TRADE FOR FREE! NO COMMISSIONS! Sounds too good to be true? Well, it is and it isn’t. Allow me to explain.
Within the past few weeks, a slew of brokerage firms reduced the rate their customers pay for online stock and ETF trades. In fact, they reduced them to dust. Interactive Brokers (IB) started it. Schwab joined in. Then, the cavalry arrived. Many of the largest firms followed suit in different forms. They joined IB, Schwab and the many robo-advisors who have offered free trading for a while.
What does it all mean for you?
Let’s start with the simplest part. Whether you trade your own accounts, or a professional advisor manages your assets, there is a very good chance your costs to execute trades has been reduced. It might even be zero.
However, that does not mean that investing is now “free.” It never was. Now, I know what you are thinking. You don’t use mutual funds, and you don’t use ETFs. So, your returns are not reduced by those “expense ratios” that are embedded in managed funds. If you buy and sell individual stocks, that is true.
You may also point out that you have most of your assets in tax-deferred accounts, such as an IRA or your 401(k) plan. Again, you are correct in assuming that you will not be taxed on those assets until you take them out or reach age 70 1/2. So far, investing sounds pretty darn inexpensive to me!
The real costs of investing
One of the most frustrating things to me after more than 3 decades in the investment business is how quickly people jump at the chance to get something for “free” without considering the whole picture. Zero commissions on stock and ETF trades is just the latest example.
Trading, execution (how good a price you get when you place an order with a brokerage firm), and expense ratios get all the hype in the “race to the bottom” that is today’s big Wall Street.
Taxes…and how Wall Street tries to make them exciting
Taxes get some respect as a cost to reckon with. However, here too, the industry (especially the Robo firms) has created unnecessary drama by touting something call “tax loss harvesting (TLH).” This is something many of us in the field have done religiously for taxable client accounts for years. And we have done so with a focus on each client’s specific tax situation.
Now, firms will put your account on an automated system that hyper-actively swaps you from one security to another similar one, in order to generate a constant stream of tax losses. These can be posted against gains to reduce your tax bill. Great in theory.
TLH does not mean TLC
However, from the live examples I have seen, these TLH programs crowd out some very good investment strategy work. This would take an entirely separate article to explain. Perhaps I will post one.
For now, suffice it to say that in some instances, investment firms are charging an extra fee for something that is potentially overkill. That same service can be done more carefully and inexpensively as custom work for each client. It is just one of those things that you need to be aware of.
In an era of zero commissions, these for-profit firms are not going to find other ways to profit. In no way am I saying they don’t provide a helpful service. Just don’t get caught up in the hype.
Money market rates…also going to zero?
For example, the interest rate paid on money market funds at brokerage firms is, shall we say, in a bear market. That is, the rates are plunging. This is because brokerages are returning to one of their most profitable business, now that short-term interest rates have popped up from 0%.
For example, if T-bills yield 1.50%, you would hope that the money market fund that is used to sweep cash in and out of when you trade would pay somewhere in that range. Check carefully. Many firms have dropped those rates so that they are way, way lower than T-bills.
Cash management: the new tool in your toolbox?
That does not mean that it is a bad deal for you. If you trade actively, and don’t hold a high cash balance anyway, your interest in dollar terms is quite tiny to begin with. But if this is not the case, perhaps you are better off sharpening your skills as a “cash manager.”
I know I have done this in the accounts I manage over the past year. There are ETFs that invest in short-term, high-quality bonds like Treasuries. And, now that there is no commission cost to trade them through many firms, they may be worth considering as a money market surrogate.
The BIG cost of investing that gets too little attention
Drum roll, please…its lousy performance in down markets. Or, as David Letterman said, its all fun and games until someone loses an eye. So, amid all of the excitement about how little it will cost you to “play the market” with no trading costs and low expense ratios, there is still an issue. If the stock market drops 20%, 30%, 40% or more, you had better have a plan.
And, the plan can’t be to figure it out on the fly. Ask the folks who were suddenly faced with that in 2000 and 2007, the winds shifted. We all want to get our “fair share” of the ups. But when markets freak out and $20 of every $100 you had in your portfolio can potentially vanish in a few weeks (as stock index funds did around this time last year), lack of risk-management becomes the only cost that matters.
To try to put a bow on this cost discussion, consider the following if you have $500,000 to invest, and you are not a day trader, nor a straight buy-and-hold investor:
* The cost of 40 trades a year used to be about $5 each. That’s $200 a year you saved, with commissions going to zero.
* You switched to index funds from active funds, and maybe mixed in some stocks. Let’s say that shaved your portfolio expense ratio from 1.00% to 0.20%. You saved $4,000 on that $500,000 portfolio.
* Taxes: you generated capital gains of $30,000, but used TLH to knock that down to $10,000. Assuming a 30% tax rate, you saved $6,000 in taxes. This is getting better and better!
Minimal risk-management: the market fell by 20%, and you escaped with “only” a 18% loss. But that’s still a $90,000 decline in the portfolio! If you had practiced risk-management using some of the techniques I discussed in recent articles (tactical positioning, options, inverse ETFs, etc.), you might have kept that loss to half that.
Naturally, everyone’s situation and objectives are different. However, the key is to recognize the relative impact of the different types of investment “cost.” In the examples above, the cost of trading was well under 1%. The impact of expense ratio was a bit under 1%. TLH helped (assuming you had gains to offset with losses), to the tune of just over 1%.
However, risk-management can be “worth” well over 1%. That’s the point, and what you should focus on when evaluating your total “cost” of investing.
Comments provided are informational only, not individual investment advice or recommendations. Sungarden provides Advisory Services through Dynamic Wealth Advisors
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