SmartMoney magazine has released the results of their Annual Broker Survey in its June 2012 issue. Check out the attached article for additional commentary and insight into rankings and methodology. You’ll find my own commentary on their findings below.
SmartMoney 2012 Top 10 Overall
- TD Ameritrade
- Merrill Edge
- Capital One 360 Sharebuilder
Best in Commission & Fees Category (5 stars)
Scottrade doesn’t have a rock-bottem per-trade commission at $7 a trade, but it’s lower than average and they still win overall due to lower fees elsewhere – such as annual fees, inactivity fees, fees to use a phone, or close out an account.
- Capital One 360 Sharebuilder
Best in Customer Service Category (4 stars+)
One important factor here was speed of reply in addition to accuracy, and per the article all of the brokers surveyed now offer Live Chat online except for WellsTrade. I think TradeKing was the first to offer this feature?
- Prices are still dropping, although more slowly. SmartMoney reports that in 1994 the average commission price surveyed was $28. Last year, $8.27. This year, only $7.96. Note that every single one of their top 10 brokers have per-trade stock commissions of under $10. I suppose anything higher would just seem greedy now.
- Banking. More firms are adding banking features like debit cards and billpay to make it more likely that you’ll keep all your money there, joining firms like Merrill Lynch (Bank of America) and WellsTrade (Wells Fargo) which are already closely aligned and owned by big banks.
- Smartphone and iPad apps. These are indeed cool, but the brokers really love them because they increase your trade activity.
SmartMoney mentions the the Merrill Edge BofA deal, where you can get 30 free trades a month if you hold a combined $25,000 as cash in your *deposit* accounts only at Bank of America. However, they don’t mention the WellsTrade deal which offers 100 free trades a year if you hold a combined $25k across acounts including your brokerage balance, but instead requires a PMA checking account that you have to keep active with “in-person” activity like writing a physical check at least once a year.
WellsTrade and Zecco enter the top 10 this year, but Vanguard and OptionsXpress were bumped out. Vanguard was #7 in their 2011 rankings. There was no mention of what happened… I’d like to know if they were notably worse in some area or were simply excluded? OptionsXpress was bought by Schwab last year, but still runs an independent site.
Finally, there was no mention of the quantity and quality of the commission-free ETF lists offered by the majority of these brokers. If anything, I thought that was more important to mention than smartphone apps that scan product barcodes at the grocery store.
Finding The Best Broker For You
Don’t forget to compare these results with the Consumer Reports 2012 Rankings and the Barron’s 2012 Rankings. The key is to drill down to see which broker satisfies your personal set of needs the best, as there is a lot of fluff in there. This is why I’d rather look at specific sub-rankings more closely than the big headline “Top 10” rankings.
Take the “Banking” category, which included as a criteria but some brokers just don’t offer banking services and I don’t think they should be penalized for it. Another area I don’t care about is “Research” tools. I’ve ever used a broker for research. Morningstar offers me everything that I need, otherwise I just look at Google/Yahoo quotes and look for related news and blog articles. I don’t see how a discount broker would have the time or resources for unique analysis. Just give me cheap trades with good fills, solid customer service when I need it, and track my capital gains and tax lots accurately.