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What is a 'Commission'

A commission is a service charge assessed by a broker or investment advisor in return for providing investment advice and/or handling the purchase or sale of a security. Most major, full-service brokerages derive much of their profits from charging commissions on client transactions. Commissions vary widely from brokerage to brokerage.

Breaking Down 'Commission'

The main thing to remember with brokerage commissions is that each firm has a unique fee schedule. Commissions can differ depending on whether the order is filled, canceled, modified or it expires. In most situations, when an investor places a market order that goes unfilled, no commission is charged. However, if the order is canceled or modified, the investor may find extra charges added to the commission. Limit orders that go partially filled often will incur a fee, sometimes on a prorated basis.

The Cost of Commissions

Commissions can eat into an investor’s returns. Suppose Susan buys 100 shares of Conglomo Corporation for $10 each. Her broker charges a 2.5% commission on the deal, so Susan pays $1,000 for the shares, plus another $25. Six months later, her shares have appreciated 10% and Susan wants to sell them. Her broker charges a 2% commission on the sale, or $22. Susan’s investment earned her a $100 profit, but she paid $47 in commissions on the two transactions. So her net gain is only $53.

For this reason, on-line discount brokerages and robo-advisors are gaining popularity in the 21st century. These services provide access to broad index funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) on a user-friendly platform that does not require meeting face to face with a broker or advisor. Clients pay very little in commissions or fees to use such services. The downside, however, is discount brokerages and robo-advisors typically offer little or no advice, which can prove troublesome for many rookie investors. On the other hand, full-service brokerages offer a more personalized service. While their commissions are much higher, for an investor new to the stock market scene, it’s often worth it to pay higher commissions in return for some hand-holding and counsel.

Commissions vs. Fees

Often, brokers and financial advisors advertise themselves as being fee-based rather than commission-based. A fee-based advisor charges a flat rate for managing a client's money, regardless of the type of investment products the client ends up purchasing. This flat rate is either a set dollar amount or a set percentage of assets under management (AUM).

A commission-based advisor derives his income from selling investment products, such as mutual funds and annuities, and conducting transactions with the client's money. An advisor who is compensated in this manner can increase his income by selling products that offer higher commissions, such as annuities or universal life insurance, and moving the client's money around more frequently.

Commission Complications

When commission is charged, there is the potential for a conflict of interest to develop between brokerages and their clients. Because commission-compensated brokers do not get paid very much if their clients do not conduct many transactions, unethical brokers may encourage clients to conduct more trades than necessary.

Likewise, the worry exists that a commission-based advisor may try to steer his clients toward certain investment products or certain firms' products that pay large commissions – even though he or she has a fiduciary responsibility to offer the most suitable investments that would serve the client's best interests.

Soft commissions (or "soft dollars") are a transaction-based payment made by an asset manager to a broker-dealer that is not paid in actual dollars. Soft commissions allow investment companies and institutional funds to cover some of their expenses through trading commissions as opposed to normal direct payments via hard-dollar fees, which must be reported. For example, receiving research from a counterparty in exchange for using their brokerage services. Thus, the expense would be classified as a trading commission and at the same time would lower their reported expenses on research in this instance. The investing public tends to have a negative perception of soft-dollar arrangements. They believe that buy-side firms should pay expenses out of their profits. As such, the use of hard-dollar compensation is becoming more common.

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