Update: Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, Interactive Brokers, Ally Invest all now offer free stock trades. The new differentiators are things like user interface, customer service, and interest on cash sweep accounts.
Schwab just announced the elimination of online commissions for stocks, ETFs and options listed on U.S. or Canadian exchanges as of 10/7/19 (press release). TD Ameritrade responded later the same day by matching that pricing as of 10/3/19. This will affect retail customers and also the many folks who have their portfolio run by financial advisors that use Schwab and TD Ameritrade as custodians. This could also be hard news for the feisty little guys who went there first like Robinhood, Webull, and Firstrade.
Commissions have dropped gradually for a long time, but it was still bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to these publicly-traded corporations. That said, commissions only made up about 4% of Schwab’s net revenue. TD Ameritrade’s move was more surprising since commissions make up about 16% of their net revenue (they historically have a bigger focus on heavy traders).
I would note that TD Ameritrade and Schwab will likely keep making millions of dollars by accepting payment for order flow. This fact was always brought up with the startups that offered free trades first, but I have yet to see any hard evidence that individual investors are significantly harmed by this practice. The payments work out to about 1/10th of a cent per share traded.
I would worry more about them making money off the interest on your cash sweep. Schwab’s FDIC-insured cash sweep pays a sad 0.12% APY on all balances under $1,000,000 as of 10/1/19. TD Ameritrade’s FDIC-insured cash sweep pays a sad 0.01% APY on all balances under $25,000 as of 10/1/19.
The bigger picture here is the move away from trading and towards portfolio management and financial advice. More and more individual investors are saving in their 401ks and IRAs and such towards a million-dollar portfolio instead of traditional pensions (that were also worth a million or more, you just didn’t notice because it gave you $3,000 a month forever instead). The result is a huge fight over the trillions of dollars up for grabs, and it looks like free trades and low-cost ETF portfolio management are becoming standard equipment.
If everyone joins them at zero, the focus will move from pricing to things like customer service, convenience/user experience, and the cost to “upgrade” to more advanced components of financial advice. I actually look forward to that service-oriented competition more than this pricing war (I don’t trade much anyway). Brokers might also start expanding into new areas to replace those old stock trade profits.