The longtime leader in low-cost trading, Interactive Brokers had positioned itself as the go-to broker for sophisticated, frequent traders. To drive that point home, new customers had to deposit a minimum of $10,000 to open an account, which was one of the highest minimums in the industry for retail investors and traders.
But IB has been transforming itself into a kinder, gentler brokerage over the last few years, reaching out to the mass affluent and going out of its way to bring in new customers who aren’t primarily traders. The most recent step in this transformation is the elimination of the $10,000 account minimum. You can now open a cash account at IB with $0, or a margin account with $2,000, the regulatory minimum that all brokers must require.
Executive Vice President Steve Sanders says, “We haven’t enforced the minimum for the last five years, to be honest.” Starting in the spring of 2018, the firm went on a cleaning spree, removing the $10,000 minimum from the website, but the last reference was removed earlier this week. Sanders remarks, “Our target is still not small accounts, though. But we felt that requiring that large deposit just to try us out was silly.”
Among its other offerings to less active traders is IBot, the natural language help system. Rather than digging around for an options chain, for example, you can 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.
Sanders notes that customers who aren’t going to trade actively, or eventually maintain a balance of $100,000 or more, are unlikely to appreciate all IB has to offer. “We don’t want to mislead anybody,” he says. “If you’re only going to have $5,000 in your account, you’ll be very unhappy.” Small accounts do not qualify for real-time data either, so removing the minimum is a way to try the site without any stress – but it’s not the way to be happy as a long term customer.
Accounts with less than $100,000 in net liquidation value are subject to some monthly activity fees, however. The first three months are free, but after that, you must generate a minimum of $10 per month in commissions, or pay the difference as an activity fee. For instance, if you place a few trades and generate $3 in commissions during a month, you’ll be assessed a $7 activity fee if your balance is under $100,000. Other fees to watch for are data fees, especially if you subscribe to any international data feeds.
Another recent addition, appealing to passive investors, is IB Asset Management, which is the firm’s robo-advisory. They offer 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. You can take a look at the portfolios available on the IB asset management page and filter the results 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 you’ll find on the Trader Workstation. There are also classes for the mobile apps. The courses, which are free, combine lessons, videos, and quizzes. Check out Robert Green’s Trader Tax 101 for a look at the tax laws that affect investors, traders, and investment managers.