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Three investment companies offered zero-commission stock trading in early 2022 and not one of them dominates the latest Globe and Mail digital brokerage ranking.

If you’re starting out as a do-it-yourself investor or benchmarking your current broker, you’ve got quite the challenge ahead of you. Zero fees for buying or selling stocks and exchange-traded funds, with no fine print, is a big appeal for investors who trade frequently. But there’s more to long-term success as a DIY investor than paying nothing to trade stocks.

You also need tools to ensure your portfolio is soundly built and performing well, research to help choose investments and a website and mobile apps that respect you as a client by providing a well-designed platform for managing a portfolio.

As has often been the case in this ranking over the years, Qtrade Direct Investing is the broker that does it best. Other brokers beat Qtrade in specific areas like commission costs, but Qtrade’s overall goodness becomes apparent as soon as you log in and find a neat little dashboard to get you up to speed on your investments.

Qtrade’s consistently strong showing in this ranking speaks to another of its virtues, constant improvement. Other brokers get better in fits and starts, while Qtrade moves ever forward.

A broker to keep your eye on is National Bank Direct Brokerage, the first traditional online broker to introduce zero commissions. NBDB isn’t yet a top tier broker in this ranking, but it could be headed that way based on its recent trajectory.

This year marks a shift in the ranking to include investing apps as well as traditional online brokers. The zero-commission trading app Wealthsimple Trade is now in the mix, and a couple of other apps will be evaluated for possible inclusion next year – MogoTrade and TD Easy Trade.

Digital investing means using a mobile app as well as a website to trade and monitor your account. Each broker’s mobile app has been evaluated in this ranking, but the web experience is weighted more heavily because it offers tools that aren’t yet available on mobile. For example, charting to match your account performance against benchmark indexes over multiple time frames, and analytics that grade your diversification and risk level.

Brokers were also evaluated on cost, convenience and security, the investing experience for clients, and tools for building and monitoring portfolios. Cost was given additional weight this year because it’s more of a differentiator than it has been in ages.

Included in this year’s ranking is an evaluation of how responsive each broker is to telephone calls from clients by the investment industry consulting firm Dalbar Canada. The recurring problem of jammed broker phone lines reminds us that even digital investors need to talk to humans now and then.

Here are the brokers in the 2022 ranking, listed alphabetically:

BMO InvestorLine

Owner: Bank of Montreal

Grade: B+

Definitely on an up trend. The most recent improvement is commission-free trading of 80-plus exchange-traded funds, including asset allocation funds (a diversified portfolio in a single package) from BMO, iShares and Vanguard. Building a long-term portfolio cost-free is easily possible if you buy these ETFs through InvestorLine. BMO’s website has been nicely updated and is better in every conceivable way than an older version that is still available to clients who want it. BMO’s mobile app lacks the zip of the website.

CIBC Investor’s Edge

Owner: Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce

Grade: B-

CIBC has long been a top broker for providing equity research to clients and this is more true than ever now. Research from the independent analysis firm Morningstar is pretty much ubiquitous in online investing now, but CIBC goes beyond that with Thomson Reuters and CIBC World Markets reports. Otherwise, this is a middling broker with somewhat cheap commissions at $6.95 a trade.

CI Direct Trading

Owner: CI Financial Corp.

Grade: B

CI Direct, formerly Virtual Brokers, has slipped down from a ranking it once led because its cost advantage has been nullified by the trend to zero commissions. CI is still a cost-effective choice, with trades at 1 cent a share (minimum of $1.99 and a maximum of $7.99), and commission-free buying of ETFs (you pay the usual commission to sell). There’s also a first-class portfolio analysis tool powered by Wealthscope. Try it and you’ll see how investors without tools like this are flying blind. CI’s mobile app is one of the better ones in this group.

Desjardins Online Brokerage

Owner: Desjardins Group

Grade: C+

Eliminating trading commissions helped Desjardins climb in this ranking, but its overall grade is limited by a retro website that feels out of step with the times. The best brokers in this ranking make investing enjoyable by empowering their clients with information and tools. That’s not happening here.

HSBC InvestDirect

Owner: HSBC Bank Canada

Grade: D+

With no mobile app and no U.S.-dollar registered accounts, HSBC plants itself in a deep hole in this ranking. Offsetting factors include a reasonable commission cost of $6.88, some decent portfolio analytics and online access to stock markets in Hong Kong, London, Paris and Frankfurt, as well as Canada and the United States.

Interactive Brokers

Owner: IB Canada

Grade: B

Serious traders, give IB a look for a combination of low costs and market analytics. IB might be where active traders go when they outgrow Wealthsimple Trade.

National Bank Direct Brokerage

Owner: National Bank of Canada

Grade: B+

Let’s quickly answer the question you have to be asking about NBDB in light of it being the first online broker to eliminate trading commissions. What compromises must clients make to get that cost advantage? Only one stands out as a potential deal-breaker – a mobile app is still in development and wasn’t available in early 2022. Aside from this deficiency, NBDB is well worth a look if you trade a lot and appreciate a clean, modern web interface and lots of equity research.

Qtrade Direct Investing

Owner: Aviso Wealth

Grade: A

Qtrade is the broker to look at if you wonder why anyone would pay stock-trading commissions – a flat $8.75 in this case. There are huge amounts of embedded value, starting the moment you log into your account and see a dashboard that is second to none in showing what you need to know about your portfolio. Qtrade could improve its analyst research and really needs to up its game in showing portfolio performance. But overall, its long run at or near the top of this ranking deservedly continues.

Questrade

Owner: Questrade Financial Group

Grade: B+

What is it with the “Q” brokers, Qtrade and Questrade? Both are outstanding in the way they never let up on making improvements. A big add for Questrade lately is instant deposit, which lets you transfer money, typically as much as $3,500 a day, into your account in real time. Questrade has a sharp mobile app and a crisp, all-business website for clients.

RBC Direct Investing

Owner: Royal Bank of Canada

Grade: B-

There is much to like here, including a new trading dashboard and strong tools for goal-setting and portfolio performance monitoring. But there’s an overall sense of drift with RBC Direct. Much of the online interface looks aged and, worse, it buries the good features so deep you could easily be oblivious to them. The very good mobile app shows the lights are still on at RBC Direct.

Scotia iTrade

Owner: Bank of Nova Scotia

Grade: B

Log into your iTrade account and you’ll see what a top broker of 10 years ago would have looked like. Fortunately, Scotia says a website and app modernization is coming this year. Sharper portfolio analytics would be a nice complement to current standout features like multisource equity research and an income tracker that informs clients about historical and project flows of dividends and bond interest.

TD Direct Investing

Owner: Toronto-Dominion Bank

Grade: A-

TD has its critics, notably for long wait times on the telephone. But it offers a shrewdly designed, helpful website that feels like a cockpit from which you fly your portfolio. If you do all your trading on a phone, check out TD Easy Trade. This app offers 50 free trades per calendar year and unlimited free trading of TD’s family of ETFs.

Wealthsimple Trade

Owner: Wealthsimple

Grade: I

That’s I for incomplete, a reflection of the fact that Wealthsimple Trade is an app for trading stocks and lacks almost all of the tools singled out for praise at other brokers. But Wealthsimple Trade is also a disruptor in DIY investing – it introduced zero commissions to Canada and opened investing in stocks to younger investors. Pros for Wealthsimple Trade: Zero-cost trading commissions for stocks and ETFs, the availability of fractional shares for some stocks and a strong mobile app (there’s also a desktop version of the app). Cons: You have to subscribe to a $10 per month upgrade for access to U.S-dollar accounts, as well as instant deposits of up to $5,000 and unlimited price alerts. (this service was in beta form in early 2022)

Brokers under the microscope

Source: Rob Carrick; online brokerage firms. Data management for the online brokerage ranking was handled by Audrey Carleton.

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