Our Take

Public is on a mission to make investing accessible for everyone. It believes a significant reason why many people do not invest is due to a lack of financial literacy, expensive financial products, and soaring share prices that can require people to invest $1,000 or more to purchase a single share of popular, high-performing stocks. Public was built to address these issues with the aim of unlocking greater access to the stock market for a broader audience of investors. For the passive or beginning investor who desires investing education, Public could be a good fit. That being said, traders and investors interested in derivatives or a more robust tool set will find better options elsewhere.

Introduction

Public is a commission free stock trading mobile app that is user-friendly and caters to the beginner investor. The broker became Public in 2018 and was formerly known as Matador. On February 17, 2021, Public announced that it had raised $220 million in a Series D round at a $1.2 billion valuation. Investors included Accel, Greycroft, and Lakestar, Will Smith (via his Dreamers VC), Intuition Capital, Tiger Global, The Chainsmokers’ Mantis VC, and more. Public stands out for its social element that lets you follow and connect with friends and experts in the community. 

Although it has a very limited selection of account types, Public offers a great pricing structure, charging no trading fees or commissions. This makes it an appealing option for beginning investors who enjoy sharing ideas with a community of investors. We’ll take a deeper look at Public to help you decide whether it is the right fit for your investment needs.  

Pros & Cons

Pros
  • Public lets you buy fractional shares

  • There is a social media element to public

  • Public does not accept payment for order flow

  • Easy to use mobile app

Cons
  • Limited account types

  • Limited investment selections

  • Limited features

Pros Explained 

  • One of Public’s greatest strengths is its “slices”, more commonly known as fractional shares. Because price can create a barrier to investing, fractional shares or stock slices work to lower that barrier to entry, by giving any person with any amount of available cash, the opportunity to buy a stake in a company. It is important to note that Public isn’t the only broker that supports fractional share investing. 
  • When you sign up for a Public account, you have the ability to follow popular creators, and share ideas within a community of investors. Public makes the stock market an inclusive and educational place, with social media features that make it easy to collaborate as you build your confidence as an investor.
  • With low to no commission fees, many brokerages lean on other forms of revenue to sustain and grow their businesses, including payment for order flow (PFOF), a practice in which a brokerage firm receives rebates on trades routed through its clearing firm. Public does not participate in payment for order flow, rather it offers an optional tipping feature.
  • Public’s mobile app is user friendly and easy to use. You can open an account in very quickly and seamlessly navigate through the platform to search for new stocks or view the portfolios of other investors.

Cons Explained 

  • Because Public caters to beginning investors, it doesn’t offer many account types. If you choose this broker, you will only have the ability to open a taxable/individual brokerage account. There are no IRA or joint accounts. 
  • Similarly to account types, Public also has limited investment options. You can only invest in stocks, ETFs, and crypto with this company. Public does not support mutual funds, options contracts, bonds, or forex. Stocks and ETFs can fill most of the needs of a new investors for a time, but active investors, traders, and experienced investors will look for more asset types elsewhere.  
  • The broker has limited features. For example, it does not offer charting capabilities and has limited data. Simply put, there are no real screeners or other tools that will help you develop into a more experienced investor overtime. For active investors and traders, this is a major disadvantage, but even new investors looking to learn will quickly outgrow Public’s offerings.

Usability

Public’s user-friendly platform makes the app simple and easy to navigate. Once you download the app, the next step is to answer a few basic questions to submit your application and open an account, all of which takes very little time. Public has also added a web version of its trading platform, but does little with the expanded space besides displaying the same information more expansively than the app.

Once you're logged in and fund your account, it's very easy to search for stocks and ETFs, view other users' portfolios, and start investing. On the home page is a news feed of your investing community sharing insights and ideas on their trades. You can also view their recent posts as well as their portfolio by simply clicking on a user’s account profile. Moreover, you can join in on a discussion, direct message people, or build a group chat of your own. However you decide to assemble your community, you can follow other investors and watch the financial moves they are making. 

At the very top of the home page, you will see market data as it pertains to the main indices. 

When searching for new stocks, you can simply type in the ticker symbol in the search box, or you can browse through the different categories created by Public. Some categories include companies reporting earnings, companies new to the market, meme stocks, space exploration stocks and ETFs, as well as top movers. Public has over 5,000 stocks that are organized into themes. You can easily choose a category, browse the list, and pick a company that seems interesting. The broker provides plenty of information on each company, allowing you to explore company histories, comments, and trends.

One caveat, however, is that Public has limited customization, charting, and research functionality.

Trade Experience

Public used to be only accessible on iOS and Android devices via an app. It now has a web-based platform for buying and selling assets. Usually when we review trading platforms and evaluate the differences between the desktop and mobile versions, there are significant compromises made taking the web platform to a mobile set up. Because Public's app came first and the web platform after, they are identical in almost every way. The web platform takes advantage of a larger display area for fitting and arranging content, but there is no difference in the toolsets, capabilities, or trade experience between the two.

Mobile Trade Experience

Although the overall workflow on the mobile app is good, the trade experience with Public is rather basic. For instance, you will not be able to customize your trading experience, trade from  the chart, or stage multiple orders. For beginning and new investors who will gravitate towards Public, making a buy or sell order could not be easier. Simply search for the stock or ETF you’re looking for, and select “Invest”. You will then be instructed to designate a specific dollar amount or number of shares you would like to invest.

Public has leaned heavily on the community element, with the feed of other investors' trades and hashtagged categories giving you a constant stream of trading possibilities. This isn't part of the trading experience per se, but it such a central part of Public's model that it influences the trading experience.

Range of Offerings

Public is very limited in its range of offerings. It currently offers a taxable/individual brokerage account. Unlike many other competing brokers, Public does not offer retirement accounts or joint accounts. Furthermore, it only supports stocks, ETFs, and cryptocurrency. For investors looking to allocate funds to fixed income, forex, OTC stocks, options contracts, or futures, Public will not be a good fit. However, the broker does support fractional shares, making it easier for new investors to access expensive stocks.

Public has indicated that more assets could be on the way, but the previews currently show art, collectibles, and NFTs as the likely additions.

Order Types

Again, There isn’t much trading functionality when using Public as a broker. Subsequently, the order form is very simple. If you’re trading fractional shares, the order ticket defaults to a market order. If you are buying or selling whole shares, you can choose between a limit, market, and stop order. There is no functionality for tax lot selection. If you’re a new investor looking to be solely passive, the order types that Public supports might be suitable for your needs.

Trading Technology

Over the past few years, investing has become dramatically more accessible with the standardization of the commission-free trading model. Without commission fees, brokerages tend to lean on other forms of revenue to sustain and grow their businesses, including payment for order flow (PFOF), a much-debated practice in which a brokerage firm receives rebates on trades routed through its clearing firm. The main criticism of payment for order flow is that it creates misalignment between the financial aims of the brokerage and the interests of its clients.

As of February 2021, Public officially no longer uses order flow as a revenue generator. As a replacement for revenue Public would otherwise generate via payment for order flow and to compensate for the additional costs of routing to exchanges, the broker has introduced an optional tipping feature for customers to use when they make a trade. Members can choose to add a tip to their trade to support Public’s commitment to not participating in payment for order flow. Members can also choose to execute their trades without commission fees or tipping if they so choose. 

When you submit an order to buy or sell securities to open to the public investing (OTTP), Public will send that order to a market center for fulfillment. There are dozens of market centers to choose from; Public routes your order to the one that they believe, using reasonable diligence, will execute that order on the most favorable terms available. It focuses on obtaining the best price, but the broker also takes into account other factors like speed of execution.

As far as trading technology, Public does not support automated trading or backtesting. These features are not necessary given Public’s focus on bringing passive investing to newer, social focused investors.

Costs

The Public app is completely free to use. Like many other brokerage firms, Public has no trading fees or commissions on stocks and ETFs. Additionally, there are no account minimums, account maintenance fees and no fees to open or close accounts. Public does, however, have a markup on crypto like many brokers, which is between 1-2%. Unfortunately, the relatively limited selection of assets that can be traded through public for free impacts its score as far as costs.

Beyond the limited assets that are free to trade in, there are a few miscellaneous fees for services such as outgoing ACAT transfers, outgoing wire transfers, and paper trade confirmations. Public has also introduced a premium subscription tier with additional research, better data and charts, and specialized customer service. Some additional costs to note include the following:

  • Commission free stocks and ETFs
  • 1-2% markup on cryptocurrency
  • Premium subscription $10 every 30 days
  • Domestic overnight checks: $35
  • Domestic wire transfers (outgoing): $25
  • Paper statements: $5
  • Returned checks and stop payments: $30
  • Outgoing ACAT: $75

How This Broker Makes Money From You and for You

The race to zero fees has increased competitive pressure in the brokerage industry and changed the business model for many online brokers. However, $0 commissions does not mean that everything is free, as brokers can still make money from you, and for you, in less obvious ways. 

  • Optional Tipping: As a replacement for revenue Public would otherwise generate via payment for order flow and to compensate for the additional costs of routing to exchanges, the broker has introduced an optional tipping feature for customers to use when they make a trade. Members can choose to add a tip to their trade to support Public’s commitment to not participating in payment for order flow. (It is important to note that other brokers forgo PFOF without any tipping system to reward them.)
  • Securities Lending: Public uses Apex as their clearing partner, and is able to lend shares to investors and institutions that need or want to borrow them. Those parties (e.g., retail investors, banks, market makers, institutional investors) pay a market-driven interest rate for borrowing the shares and may use the borrowed stock to provide liquidity, hedge a position, arbitrage an opportunity, create a structured product, or bet against the price of the stock. Apex then provides Public a portion of the interest they receive as a rebate against their clearing and custody fees.
  • Interest on cash balances: Public earns interest on uninvested cash balances, which it keeps.
  • Subscription fees: Public has a premium offering that costs $10 every 30 days.
  • Markup on Crypto: A 1% to 2% markup is charged on crypto transactions to cover transaction costs. Many other crypto buying services do the same.

Account and Research Amenities

Although the research amenities are meager compared to larger rivals, Public provides enough basic data for investors to make educated decisions. Aside from its themes such as meme stocks, space exploration, and green power, Public does not have stock or ETF screeners, no charting functionality, nor third party research for the basic membership tier. It However, you can view basic details about each supported security. That includes a price history, analyst ratings and price targets, upcoming earnings events, recent news, and basic fundamentals. Additionally, it does have calculators for capital gains taxes and fractional shares.

Stock Screener

Public does not offer stock screeners. It does have themes that group stocks as well as lists of top movers and so on, but these are not customizable or controllable.

ETF and Mutual Fund Screener

Public does not offer ETF or mutual fund screeners.

Options Screener

This broker does not offer options contracts and therefore screeners as well.

Fixed Income Screener

Public does not offer fixed income and therefore screeners as well.

Charting

Public’s platform does not support charting functionality. There are only simple price history graphs without any analytical functionality. However, you can embed your charts into your discussions.

Tools and Calculators

If you’ve purchased and sold capital assets, such as stocks, then you might owe taxes on the positive difference earned between the sale price and the purchase price. This is known as capital gains. Using Public’s capital gains tax calculator, you will be able to estimate your tax obligation based on profit earned, length of ownership, and other personal financial circumstances. Public also has a fractional share calculator which allows you to see how many shares of a company you can buy with a given dollar amount.

Trading Idea Generators

Public does not have trade idea generators. However, there is a social community, in which you can share ideas with. Because it has an investing community, the door is open to you to engage with other investors to see what’s working for them and what isn’t. Most conversations tend to focus on how a particular stock is performing, risk strategies, or an investor's sentiment pertaining to the general stock market. You can also embed charts and graphs into your discussions to work through real world examples.

News

On the homepage of the mobile app, there is news pertaining to companies on your watchlist, being sourced from publications like Market Watch, Barron’s, Reuter’s Business Insider and more. There is also stock specific news on the pages of specific stocks.

Third-Party Research

Public does not offer third-party research for the basic members. Premium members get access to more advanced data, company metrics, ratings, and Morningstar research.

Fractional Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP)

For stocks that pay dividends, you will have the option to reinvest the dividend back into the stock. You can easily opt into the program in your account settings. If your dividend won't buy a complete share of a stock, a fractional share will be purchased instead.

Cash Management

The company earns interests on your uninvested cash balances and keeps it as one of its revenue sources.

SRI/ESG Research Amenities

Aside from applicable themes, such as green power, Public does not have socially responsible investing (SRI) or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) research amenities.

Portfolio Analysis

Public does not have portfolio analysis tools beyond basic balance displays and buying power.

Education

Public has a library of resources on their mobile app and website. You will find a good selection of articles related to investing, retirement, and the stock market. 

Much of the education on the Public platform is by way of the social media element of the app. As an investor using Public, the door will be open for you to view other portfolios and interact with the community. You can jump in on a discussion, direct message people, or build a group chat of your own. However you assemble your community, you can follow other traders and watch the financial maneuvers they are making.

There are a few caveats to note. Just because people are celebrities, that doesn’t mean their stock picks are good. It is also important to note that you can’t see another person’s full portfolio—you will only see the stocks they own using the Public app. Nonetheless, having the ability to engage and bounce investing ideas with one another is a crucial aspect to education on the platform. 

Public also partners with organizations to facilitate live events and workshops.

Customer Service

Public doesn’t have the most comprehensive customer service. 

  • There is a physical office located in NYC. 
  • If you have questions about your account, the product, or anything else, you can access the FAQs, reach out via email, or send a note using the in-app live chat. 

Security and Reliability

  • Two-Factor Authentication via SMS secures your account so you can only log in with your registered device. Public also has biometric authentication capability. 
  • Public employs Bank-Grade security with AES 128-bit encryption and TLS 1.2 to secure data in transit.
  • The broker is also a member of SIPC, where all members automatically qualify for protection on up to $500,000 in your account. It’s clearing firm, Apex, has also purchased an additional insurance policy through a group of London Underwriters (with Lloyd's of London Syndicates as the lead underwriter) to supplement SIPC protection.
  • Public does not appear to have had any major data breaches
  • Public did experience an outage in December 2021 due to Amazon Web Services outage. Nothing since.

Transparency

Since being founded in 2018, Public has not faced any regulatory actions. Although it’s not easy to find, Public does publicly post its fees and pricing schedule.

Available Account Types

Public only offers taxable individual brokerage accounts—no retirement accounts or anything else.

Final Verdict

Although it is a bit limited in its offering, Public could be a solid broker for investors looking to build a community and share ideas. Considering its latest funding round, there is a possibility that Public expands its offering, including account types and investment selections, portfolio analysis and reporting tools and so forth. 

As of today, however, beginners looking to develop their investing skills would be better served by a larger broker with a more robust offering they can grow into. Even if you are just looking to passively invest, a broker like Vanguard is an excellent choice if you can make do with a less social trading app. All that being said, Public is betting that there is a sizeable group of new, mobile-first investors who will appreciate the social element above all else.

Is Public Better Than Robinhood?

Robinhood and Public are both app-driven brokerage firms aimed squarely at young, new investors. The main differences between the two are that Robinhood also offers options and a margin account, while Public doesn't have either. Robinhood also provides a crypto wallet now and forgoes any markup on crypto trading. While all this may give the impression that Robinhood is the better free app, Public and Robinhood are aimed at different goals. Public is trying to get users into an investing community and leans more towards passively investing. Robinhood seems to want users to be active traders, and whether the company is providing those users the right tools and resources for that is debatable. Robinhood also depends on PFOF as a key revenue source, while Public does not. On the whole, however, active traders would be better skipping both in favor of a broker with more features, such as Fidelity, Interactive Brokers, or Webull, who all have strong apps as well.

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Methodology

Investopedia is dedicated to providing investors with unbiased, comprehensive reviews and ratings of online brokers. This year, we revamped the review process by conducting an extensive survey of customers that are actively looking to start trading and investing with an online broker. We then combined this invaluable information with our subject matter expertise to develop the framework for a quantitative ratings model that is at the core of how we compiled our list of the best online broker and trading platform companies.

This model weighs key factors like trading technology, range of offerings, mobile app usability, research amenities, educational content, portfolio analysis features, customer support, costs, account amenities, and overall trading experience according to their importance. Our team of researchers gathered 2425 data points and weighted 66 criteria based on data collected during extensive research for each of the 25 companies we reviewed. 

Many of the brokers we reviewed also gave us live demonstrations of their platforms and services, either at their New York City offices or via video conferencing methods. Live brokerage accounts were also obtained for most of the platforms we reviewed, which our team of expert writers and editors used to perform hands-on testing in order to lend their qualitative point of view. 

Read our full Methodology for reviewing online brokers.