Scoring Rubric -- Best Online Brokers

This is a sidebar I wrote for the Best Online Brokers piece that I hoped would run online, but it’s not there.  I’m getting a lot of questions along the lines of, “Where did those scores come from anyway?” so I thought I’d explain in more detail.

WE RANKED OUR 25 BROKERS USING THE FOLLOWING MEASURES:

Trade Experience:
Working with a live account, we looked for a real-time quote and executed equity trades during market hours, making market buys and limit sales of a stock or exchange-traded fund. A real-time quote that is displayed without any additional user input (such as typing the symbol into a separate box or hitting a “Quote” button) receives credit here; if the trader has to make a duplicate entry of the ticker symbol to get a quote, the broker got zero.  Following the market buy, we tracked the execution and portfolio reports. We looked for pre-filled order tickets when selling a position, which eliminates possible errors during the closing process. After entering a limit-sale order, we examined the open-order reports and looked at ways to check the progress of the order, as well as ways to adjust the limit price or cancel the order. We also placed options orders, using options’ order-entry screens when available. We also examined mutual-fund, bond, and (when available) futures, commodities and foreign-exchange order-entry screens.

An overall score of 5 in Trade Experience means the order entry-and-execution process flowed easily from one step to the next, with real-time information (including buying power and margin balance) available when needed.

Trading Technology: The availability of price-improvement strategies and smart-order routing technology (which finds the best bid or offer) were necessary to earn a 5 in this category. Brokers offering price improvement—a sale above the bid price, a buy below the offer—received a fraction of a point depending on the portion of their transactions that benefited. Top marks were earned by brokers who offered a wide array of order types, including conditional orders. The ability to place a trade from a graph earned a fraction of a point. In addition, we looked for ways to customize the trading experience, such as setting a default number of shares or contracts, to speed order entry.

Usability: A 5 here means the site or program was easy to use and well-designed, didn’t bog down when moving from screen to screen, and can be tailored to the user’s needs. Constant availability of a trading ticket, and easy access to research and account status data is key. This year, we also looked at the account setup process and assigned up to a point for brokers that made it easy to open an account online and start trading. 

Range of Offerings: We awarded points for the diversity of investments that can be traded online, with partial points given for those that can only be traded offline. Since all the brokers allow long and short stock-trading, as well as single-leg options orders online, we don’t award points for those transactions. We asked brokers how many stocks, on average, their customers can sell short, and awarded up to a half-point based on their answer. Complex options trading, and the availability of mutual funds, bonds, futures, commodities and international trading were also considered. A 5 in this category means you can execute all of these transactions online.

Research Amenities:
This category measures the quality and accessibility of research, quotes and charting. We looked for research, news and charting linked to a customer’s portfolio and watch lists; the quality of third-party research and its integration with the rest of the site; and the availability of screeners, with special emphasis on options-strategy screeners. Brokers also won points for offering real-time streaming quotes at no additional cost, powerful charting capabilities, and Level II quotes.  Partial credit was awarded for features that generated an extra fee. 

Portfolio Analysis and Reports: The emphasis here is on clearly laid-out reports, updated in real time, showing current balances, positions and margin status. Portfolio-analysis reports, with links to news and research, as well as extensive transaction history, are most desirable. Tax reporting also falls in this category. Full credit is given for reports that can be created on the broker’s website, with no additional fees or data entry required.  Partial credit is awarded to brokers that populate services such as GainsKeeper and Maxit (tax analysis and reporting programs) for an additional fee. 

Help and Customer Access: We sized up online help such as live-chat capability, user guides and frequently-asked-question files. Offline help was assessed by making calls to customer service, and weighing the brokers’ reports of the average time spent on hold when a customer calls in. We took a look at the education offerings, both online and live. The ability to visit a broker in person, and to access the account via a mobile device, is taken into account here. This category also considers the rate a broker pays for a customer’s cash.

Costs: We looked at commissions for stock and options trades and margin interest rates, giving more points for lower costs. We scaled the points awarded so that the lowest costs in the group earned the maximum number of points, with fractions (and occasional zeros) given to the more expensive brokers. Stock commissions are the biggest factor here, but options and mutual-fund transaction fees are also considered. A 5 could be earned here by very low stock and mutual-fund commissions, less than $7.50 for 10 options contracts, margin interest rates below 3%, and no account-maintenance fees.  This year, we weighted the options transaction fees higher than in the past, and reduced the points awarded for low margin rates due to the lower use of trading on margin. 

Posted by on 03/15 at 04:16 PM

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