Equity Trades are Free – But there is no Free Lunch

Broker price wars

Before 1975, brokers had it really good. Commissions were fixed and regulated-at very high levels. It would sometimes cost hundreds of dollars to buy 500 shares of a blue-chip stock. That changed in 1975 when the SEC opened commissions to market competition.   A young Chuck Schwab and others became discount brokers- often charging ½ or less of the old rates. Since then, fees have continued to fall and earlier this year, trades could be made for $5 or less. Now, Charles Schwab & Co. as well as TD Ameritrade, E*TRADE and others have cut stock and ETF trades to zero. Free trading of equities has arrived.   Please be advised, though, that there is no free lunch- brokers profit from you even if they don’t charge for equity trades.

Here are some the main sources of income for brokerage firms:

  • Trade commissions
  • Brokerage fee- to hold the account
  • Mutual fund transaction fee-charges when you buy or sell a fund
  • Operating Expense Ratio-an annual fee charged by mutual funds, index funds and exchange-traded funds (“ETFs”)
  • Sales load- A sales charge or commission on some mutual funds paid to the broker or salesperson who sold the fund
  • Uninvested cash- brokers become bankers and lend it out

Let’s focus first on uninvested cash. In 2018, 57% of Schwab’s income came from loaning out its customers’ cash. As is typical in the brokerage business, uninvested cash is swept to an interest bearing account. However, sweep accounts typically earn almost nothing- usually ½ to ¼ of 1% or lower to the investor.

Schwab had a total of $3.7 trillion of deposits, with about 7% of it ($265 billion) in cash earning nice returns for them. Assuming a return of 2.5 % on the uninvested cash, that’s a return of $6.6 billion. The cost of that money was likely ½% or about $1 billion, with Schwab netting about 2%. $5.7 billion of Schwab’s $10 billion net revenue in 2018 was earned on its customers’ cash. Virtually all the brokers use the same model with uninvested cash.

Robo- advisors generally use the same format. Virtually all of them charge lower fees but require a certain amount of cash, between 4% and 30% in their pre-set asset allocations. Yes, there is a small sweep account interest paid on those funds, but not much. And, this is all typically disclosed. The rate paid on clients’ cash “may be higher or lower than on comparable deposit accounts at other banks” is a typical warning.

The use of uninvested cash is income for the brokers and reduction in performance for the investors. Let’s say your portfolio has 10% cash generating a 0% return. If your annual return on the invested 90% in your portfolio is 6%, then the return on 100% of the account is only 5.4%. A huge difference over time. As an example, the difference between earning 5% per year versus 6% a year on $100,000 for 30 years is $142,000.

Now, let’s look at the operating expense ratio (OER). OERs are charged by mutual funds, index funds and ETFs. If a fund has an expense ratio of 1%, that means you pay $1 annually for each $100 invested. If your portfolio was up 6% for the year, but you paid 1% in operating expenses, your return is actually only 5%. The OER is designed to cover operating costs including management and administration.

The first mutual funds were actively traded, meaning that the portfolio manager tried to beat the market by picking and choosing investments. Operating expenses for actively managed funds include research, marketing and significant administration with OERs often at 1% or more. Index funds are considered passive. The manager of an index fund tries to mimic the return of a given benchmark, e.g. the S&P 500 Index. Index funds should have significantly lower operating expense ratios. Evidence shows that actively managed funds, as a whole, don’t beat the indices. In fact, as a group, they underperform by the amount of their OER.

Operating expense ratios, primarily because of increased use of index funds and ETFs to minimize costs, have been getting smaller and smaller. In fact, we have seen some funds at a zero operating expense ratio. However, for these funds, a substantial amount (10% to 20%) of cash is maintained in the fund.

Conclusion: Set a target of 1-2% cash in your portfolio. Stay invested for the long term.   In addition, the investments in your portfolio should have very low OERs, wherever possible. However, in selecting investments, you need to look at both the OERs and the typical cash position of the mutual fund, index or ETF. Even if the OER is zero and the security holds 10% in cash, your performance on that holding will likely only be 90% of the benchmark, at best. Remember, when equity trades are free, brokers will continue to look for ways to make money, often at your expense.

Love that Cash!

Love that Cash!Ever wonder where worldwide currency gets printed? Certainly, here in the United States, our U.S. dollar banknotes are printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas. Of course, our Federal Reserve keeps them busy. Like the U.S., most large countries do their own printing. The smaller countries, and those under a time crunch, outsource the job.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan on July 9, 2011. It needed currency quickly for its new country. Of course, like all cash, it would have no intrinsic value, but it needed to appear of value to inspire public confidence. The product needed to be durable and secure. South Sudan needed millions of copies of their six bills produced cheaply yet safe from fraud. Ten days later, on July 19, 2011, the government introduced the South Sudanese pound, which included the image of John Garang, deceased leader of their independence movement.

South Sudan couldn’t have accomplished this without De La Rue, a British company and the world’s largest commercial banknote printer. De La Rue got started in early 19th century, obtaining a Royal Warrant to print playing cards. Today, it also prints passports, drivers’ licenses, stamps and bank checks. Its customers include 36 central banks, including the Bank of England, the Bank of Greece and the European Central Bank. There aren’t many worldwide “security” printers. Trust is one huge factor. A long history and established relationships with central bank clients are others. De La Rue’s two main competitors also both date back to the 19th century.

The Wall Street Journal on August 13th reported that African countries want to replace the U.S. dollar with their own. Angola, Mozambique, Ghana and Zambia have all recently enacted laws to reduce U.S. dollars in their countries. In copper-rich Zambia, the central bank has banned dollar-denominated transactions and now requires the kwacha be used. They’re serious about this. Violators may spend 10 years in prison. The desire is more than national pride. Small economies like Zambia do not want complete reliance on foreign currency. It’s working. Their recent changes have heightened demand for the kwacha and have pushed their currency to its highest level against the dollar in more than a year.

The financial crisis has also been good for banknote printers. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 has led to people holding more cash. Around the world, low interest rates and fear of banks in general have resulted in more cash being stuffed in mattresses. Furthermore, if, in fact, Greece exits the euro, commercial banknote printers will undoubtedly be asked to produce, in secret, millions of drachmas in a very short time. And, can you imagine what would happen to the banknote printing industry if the euro zone splits apart?