Online brokers are enjoying explosive growth as investors beat a path to their virtual doors. In fact, 2020 was a record year: More than 10 million new brokerage accounts were opened, many by first-time investors, according to market research firm J.D. Power, driven by the seemingly unstoppable bull market, commission-free trades and the pandemic lockdown all helped to break down investing barriers, both financial and emotional. And then there was the meme-stock frenzy (Game Stop, AMC Entertainment Holdings) that enticed hordes of eager investors to get in on the game.
The influx of new investors has put a spotlight on finding a good brokerage firm. In this year’s annual online broker survey, we review nine. Five are large brokers that offer something for almost every kind of investor: Charles Schwab, E*Trade, Fidelity, Merrill Edge and TD Ameritrade. (Schwab’s 2020 acquisition of TD Ameritrade has not resulted in changes to most of the services the firms offer, and it may not for at least another year.) The remaining four—Ally Invest, Firstrade, Interactive Brokers and J.P. Morgan Self-Directed Investing—are contenders in this area, but to some extent they target particular customers.
Read on to see our rankings—and, at the end, more about our methodology, including our new approach to commissions and fees in an environment where fewer brokers levy those. Plus, a look at Robin Hood, Tastyworks and some other newer players.
Additional reporting for this article was provided by Michael Korsh, Adam Shell, Karee Venema and Michaela Wang.
- Overall score: 91.8
- Commissions and fees: 2nd
- Investment choices: 1st
- Mobile app: 2nd
- Advisory services: 1st
- Tools: 1st
- Research: 3rd
- Customer service: 8th
Pick Fidelity for: Advice (especially if youre a newbie)
Being a giant helps Fidelity deliver a wide range of advisory services and win this category. Access to extensive advisory services with a variety of different outside firms is a hallmark. And an army of certified financial planners is just a phone call away—or available in the local branch office for face-to-face consulting. Brand-new investors can fund a Fidelity Go robo-advisory account for just $10. And if they have a balance of less than $10,000, they’ll pay nothing in annual fees or expenses.
Also: Fidelitys municipal bond offerings exceeded those of its peers. And Fidelity customers offered the most access to initial public stock offerings between the start of 2020 and June 2021 of any firm. Fidelity offers more than 30 savings, tax and retirement calculators and also excels in screening tools. Its stock screens include 162 different criteria, and its website offers nearly as many data points for each of its fund and ETF screening tools.
Courtesy Charles Schwab
#2 Charles Schwab
- Overall score: 83.0
- Commissions and fees: 5th
- Investment choices: 3rd
- Mobile app: 6th
- Advisory services: 2nd
- Tools: 4th
- Research: 1st
- Customer service: 3rd
Pick Schwab for: Research
In some areas, Schwab doesn’t have the most research. Third-place finisher Fidelity, for instance, offers research from 35 different firms—more than any other brokerage we surveyed—while Schwab’s roster of research firms numbers just under 20. But Schwab’s research resources cover more ground, including market insights and analysis, bond market reports, and audio webcasts. In addition, Schwab offers a bounty of recommended fund and stock lists, which can be a rich trove of ideas. The numerous stock lists include large-company and small-company stocks, as well as favored stocks in each sector, among others. Schwab says it “uses an objective and disciplined approach” to select stocks that are most likely to outperform the market.
Also: Yes, Schwab will help the savvy investor dig deep, but new or small-dollar investors are welcome as well. Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios service doesn’t charge a management fee at all, and it’s one of just two digital adviser services to offer tax-loss harvesting, the practice of selling some investments at a loss to offset gains realized by selling others at a profit (the other is E*Trade).
- Overall score: 76.1
- Commissions and fees: 7th
- Investment choices: 4th
- Mobile app: 1st
- Advisory services: 5th
- Tools: 2nd
- Research: 2nd
- Customer service: 5th
Pick E*Trade for: Mobile app
Fittingly for a firm that (well, decades ago now) was a pioneer of online trading, E*Trade came out ahead with its mobile app, a category we gave the most weight to (20%) in our rankings, because phones are where more and more people are trading these days. But it was a tight finish, won by a tiny margin, thanks in part to E*Trades slightly more robust charting capabilities. Top scores here were gained by offering depth of information (being able to measure your portfolio’s performance against a benchmark, tax-basis info), as well as the more subjective qualities of look and feel. It has a nifty “dark” view that we found easy on the eyes.
Also: A slick interface isnt much without good info behind it, but E*Trade came in a solid second in research, with similar attributes to Schwab. Morgan Stanley completed its acquisition of E*Trade last year, so customers now have unfettered access to this blue-chip investment bank’s research on stocks and markets.
Courtesy Merrill Edge
#4 Merrill Edge
- Overall score: 73.4*
- Commissions and fees: 1st
- Investment choices: 6th
- Mobile app: 4th
- Advisory services: 6th
- Tools: 5th
- Research: 4th
- Customer service: 1st
Pick Merrill Edge for: Commissions, customer service
With account fees and many trade commissions disappearing, its getting harder to figure out what firm offers the best value. This year, our research extended to execution prices on stock trades (see more detail in our methodology slide at the end). Merrill Edge earned the best score in this category. It does not accept payment for order flow (neither does Fidelity; J.P. Morgan didn’t disclose this information). Merrill Edge excelled, too, on price improvement. The firm reported the highest cost savings on this front—an average improvement of $22.10 on big-company stock trades of 1,000 shares. At the same time, Merrill Edge emerged head and shoulders above its peers in our customer service evaluation. The average wait time for a phone rep: less than 30 seconds (J.P. Morgan reports the same wait time). The average reported wait time among all firms: 2.5 minutes. E-mail and chat response times at Merrill are also fast relative to peers.
Also: Another feature at Merrill worth noting is the firm’s proprietary Stock Story and Fund Story features that make researching prospective investments a breeze. At each Story’s end, you’ll get solid, in-depth research reports.
*Merrill Edge, with an overall score of 73.38, inched past TD Ameritrade, which finished with an overall score of 73.37.
Courtesy TD Ameritrade
#5 TD Ameritrade
- Overall score: 73.4*
- Commissions and fees: 6th
- Investment choices: 5th
- Mobile app: 3rd
- Advisory services: 2nd
- Tools: 6th
- Research: 5th
- Customer service: 4th
Pick TD Ameritrade for: Advice
While we noted that Schwab’s 2020 acquisition of TD Ameritrade hasnt led to much change, an exception is its automated advisory product, Essential Portfolios, is already in an early stage of merging with Schwab. Interested investors are directed to Schwab’s robo, Intelligent Portfolios (which we like). That’s why TD receives the same score as Schwab in this category.
Also: While TD Ameritrade didnt measure up to the biggies in its tools offerings, the firm is competitive on some measures, including educational webinars, technical indicators and charting. Finally, TD’s mobile app offers a smorgasbord of educational videos embedded within the app—in other words, to watch a video, you stay in the app and aren’t redirected to a mobile browser or to YouTube. That’s a plus, in our view.
*Merrill Edge, with an overall score of 73.38, inched past TD Ameritrade, which finished with an overall score of 73.37.
Courtesy Interactive Brokers
#6 Interactive Brokers
- Overall score: 71.4
- Commissions and fees: 4th
- Investment choices: 2nd
- Mobile app: 5th
- Advisory services: 4th
- Tools: 3rd
- Research: 7th
- Customer service: 9th
Pick Interactive Brokers for: Active trading
The firm is at its best if you use its Trader Workstation (TWS), which it dubs a “market-maker” designed platform for traders, investors and institutions to trade stocks, options, futures, bonds and funds in more than 100 markets around the world. The firm waives commissions and contract fees on options trades. Other firms typically charge 65 cents per contract. (Ally, an outlier, charges 50 cents per contract.) Similarly, the firm’s super-low, 2.59% interest rate for margin trading—no matter the account size—can’t be beat. Add to that a huge range of investment choices to do all that trading with.
Also: Into environmental, social and governance (ESG) priorities? The firm’s easy-to-follow “Impact” portfolio tool can sift for stocks that match the qualities you select. You can choose among more than a dozen issues—including “gender equality,” “fair labor and thriving communities” and “company transparency”—and you can highlight issues you want to avoid, too, such as animal testing or corporate political spending and lobbying, to get a list of companies that align with your values. The tool also reports how a company measures up against the ESG issues you’ve highlighted.
- Overall score: 48.9
- Commissions and fees: 9th
- Investment choices: 7th
- Mobile app: 7th
- Advisory services: 7th
- Tools: 7th
- Research: 8th
- Customer service: 6th
Pick Ally for: Combining trading and banking.
For Ally, banking (online) came first. Its 2016 acquisition of TradeKing helped it launch investing features a year later. But the firms advantage remains its integration of these two functions. (Also, Merrill Edge investors who bank primarily at Bank of America get some extras as well)
Also: Among the “little guys,” Ally deserves a shout-out for outranking Firstrade and J.P. Morgan with some offerings that fared pretty well, such as its mobile app and tools. It offers a competitive automated service, with low fees and minimums, but its score suffered in this category because it doesn’t offer a hybrid service (which combines a robo with a little human touch).
Courtesy J.P. Morgan
#8 J.P. Morgan Self-Directed Investing
- Overall score: 46.3
- Commissions and fees: 8th
- Investment choices: 9th
- Mobile app: 8th
- Advisory services: 8th
- Tools: 8th
- Research: 6th
- Customer service: 7th
J.P. Morgan gets an honorable mention for its low-fee hybrid service. The firm did not provide a dummy account for us to test its functionality directly.
- Overall score: 38.7
- Commissions and fees: 3rd
- Investment choices: 8th
- Mobile app: 9th
- Advisory services: 9th
- Tools: 9th
- Research: 9th
- Customer service: 2nd
Pick Firstrade for: Customer service
Firstrade was a surprise second-place finisher in customer service. The firm’s representatives aren’t the fastest responders on the phone or with chat or e-mail, but they aren’t the slowest, either. And they earned a solid score on our customer service phone line test. Representatives were, for the most part, clear, informative and accurate when they answered questions on the phone.
Also: The firm waives commissions and contract fees on options trades. Other firms typically charge 65 cents per contract. doesn’t offer an advisory service at all, which hurt its ranking in this category and overall in the survey.
Outside the Rankings: Fledgling Firms That Fill a Niche
Small brokerage firms don’t offer all the bells and whistles that you’ll find at well-known online brokers. You shouldn’t expect to trade mutual funds and individual bonds, for instance. Nor will you get the level of customer service that you’ll receive at the big brokers—that has been an issue lately, and it has prompted many investors at these small firms to jump ship. But if you invest only in stocks, exchange-traded funds or options, or you want to buy cryptocurrencies, these services may be worth a look. Here are five that are getting noticed; each one offers something a little different.
Young, first-time investors already gravitate toward Robinhood. Since it launched in 2013, the firm has offered commission-free stock and ETF trades and fractional trading. Both services have had a domino effect across the brokerage industry. More recently, the firm added a selection of initial public offerings and seven cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and ethereum, to its lineup. But the firm earned some notoriety during the meme-stock frenzy, first accused of enticing inexperienced investors with game-like graphics and then lambasted for restricting trading in certain shares in order to meet balance-sheet capital requirements. (In filings related to its recent initial public stock offering, Robinhood revealed that regulators are scrutinizing the firm for certain actions related to early 2021 meme-stock trading.)
SoFi’s free robo-adviser service sets it apart from the other young firms on this list. You can sign up for as little as $5, and its “Invest” division offers commission-free stock and ETF trading for hands-on investors, with access to 20 cryptocurrencies, as well as IPOs and special purpose acquisition companies, or SPACs. On top of that, it has a “Borrow” division (offering home, personal and student loans) and “Spend,” which includes a cash management account and, more recently, a credit card.
Sophisticated investors who want to build a diverse stock and ETF portfolio of their own but want someone else to execute the trades and handle upkeep (rebalancing, say) should consider M1 Finance. The firm launched in 2015 and gets its name from the economic term for the amount of cash in circulation in any given country. Its platform allows customers to manage all aspects of their finances—spending, investing and borrowing. But its automated portfolio system is unique. Here’s how it works: You pick the stocks and set up how you want your dollars divided among the securities, and the firm carries out your plan. M1 customers “don’t want to fiddle,” says M1’s Ryan Spradlin. “They say how they want their portfolio invested, and they let us take care of the rest.” This isn’t a robo adviser; M1 clients can shift their portfolio allocation or holdings at any time. But there’s help if needed: Clients can choose from among 80 portfolios. Some portfolios are geared to certain risk levels; others operate like target-date funds. There are even portfolios that mirror hedge-fund strategies.
Experienced, active traders should look at Moomoo and Tastyworks. Moomoo launched earlier this year. Its big plus is free Level II trading data—that’s streaming, in-depth info on the bid (the highest price a buyer is willing to pay) and ask (the lowest price a seller is willing to accept). “Most places don’t give you free Level II data,” says Moomoo’s Tim Waterman. “It means nothing to a beginning trader, but advanced traders use it daily.”
Tastyworks, which launched in 2016, says it features “super-fast speed” and nimble analysis tools for active options traders. About 90% of transactions at the firm are tied to options, and the typical Tastyworks investor makes 10 to 20 trades a week. Charts are supercharged—you can display up to eight charts on a single monitor. Tastyworks parent company Tastytrades bills itself as an online financial network, and it produces podcasts and YouTube videos about stock and options trading and the markets.
About Our Methodology
To be included in our rankings, a firm must offer online trading in stocks, exchange-traded funds, mutual funds and individual bonds, which Robinhood, M1 Finance and SoFi don’t offer. T. Rowe Price and Vanguard declined to participate, as did two participants in last year’s survey, TradeStation and Wells Trade.
As in past years, we analyzed each brokerage in seven areas, including commissions and fees, investment options, advisory services, research, tools, and the nimbleness and functionality of their mobile app. We also measured what we call customer service, which graded the responsiveness of the firm at its “touch points”—chat, e-mail and phone—and included a test of each firm’s customer service by a group of Kiplinger reporters. Aside from customer service, each category score was based primarily on data provided to us by the brokerages, which we checked to the best of our abilities.
The overall score depends on the weight assigned to each of the seven categories. This year, commissions & fees and customer service represented 10% each; tools, research, investment choices and advisory services accounted for 15%; and mobile apps received the greatest weight, 20%, because more customers are turning primarily to their mobile devices to connect to their accounts and to trade.
Fees & Commissions
Readers tell us that low fees and commissions are the most important feature in an online broker. But account fees and many trade commissions are things of the past.
So, we dug deeper. Brokers have a duty to deliver the best possible execution price to you for your trade, for instance. We scrutinized how often each firm offers the so-called NBBO quote, which stands for national best bid and offer and represents the best available “ask” or offering price when you are buying securities and the best available “bid” price when you are selling. We asked about price improvement, which happens when firms improve on the NBBO and execute your orders at even better prices, and we asked whether firms accept payment for order flow, which can pose a conflict of interest because it is compensation that a brokerage receives for funneling trades to a certain market maker. We also looked into the fees charged for bond and options trading, as well as the interest rates on margin loans. Ally and J.P. Morgan both declined to answer this question.
If a brokerage doesn’t offer access to a broad range of investments, little else matters. A firm must have ample offerings for each type of asset, including stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, bonds and more (such as access to initial public offerings), to fare well in this category. Fidelity came in first, Interactive Brokers was second and Schwab, third.
The ability to buy a portion of one share of stock, or fractional trading, was a driving factor in the final scores. Fidelity, Interactive Brokers and Schwab are the only firms we surveyed that offer investors the ability to buy stock slices. But while Fidelity and Interactive Brokers offer partial-share trading in thousands of stocks, Schwab’s program is limited to the 500-odd stocks in the S&P 500 index. Fidelity and Interactive even offer fractional trading in ETFs, giving each of them an edge. (This is outside of each brokerage firm’s digital advisory service, in which fractional trading of ETFs is typically a given.)
Access to foreign stock exchanges helped our top three finishers, too. We didn’t give a lot of weight to this feature, but Fidelity, Schwab and Interactive Brokers each offer trading on exchanges in dozens of developed and emerging markets, from Austria to Australia to Japan to Lithuania.
The competition was close in this category, reflecting how much we live on our smartphones these days (and how firms are catering to our needs). Merrill Edge said that roughly half of its customers use the firm’s mobile app exclusively. At Fidelity, 52% of all customer interactions occur via its app.
Every company’s mobile app allows you to trade stocks, ETFs and mutual funds, pull up research reports, view detailed data on securities, and review your portfolio’s performance. But some of the apps aren’t as loaded with features as others. Only five firms, including E*Trade, Merrill Edge and Schwab, allow you to measure your portfolio’s performance against a benchmark, for instance. (Merrill lets you choose among a whopping 35 indexes.) And not all offer tax-lot information on holdings on the mobile app—the ones that do include E*Trade, Fidelity, J.P. Morgan and Schwab. That data can be helpful when you make a trade. (This service is set to debut at Merrill and Ally later this year.)
More investors want advice and are willing to pay for it. Fortunately, financial services firms are delivering, with low-cost, low-minimum robo advisory services and plenty of high-end options, too, with personalized portfolios filled with a variety of assets that are professionally managed.
Calculators, charts and screens for stocks, ETFs and mutual funds help investors put their money to work in smart ways. The big firms dominate here. Note that while Interactive Brokers put in a strong third-place finish, most of its tools are available only on its Trader Workstation platform, which must be downloaded; the tools on the firm’s website are too simple to be of much use.
Investors today expect abundant research from online brokers, for everything from market outlooks to bond, stock, ETF and mutual fund analysis. But as the scores in this group show, size matters: The big brokers do a better job at this than the small ones. Interactive Brokers, for example, offers a surfeit of choices, but it has no stock or market research reports from an independent, established investment bank, nor any in-depth fundamental mutual fund analysis.
Can you talk to a certified financial planner if you need one? Get an answer to a question via chat or e-mail in a reasonable amount of time? Reach a live representative on a customer service phone line? Does the rep answer your question correctly and completely? These are just a few of the areas we scrutinized in this category. We saw plenty of warnings about long wait times when we test-drove dummy accounts. We also asked questions ranging from simple to challenging to test the quality of answers.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.
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