There are dozens of stock brokerage houses in the United States. But four major firms stand out because of their name, offerings, their total amount of client assets, and the number of clients they serve. They are often referred to as the "big four brokerages." Each of these firms—Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments, E*TRADE, and TD Ameritrade—comprise the top in terms of customers and assets.

This short article outlines the products, services, and fee structure of each brokerage. They are listed in no particular order.

Key Takeaways

  • Charles Schwab is a leading U.S. stock brokerage firm with $4.04 trillion in client assets and 12.3 million active brokerage accounts.
  • Fidelity Investments has $7.3 trillion in total customer assets, 30.8 million active brokerage accounts, and is a good choice for customers who want to invest in Fidelity ETFs and mutual funds.
  • E*TRADE is an online brokerage pioneer, well-known for its full-featured mobile apps, top-notch options trading tools, and customizable user experience.
  • Because of its extensive research and investor education tools aimed at all levels of investing expertise, TD Ameritrade is a top choice for active and new investors alike.

Charles Schwab

Charles Schwab was founded in 1971 and is based in San Francisco. It is one of the leading investment brokerages and IRA custodian firms in the U.S.

As of Dec. 31, 2019, Charles Schwab held $4.04 trillion in client assets, with a total of 12.3 million active brokerage accounts. It also operates Schwab Bank, one of the largest banks in the United States, which allows its brokerage clients to link their trading accounts with a checking account. The company boasted 1.4 million active banking accounts as of the end of 2019. Schwab really shines with registered investment advisor (RIA) accounts, where $1.9 trillion of assets under management (AUM) sits.

The firm offers clients a series of investment products including stocks, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), money market funds, fixed income products, options, futures, insurance and annuities. Clients can invest in both Schwab's proprietary products and other third-party investments.

Charles Schwab's Fee Structure

Schwab, the country's first real discount brokerage, has consistently been rated one of the cheapest brokerage firms in the United States. Effective Oct. 2019, Schwab cut commissions from $4.95 to $0.00 for all U.S.- and Canadian-listed stocks, ETFs, options online, and mobile trades. Options trades still have the standard $0.65 per-contract fee.

The operating expense ratio (OER) fees for actively managed mutual funds can range from 0.21% to 1.92%. Fees for passively managed mutual funds can range from 0.02% to 0.39%. Annual portfolio management fees at Schwab start at 0.80% for the Schwab Private Client account. These fees decrease for clients with higher asset levels.

The firm also offers clients a worry-free, passive approach to investing through its robo-advisor service called Intelligent Portfolios. The online platform provides clients with an automated experience, giving them access to a series of ETFs that rebalances per the client's investment goals. The service requires a minimum $5,000 investment and comes with no advisory or commission fees.

On November 25, 2019, Charles Schwab announced plans to acquire competitor TD Ameritrade in a stock transaction valued at approximately $26 billion. Schwab anticipates the sale to close by the end of 2020, with full integration of the two companies expected to take between 18 and 36 months.

Fidelity Investments

Fidelity Investments is the nation's largest keeper of 401(k) retirement savings plans. Founded in 1946 as Fidelity Management & Research, the company is based in Boston.

According to the company's website, Fidelity had $7.3 trillion in customer assets as of March 31, 2020, with an active 30.8 million brokerage accounts. The company also boasted 32 million individual investors and more than 2.2 million commissionable trades per day.

Fidelity is the best choice for brokerage clients who also want to invest in Fidelity ETFs and mutual funds. The firm also offers investments in third-party products.

Fidelity Investments' Fee Structure

Fidelity touts its zero account fees and no minimums to open a retail brokerage account, including IRAs. Following Schwab's lead, Fidelity also offers commission-free stock, ETF, and options trades. Options trades still have the standard $0.65 per-contract fee.

There are no minimums to invest in Fidelity mutual funds. Fidelity does not charge an expense ratio fee for certain proprietary mutual funds and offers hundreds of other funds with no transaction fees.

Portfolio advisory service fees range from 0.50% to 1.50% based on the amount invested. Minimum investments range from $25,000 to $250,000 based on the investment options. For its automated Fidelity Go service, the firm charges a 0.35% advisory fee but requires no account minimum to open an account.

Through its mutual funds and other advisory services, Fidelity has tens of millions of non-brokerage customers, something the others cannot claim.

E*TRADE

Founded in 1982, E*TRADE began as a holding company and has transformed into a leading online discount brokerage service. The company was hit hard during the 2007-2008 financial crisis because of high exposure to subprime mortgage portfolios. Its stock dropped 86.7% in 2007 before the company implemented a comprehensive turnaround plan. 

The turnaround worked and E*TRADE has become a leading financial firm for its mobile accessibility, online trading tools, and customizable user experience. As of Feb. 2020, E*TRADE had more than 5.2 million retail brokerage accounts with more than $360 billion in client assets.

Just like the other top brokers, E*TRADE offers clients access to ETFs, mutual funds, stocks, options and fixed income products. The firm also offers two checking accounts and a savings account with $1.25 million in FDIC insurance. Clients can also choose a prebuilt portfolio, which gives them a diversified portfolio of mutual funds or ETFs built by an investment strategy team.

E*TRADE's Fee Structure

In 2019, E*TRADE joined Schwab and Fidelity in offering no-fee trading. E*TRADE cut commissions on stock, options and ETF trades to $0 each, while options contracts are charged $0.65 each ($0.50 with 30+ trades per quarter). 

On Feb. 20, 2020, investment banking firm Morgan Stanley announced it would acquire E*TRADE in an all-stock transaction valued at approximately $13 billion. The acquisition is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020.

TD Ameritrade

TD Ameritrade was founded in 1971 and is headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. The firm became TD Ameritrade after the old Ameritrade acquired TD Waterhouse Group in 2006. It acquired St. Louis-based rival Scottrade in 2017. Client accounts were fully merged and integrated into the TD Ameritrade system by February 2018.

TD Ameritrade is considered one of the top brokerage firms in the U.S. because of its value and quality of service. The firm provides clients with a 24/7 customer support system, a user-friendly website with mobile access, research and advanced trading tools. The firm is considered a top broker for beginning investors.

According to the company website, TD Ameritrade has more than $1 trillion in customer assets. Furthermore, it boasts more than 11 million client accounts, with clients placing an average of 500,000 trades per day.

Investment products range from stocks, ETFs, mutual funds, options and fixed-income investments. Clients can also choose to invest in futures and forex currency.

TD Ameritrade's Fee Structure

TD Ameritrade does not require an account minimum, charges no platform fees and requires no trade minimums. TD Ameritrade offers commission-free trading, charging no commissions on online trading of U.S. exchange-listed stocks, ETFs and options. A $0.65 per contract fee applies for options trades.