Both Merrill Edge and Vanguard are full service brokers that have been around for some time. Vanguard, founded in 1983, has successfully built a reputation serving buy-and-hold investors with a passive and long term philosophy. It has since become synonymous with low-cost investment. A bit newer to the scene is Merrill Edge, which has a similar target audience. Merrill Edge was launched in 2010, following Bank of America’s (BoA) acquisition of Merrill Lynch. Considering this, one of Merrill’s advantages is that it is seamlessly integrated with BoA’s banking experience. Although both brokers are built for beginner and DIY investors, we’ll look at some of the key differences to help you determine which one is the right fit for your investment needs.
- Account Minimums: $0
- Fees: $0 per stock trade. Options trades $0 per leg plus $0.65 per contract
- Account Minimum: $0
- Fees: $0/stock and ETF trade, $0 plus $1 per contract for options
Merrill Edge and Vanguard are vastly different when it comes to the look, feel, and functionality of the two platforms. It is quick and simple to get started with Merrill, especially if you’re a Bank of America customer. On the other hand, the onboarding process with Vanguard is rather lengthy. You will be able to initiate opening an account online, but there is a wait of several days before you can login and view your account. Vanguard has made updates to the platform and it can be customized according to your interests, but it is still far from the experience an active trader might be looking for. In terms of serving the target buy-and-hold investors, it gets the job done with some improved navigation. Overall, Merrill Edge is more sleek and makes it easy to find tools and resources. While the website is not customizable, you can customize the layout and set trading defaults in MarketPro. When it comes to usability, Merrill Edge has a significant advantage over Vanguard.
Desktop Trade Experience
Similar to the platform itself, the trading experience on the Vanguard has been improved but is not aimed at serving the needs of more active traders. All pages that involve trading utilize real-time quotes, as do the security profile and research pages. However, market and security information on the website display delayed quotes. Rather than quotes being auto-refreshed, they are updated as you move through a trade flow–which may take several clicks before placing a trade order. Overall, the trading experience is sufficient for buy-and-hold investors Vanguard targets, allowing them to slowly put together a portfolio. For other types of investors expecting a responsive and customizable platform, Vanguard’s trading experience falls predictably short.
The trading experience on Merrill’s platform is a significant improvement over Vanguard as it is straightforward and intuitive. MarketPro provides streaming real-time quotes that you can view on multiple devices simultaneously. You can also stage orders for later entry and enter multiple orders simultaneously. MarketPro’s chart trading interface is less elegant than what you may find on some other trading platforms, but it still gets the job done. This is particularly true for retail traders with less complex needs. Both Vanguard and Merrill have trading experience that aligns with the needs of new investors, but we think Merrill has an advantage over Vanguard in this category as it has the capabilities to serve a more diverse crowd than just buy-and-hold investors.
When it comes to mobile trading, there is a similar gap between the types of investors Vanguard and Merrill are looking to serve. As with the website, quotes in the Vanguard app for stocks and ETFs show a delayed price until you get to order entry. The Vanguard app does allow you to customize your feed, which displays account information, news, blogs, transaction history, and performance, among other information. No other data, such as the day's change or volume, is displayed in the mobile view and there is also a complete lack of charting on Vanguard's mobile app.
The Merrill Edge app is more robust and customizable than Vanguard’s, mirroring many of the tools on Merrill’s richer desktop platform. One downside to the Merrill Edge mobile experience is that you cannot customize many features. The mobile app doesn't support chart trading, but you can click the “Trade” icon in the chart header, which prefills the order ticket with the symbol information. As far as similarities, both Vanguard and Merrill edge have limited capabilities as it pertains to entering multiple orders simultaneously and enabling conditional orders. That said, Merrill Edge’s app is more robust than Vanguard’s, giving Merrill the advantage in this category as well.
Range of Offerings
Both Vanguard and Merrill Edge have a similar range of offerings. Most investors will find what they need between the stocks, bonds, and funds, but traders and more sophisticated investors will find the overall selection of both limited with no futures, cryptocurrencies, and so on. Neither broker has an advantage over the other in this category.
Vanguard’s ethos is centered on a long-term investing philosophy, so the broker’s range of order types is limited to those best suited for buy-and-hold investors. The only order types you can place are market, limit, and stop-limit orders. Similarly, Merrill Edge supports basic order types, including market, limit, stop limit, and trailing stop orders across all platforms, but it doesn't offer the advanced conditional orders that active traders want. Both brokers allow you to select tax lots when closing out a position. When it comes to order types, neither broker has a clear edge over the other.
Vanguard's order routing technology is basic, just like its trading platform. It does not have a smart order routing technology, you cannot backtest or automate a trading strategy, and you will not be able to route your own orders. The broker reports price improvement on stock orders of $2.31 for a 100-share order compared to the National Best Bid and Offer in 2022.
In comparison, Merrill Edge uses the Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BofAML) smart order router, which fills orders by first seeking price improvement rather than execution speed. Merrill’s average execution speed for market orders sized 100-1,999 for S&P 500 stocks is .007 seconds. For the same time period and order size, the broker promotes 99% of orders being executed at or better than the quoted price as well as an average savings of $24.60 per order of 1,000 shares. So putting that in terms of Vanguard, it would be slightly better at $2.46 per 100 share order. Both brokers also deserve kudos for not accepting payment for order flow from market makers. Overall, we found that Merrill’s platform has a slight edge over Vanguard as it pertains to their trading technology.
Like many brokers, both Merrill Edge and Vanguard charge no commissions on stock and ETF trades. Additionally, there are also no per leg commissions options trades. Per-contract commissions are $0.65 at Merrill and $1 at Vanguard. This means an order for 50 options contracts is $50 at Vanguard, while the same order is $32.50 at Merrill Edge. This makes sense as Vanguard’s ideal customer has a passive, long-term investment philosophy that isn’t likely to include a lot of options trading. Both brokers have no fees for inactivity, account closure, receiving wires, sending checks, or paper statements and trade confirmations. While Merrill has an account closure fee of $49.95 for retirement accounts, Vanguard does not. Additionally, Vanguard has a $10 wire fee for both domestic and internationally. Sending a wire using Merrill Edge will cost you $24.95.
Overall, both brokers have low cost offerings, but Vanguard has the clear advantage in this category as long as you’re not a frequent options trader.
Account and Research Amenities
Although Vanguard is a large broker, it has more limited research and account amenities than one would expect from a large broker. This is because Vanguard was built for the buy-and-hold investor. In contrast, Merrill Edge has excellent fundamental research tools, including an impressive collection of proprietary and third-party research and stock rankings. While both brokers have stock screeners, Vanguard’s platform will not allow you to screen for technical indicators and screens cannot be turned into a watchlist. Moreover, Merrill Edge has an options screener, as well as a strategy builder, while Vanguard does not offer an options specific screening tool.
Although Vanguard’s charts are customizable, there is no technical analysis available and the customization is limited. Merrill Edge’s MarketPro has full charting and customization capabilities with streaming real-time data. Both Merrill’s web and mobile platforms have limited charting capabilities that are enough for casual, long-term investors to trade on the go. Overall, Merrill Edge has a substantially better offering than Vanguard as it also includes news from multiple sources, a trade idea generator, robust third party research, a DRIP program, and more. You can still strengthen your financial toolbox with plenty of do-it-yourself resources with Vanguard, but the majority of this broker's tools are centered around retirement planning.
Similar to its account and research amenities, Merrill’s portfolio analysis capabilities are exceptional. Merrill’s Portfolio Story is a proprietary tool that shows a complete breakdown of your portfolio, not only by sectors and holdings but also by performance, analyst ratings, and MSCI ESG scores. It's a valuable piece of portfolio analysis technology and should be especially helpful to new investors. Vanguard's portfolio reports and analysis aren't as robust, but they are updated in real time on the Vanguard website. It is also customizable and you will have the ability to aggregate holdings from outside accounts. Both platforms lack trade journals as well as the ability to calculate the tax impact of a future trade. Overall, however, Merrill Edge has a much better portfolio analysis offering than Vanguard.
Both Vanguard and Merrill Edge provide educational resources for their customers. The focus of Vanguard's content is on helping you set financial goals and create a plan of action on how to reach them. In addition to blogs, articles, webcasts, and other educational resources, Vanguard also offers life stage planning tools that are useful for do-it-yourself and beginner investors. With Merrill Edge's investor education, you can pick an investing experience level or a topic—such as investing and markets, stocks, ETFs, options, mutual funds, margin, and others. You can also learn about various investment topics through a series of courses that go from basic to more sophisticated strategies. Although both Merrill and Vanguard offer a solid education, we found Merrill to be the better choice in terms of education due to its wider selection of topics and deeper dives into them.
Vanguard’s customer service is lacking when compared to Merrill Edge. It does not have 24/7 phone support or online chat, and you cannot speak with a live broker. Moreover, you will only have access to a financial advisor if you are a Vanguard Personal Services Advisor client. Merrill Edge has 24/7 phone support, online chat, and the added ability to get in-person support at most Bank of America branches. When it comes to customer service, Merrill Edge has a strong advantage over Vanguard.
Although both brokers have security features in common, Merrill has an advantage over Vanguard in this category because of its additional features, including a soft token for login and high-risk trade authorization that is available through text, phone, and email. On top of all this, Merrill Edge has an aggregate loss limit of $1 billion, while Vanguard does not list its aggregate loss limit online.
Available Account Types
Merrill Edge and Vanguard both provide commonly used account types, including:
- Individual and joint brokerage
- Rollover, Roth, simplified employee pension (SEP), SIMPLE, and traditional individual retirement accounts (IRA)
- 529 plan
Vanguard has a few additional accounts like an individual and small plan 401(k) as well as Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts. Unless you are after those specific accounts, however, either broker has the account types needed to serve the needs of most investors.
It is important to note again that neither Merrill Edge or Vanguard are built to serve the needs of active traders. We recommend Merrill Edge in most situations because of its advantages in being a more diverse broker. If you're already a Bank of America customer, choosing Merrill Edge may be a no-brainer, as Merrill Edge seamlessly integrates with the banking experience. Even many investors who are not BoA customers will enjoy Merrill’s proprietary and robust third-party research and portfolio analysis tools. Compared to Vanguard, Merrill Edge’s platform is more intuitive when it comes to the trading experience and it offers more account and research amenities that would be valuable to investors of all experience levels.
Merrill Edge also outperforms Vanguard when it comes to security, trading technology, education, and customer service. All things considered, we found Merrill Edge to be the better overall brokerage platform for most investors. The one exception, however, is if you are looking to be a buy-and-hold investor. If that is the case, Vanguard can be a more cost-efficient broker to do this with, despite the lack of bells and whistles on its platform. The main reason Vanguard continues to own the buy-and-hold niche is that it focuses only on what a buy-and-hold investor needs, avoiding any unnecessary expenses that would ultimately be passed on to investors.
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