What Is a Brokerage Account?

A brokerage account is an arrangement where an investor deposits money with a licensed brokerage firm, who places trades on behalf of the customer. Although the brokerage executes the orders, the assets belong to the investors, who typically must claim as taxable income any capital gains incurred from the account.

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Brokerage Account

Understanding Brokerage Accounts

There are multiple types of brokerage accounts and brokerage firms, giving investors the opportunity to cherry pick the model that best suits their financial needs. Some full-service brokers provide extensive investment advice and charge exorbitantly high fees for such guidance.

On the other end of the compensation spectrum, most online brokers simply provide a secure interface through which investors can place trade orders and charge relatively low fees for this service. Brokerage accounts may also differ in terms of order execution speed, analytical tools, the scope of tradable assets, and the extent to which investors can trade on margin.

Full-Service Brokerage Accounts

Investors seeking the expertise of a financial advisor should align with full-service brokerage firms like Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo Advisors, and UBS. Financial advisors are paid to help their clients develop investment plans and execute the transactions accordingly. Financial advisors either work on a nondiscretionary basis, where clients must approve transactions, or they may work on a discretionary basis, which does not require client approval.

Full-service brokerage accounts either charge commissions on trades, or they charge advisory fees. A commission account generates a fee anytime an investment is bought or sold, regardless of whether the recommendation came from the client or the advisor, and regardless whether the trade is profitable.

By contrast, advisory fee accounts charge flat annual fees, ranging from 0.5% to 1.5% on the total account balance. In exchange for this fee, no commissions are charged when investments are bought or sold. Investors should discuss compensation models with financial advisors at the onset of relationships.

[Important: Do-it-yourself traders should be careful about trading low-volume stocks, which may not have enough buyers on the other side of the trade, to unload positions.]

Discount Brokerage Account

Investors who favor a do-it-yourself investment approach should strongly consider using discount brokerage firms, which impose significantly lower fees than their full-service brokerage firm counterparts. However, as the name suggests, discount brokerage firms like Charles Schwab, Scottrade, E*Trade, Vanguard, and Fidelity offer fewer services in exchange for the lower fees. But this may perfectly suit investors who mainly wish to execute low-cost investment trades via easy-to-use online trading software.

For example, as of March 2018, an investor who signs up with E*Trade can open a regular taxable brokerage account or retirement account at no cost, as long as he or she is able to afford the $500 opening minimum. To buy or sell stocks, options or ETFs, the commission would be $6.95 per trade. Treasury bonds cost $0 per trade and secondary bonds are bought at $1 per bond, with a $10 minimum. E*Trade also offers a variety of institutional no-load mutual funds, for $0 per transaction.

Key Takeaways

  • Investors have different needs and should choose their brokerage firms accordingly.
  • Investors who require a great deal of guidance and hand-holding may benefit from aligning with a full-service brokerage firm, which charges higher fees.
  • Full-service firms either charge flat fees for their service, based on the size of the account, or they charge commissions on the trades they execute.
  • Online brokerages charge lower fees and suit investors who wish to conduct their own trades.

Online Brokerage Accounts and Downward Price Pressure

The rise of online and mobile brokerages has dovetailed with increasing pressure to slash trading prices and minimum account requirements. In February 2017, Fidelity Investments announced it was lowering its per-trade commission on stocks and exchange-traded funds from $795 to $4.95. Charles Schwab quickly followed suit, cutting its baseline pricing on trades from $6,95 to its current $4.95 transaction fee.

Launched in early 2015 under a mobile-only platform, online brokerage Robinhood offers commission-free trading and has no minimum account requirements, with the exception of its margin accounts. Although it bypasses commissions, the firm collects revenue from interest on uninvested cash sitting in customer accounts. It also collects monthly fees on subscription accounts for margin trading and reaps interest on margin lending. 

In November 2017, Robinhood announced that it had surpassed three million brokerage accounts, exceeding $100 billion in transaction volume. Meanwhile, E*Trade reported approximately 3.6 million brokerage accounts, with $311 billion in assets under management (AUM).

There are drawbacks to zero-fee trading. Case in point: Robinhood does not offer investment advice that's typically available from traditional brokerages. Robinhood likewise does not presently support annuities or retirement accounts; however, firm officials say the firm may support the latter, in the near future.