Selecting a Broker for Your Personal Finance Transactions - dummies

Selecting a Broker for Your Personal Finance Transactions

By James P. Caher, John M. Caher

Discount and online brokerages have increased their customer service and added more servers so that customer trades are executed rapidly. Full-service brokers are increasing the capabilities of their Web sites and charging less for their services. The following are a few guidelines for selecting a broker that’s right for you:

  • Full-service brokers: Full-service brokers usually charge higher commissions and fees than discount brokers, but they also offer more services. Full-service brokerages offer expert advice and good ideas that are helpful when the stock market is gyrating. Other services include ways of establishing personal financial profiles, estate planning, and tax advice.

  • Discount and online brokers: If you know what you want, why not use a discount or online broker to purchase securities as inexpensively as you can? Full-service discount brokerages like Charles Schwab and TD Waterhouse have added a huge amount of advisory and account management services.

    The research available to account holders is staggering, but each firm currently charges hefty commissions for infrequent trades and a maintenance fee whenever your account balance falls below a certain minimum. In contrast, discount brokerage E*TRADE still offers trades with low commissions and few frills.

  • Buying mutual funds: Mutual fund buyers have the choice of purchasing a fund through a broker or directly from the fund company. Many brokerages offer only a limited number of funds and may charge you a brokerage commission. However, if you buy a fund that’s owned and managed by your brokerage, the trading commission usually is waived.

As a general rule, online investors who use discount brokerages aren’t seeking advice. They just want low-cost trades and excellent customer service. Individuals who are new to investing or online investing may want more of the bells and whistles of traditional brokerages.

For example, premium discount (full-service) online brokerages may be a better match for infrequent traders, affluent investors, and individuals who want access to in-depth research resources and tools. The following is a list of some of the elements you may want to consider when evaluating an online brokerage.

  • Account information: You want information about your cash balances, your order status, and your portfolio’s value. You also want a historical view of your trades and easy-to-understand statements for your taxes.

  • Analytical and research tools: When offered by your online broker, real-time quotes, reports on insider trading, economic forecasts, company profiles, breaking news, and earnings forecasts are real timesavers and often cost savers, especially when your broker automatically sends end-of-the-day prices to you.

  • Fees: Commission structures change radically from one broker to the next. One reason for the wide range is that some online brokerages include special or additional features for your cash account — for example, low or no fees for account maintenance, account closing fees, no IRA inactivity fees, or fees for retirement account maintenance.

  • Securities traded: Ascertain which types of investments the broker enables you to trade, for example: stocks (foreign and domestic), options, bonds (corporate and agency), Treasury securities, zero-coupon bonds, certificates of deposit, precious metals, mutual funds, and unit investment trusts.