250,000 advisors in the U.S., and provide feedback about those they’ve worked with in the past.

A search through the 40 advisors who share my zip code turned up zero reviews, but that’s not terribly surprising given the recent launch of the site. Others from around the country received reviews ranging from, “A gifted financial analyst,” to “He just wants to get his commission and does not care about the customer.” Wallethub aspires to be the Yelp of financial services, with consumer reviews of banks, credit cards, and insurance companies to complement its offering on advisors.

Another site, Nerdwallet (nerdwallet.com), lets its members pose questions directly to financial advisors; members then vote on whether the answer was helpful or not. There are links attached to each advisor’s answer that let you make contact with the ones you like. The top contributors, based on how many people found their answers helpful, are listed in the right-hand column of the Ask an Advisor page. Recent questions included whether a couple was close to being able to retire (it seemed like they were, according to an advisor) and whether to pay off $58,000 in credit-card debt by raiding a 401(k) (not a good idea, said several advisors).

Many financial planners and advisors rely on word-of-mouth to find customers, though an increasing number are turning to social media. There are also sites such as WiserAdvisor.com that ask a few key questions, such as what sort of services you’re looking for and the size of your current portfolio, that match you with an advisor near you. Of course, we’d suggest you check out Barron’s many annual advisor rankings, including The Top 100 (April 15, 2013). You could take the results of a WiserAdvisor.com query and then search Barron’s rankings, Wallethub, and NerdWallet to gather more information about a potential match.

TradeStation, a sophisticated online broker for frequent traders who like to build their own systems, recently launched an unbundled equities commission structure for high-volume users. Unbundled pricing, rather than a flat fee, allows the firm to pass the various fees and rebates from exchanges and other market centers on to their customers. For those who trade a lot, it’s possible to lower costs by choosing the appropriate venue.

“Each exchange or market center charges different fees and awards rebates based on how a trader’s order interacts with the markets,” explains CEO Solomon Sredni. As a result, the trader will reap the benefit of any rebates or other discounts offered and thereby lower their trading costs. It will “give clients the ability to route their orders to the exchange or market center offering pricing that best suits their trading style and objectives,” he says.

For example, a client who trades 5 million shares per month could place a limit order to buy 10,000 shares of Microsoft (ticker: MSFT) that will add liquidity to the marketplace. She selects BATS as the destination to route the order and receives a rebate of $25 for adding liquidity. TradeStation’s commission is $20, based on her trading activity, and the clearing fee is $2. So this customer will see a $3 rebate when all is said and done. If the customer had selected flat-fee pricing, she would have paid $4.99 for this transaction.

Taking advantage of unbundled pricing requires study of the fees charged by the exchanges and market centers, as well as an understanding of when one is adding or removing liquidity. If you’re willing to do the work, you can reap the rewards.

Published in Barron’s Online, January 11, 2014. 

Posted by twcarey on 01/18 at 03:58 PM
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Saturday, January 04, 2014

Market Prophit Finds Predictability in Social Media

A new feature on Market Prophit’s site ranks bloggers who tweet on their ability to be correct.

Is there predictability in the stock market in social media? Igor Gonta of Market Prophit believes so, and has introduced a new feature to his company’s website that helps you find financial bloggers who have crystal balls that are polished and ready to go.

We looked at Market Prophit earlier this year, and liked what we saw ("Check the Buzz on Apple,” July 15, 2013), noting that it generated bullish or bearish signals about stocks based on posts being made to Twitter. The sentiment calculations are generated in real-time, based on proprietary analytics, and are updated every minute. Ranging from +1 (bullish) to -1 (bearish), you can view heat maps that translate the sentiment calculation into shades of red and green by sector or exchange.

The firm just launched its Market Prophit Score, which helps identify individuals who provide content that is predictive of market behavior. Each financial maven also receives a Market Prophit Rank, showing how each blogger ranks relative to his or her peers. If a person has a good predictability, a positive score is generated. If they have a negative correlation to stock-price movements, they get a negative score. If they’re just noisy, they get a 0.

Gonta believes that some bloggers may attain high scores in the twos and threes, while the lower-quality posters may end up in the negative two to three range. The analytics ignore a poster’s popularity, measured in terms of followers and retweets, because, as Gonta says, “We don’t think popularity has anything to do with predictability. Just because someone has 100,000 followers and tweets constantly about stocks doesn’t necessarily make them good.”

One feature Gonta points to is that the scoring mechanism can discover people you may never have heard of in the sea of millions of Twitter posters.

Clicking on the Top Ten Market Prophits links brings up a page with information about the current top ten prognosticators. In first place overall earlier this week was the Twitter account attached to The Options Pros, with a Markit Prophit Score of 2.282, which had recently mentioned Amazon (ticker: AMZN), Illumina (ILMN), Costco (COST) and Twitter (TWTR) itself.

Each stock analyzed on Market Prophit also provides details about the bloggers who are more focused. Poking around Market Prophit’s detail page for Apple, for example, the top three Market Prophits early this week had the Twitter usernames of @MW_AAPL (with a Market Prophit Score of 0.696), @DBainySun (0.587) and @A_Karunaratne (0.374). The first account, @MW_AAPL, is focused solely on Apple and is managed by MarketWatch, which is owned by Dow Jones, the parent of Barron’s. The other two are individuals. Clicking on a Twitter handle opens a new browser page with the most recent tweets displayed. You can also look at each maven’s user stats, which details the ticker symbols mentioned and the ticker-specific return and ranking.

ONCE YOU’VE IDENTIFIED BLOGGERS who provide information via Twitter that is positively correlated with a particular stock or sector’s return, you can add that maven to your Market Prophit dashboard and keep an eye on what they’re saying. You can also create an alert so that you receive an e-mail when they’ve put up a new tweet about your stock.

You can flip your display about a particular stock from what the crowd is saying to what the mavens are saying with a mouse click. Market Prophit is currently in its late beta testing phase and is free for now. Eventually, Gonta expects the site will offer subscriptions and premium content, and also provide an interface for brokers and other financial sites so that their content can be integrated with other third-party data.

If you’re using social media at all in your investing strategy, Market Prophit is well worth adding to your toolkit.

IT’S TIME FOR OUR 19TH ANNUAL review of online brokers. Help us refine the criteria for our survey by letting us know what is working for you with your online broker, and what is driving you crazy. If you’re not yet trading online, what feature could a broker offer that would entice you to sign up? Drop us a line at electronicinvestor@yahoo.com

Published in Barron’s, December 30, 2013. 

Posted by twcarey on 01/04 at 01:43 AM
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