Friday, March 11, 2011
Scoring Rubric for the 2011 Online Broker Review
We put 24 online brokers through a variety of paces. To participate, each broker filled out an extensive Excel-based survey, and gave us access to a live account. Several brokers we contacted to take part in the survey, including Vanguard, could not give us a live account, so they are not included in the survey.
Here is what we went through to rank the brokers this year.
WE RANKED OUR 24 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. We looked for a real-time streaming quote that updates automatically. We checked out the ways a trader is told that an order is executed, such as pop-up notices or an order status screen that is updated when the order fills.
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. A key component going forward is the ability to select a tax lot when closing a position.
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. Methods for placing conditional orders, such as one-cancels-another or one-triggers-another, were checked out.
An overall score of 5 in Trade Experience means the order entry-and-execution process flowed easily from one step to the next, with streaming 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) are necessary to earn a 5 in this category. This year we asked whether a broker’s order routing engine used a spray or sequential engine; spray routing contacts multiple venues simultaneously and are less inclined to execute orders via routes that offer payment for order flow. 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, and had spray order routing technology. 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. We looked at how easy it is to get started on the platform or website as a new customer. Constant availability of a trading ticket, and easy access to research and account status data is key. Being able to easily switch from one area of the website or program to another is key here, as are customization options.
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.
Customer Service and Education: 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.
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 and options commissions are the biggest factor here, but mutual-fund and other transaction fees are also considered. A 5 could be earned here by very low stock and mutual-fund commissions, $4 or less for 10 options contracts, margin interest rates below 2%, and no account-maintenance fees.