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(Cathy Yeulet/Thinkstock)
(Cathy Yeulet/Thinkstock)

PORTFOLIO STRATEGY

A primer on low-commission trading Add to ...

If only trading stocks was as cheap as online brokers would like you to believe.

Questrade’s website plays up “Canada’s lowest commissions,” with stock trades for 95 cents. TD Direct Investing mentions a commission of $7 flat; Scotia iTrade mentions trades as low as $6.99. What all these offers have in common is fine print that almost always reserves the lowest commissions for the most trade-happy clients.

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Some deals in online investing are widely available, mind you. Virtual Brokers prices stock trades as low as 99 cents with no conditions. Generally, though, all hype about low stock-trading commissions has to be checked for terms and conditions.

It was only a few years ago that the standard minimum commission for buying or selling shares through an online broker was $29. Brokers reduced the cost to just below $10 for accounts of $100,000, and then reduced that threshold to $50,000. Getting well below the $10 threshold is the latest hurdle for cheap trading, and brokers are keen to show how low they can go.

Questrade’s 95-cent deal is the most dramatic in that it undercuts the previous low-cost champion, Virtual Brokers. But while Virtual makes a no-strings 99-cent trade available, Questrade targets its offer to active traders willing to pay $89.95 or so for a monthly stock market data package (rebates on this fee are available, based on your trading pattern).

The Questrade and Virtual fee structures highlight another lesson, which is to check whether a broker is offering a flat commission or a rate tied to the number of shares you trade. Both firms charge 1 cent a share, with a floor and ceiling price (see table). In both cases, only small trades would actually cost less than a dollar.

TD Direct Investing invites people to start trading for as low as $7 flat on its website. But that’s a commission rate reserved for people who make 150 or more trades per quarter. You’ll pay $9.99 flat if you have $50,000 or more in household assets with the firm, or make 30 to 149 trades per quarter. Small accounts that don’t trade a lot typically pay $29.

Scotia iTrade’s $6.99 offer requires you to make 150 trades per quarter. For 30 trades per quarter or $50,000 in combined account assets at the firm, you get a flat $9.99 commission.

One of the cheapest and most attainable commission deals is the $6.95 loyalty pricing advertised on the website of CIBC Investor’s Edge. All you need to qualify for this preferred commission rate is a balance of $100,000 or more in a list of CIBC products that includes a mortgage, term deposit, line of credit and chequing or savings account. You can combine products to reach the required threshold, and combine assets held by people living in the same household. If you bought a house recently with a CIBC mortgage, then you’ve pretty much nailed $6.95 stock trading commissions at this broker.

Two brokers that don’t make much of a fuss about costs on their websites are RBC Direct Investing and BMO InvestorLine. RBC merely says “qualifying for $9.95 flat commissions may be easier than you think.” It’s true – you just need $50,000 in household assets.

Similarly, BMO InvestorLine doesn’t prominently mention commissions on its website these days. However, these is an offer of $250 cash or 2,000 Air Miles (enough for a short-haul flight, BMO says) for people who open accounts with $100,000 or more by Sept. 4.

At National Bank Direct Brokerage, the low-cost pitch is made through an offer of free online buying and selling of exchange-traded funds until the end of July. The plentiful fine print says trades must be valued at $5,000 or more to qualify, only ETFs from Canadian providers are allowed and the ETFs must be held for at least one trading day. As is typically the case with these types of promotions, investors pay the ETF commission and then are later reimbursed. Several other firms offer some degree of commission-free ETF trading, including Qtrade, Questrade, Scotia iTrade and Virtual Brokers.

Credential Direct’s website doesn’t have much to say about cheap commissions, which makes sense because this firm is middling on cost. But Credential does highlight the fact that it has no hidden electronic communications network (ECN) fees, which can quietly bump up the cost of a trade beyond the expected commission. In fact, ECN fees are rarely encountered outside of active trading platforms and certain trades made through Questrade, Qtrade Investor and Virtual Brokers.

Credential’s standard minimum $19 commission is right between the $29 charged small accounts at the bank-owned firms and the sub-$10 trades they offer to people with assets of $50,000. Credential used to offer $9.95 trades to active traders who made 25 trades per quarter, but that trade has been reduced to a much more attainable 10 quarterly trades.

Qtrade and Credential are among the brokers currently advertising an offer to cover at least part of any transfer-out costs from your old investment firm. Most brokers do this sort of thing, whether they mention it on their websites or not. Before bringing your account over to an online brokerage, call the firm and get a confirmation that it will cover the transfer fee. They’ll usually require you to send a copy of the final statement from your old account, with the transfer-out fee listed. This amount will later be credited to your account.

Read more from Portfolio Strategy.

For more personal finance coverage, follow Rob Carrick on Twitter (@rcarrick) and Facebook (robcarrickfinance).

Wednesday at noon (ET), join Rob Carrick in a live online discussion about financial advice for young Canadians. Send your questions to rcarrick@globeandmail.com.

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