Interactive Brokers (IB), a longtime leader in low-cost trading, had previously positioned itself as the go-to broker for sophisticated, frequent traders. Opening new accounts required $10,000 -- one of the highest minimums in the industry. But over the last few years, IB has been transforming itself into a kinder, gentler brokerage, by reaching out to the mass affluent investor base, in an effort to cultivate more customers who aren’t primarily traders.
- The longtime leader in low-cost trading, Interactive Brokers had positioned itself as the go-to broker for sophisticated, frequent traders.
- The firm has recently done away with the $10,000 account minimum requirement, in a bid to attract more mass affluent customers.
The first step of IB's rebranding initiative was to jettison the $10,000 account minimum, thus allowing investors to open cash accounts with $0, or open margin accounts with $2,000--the regulatory minimum for all brokerages. But this policy change wasn't a jarring new development for the firm, which had already downplayed its high minimum, by removing the $10,000 minimum messaging from its website.
"To be honest, we haven’t enforced the minimum for the last five years," says Executive Vice President Steve Sanders.
In another move to target non-active traders, the firm adopted a user-friendly natural language help system known as "IBot". Instead of digging around for an options chain, users can now simply ask IBot to display prices by typing or saying: “Show options chain for TSLA for the next three expirations.” IBot helps reduce the slope of the learning curve for its flagship platform, Traders Workstation.
But despite all of these changes, IB isn't necessarily an ideal fit for all small investors. "We don't want to mislead anybody," warns Sanders. "Our target is still not small accounts, but we felt that requiring such a large deposit, just so investors could try us out was silly. People who aren't ultimately going to trade actively, or maintain high balances of $100,000 or more, may not appreciate all IB has to offer."
Furthermore, accounts with less than $100,000 in net liquidation value are subject to certain monthly activity fees. While the first three months are free, after that time period, investors must generate a minimum of $10 in monthly commissions, or they'll be forced to pay the difference as an activity fee. For instance, an investor with a balance of less than $100,000 who places only a few trades in a month that generate only $3 in commissions will be assessed a $7 activity fee. There may also be data fees for investors who don't subscribe to any international data feeds.
In an effort to appeal to more passive investors, IB rolled out the robo-advisory arm IB Asset Management. It offers 10 “Smart Beta” portfolios, 13 index-tracking portfolios, and six asset allocation portfolios. These are made up of stocks and incur an annual management fee of 0.08-0.09% and require a minimum of $5,000. Another set of actively managed stock portfolios that are run by professional money managers require minimums of $10,000-$120,000 and incur higher management fees of 0.5-1.5% annually. There are also eight portfolios made up of ETFs and mutual funds with $10,000-$20,000 minimums and 0.5%-1.0% annual management fees. Further information on the portfolios may be found on the IB asset management page, where prospective investors can filter their search by risk, strategy, or investment minimum.
The Traders Academy helps less sophisticated investors and traders learn their way around the wide variety of asset classes, markets, currencies, tools, and functionality, that can be found on the Trader Workstation. There are also classes available through a mobile app that contains videos, quizzes, and other teaching tools. For example, Robert Green’s "Trader Tax 101" examines the tax laws that affect investors, traders, and investment managers.