Monday, December 20, 2010

Ameritrade versus E*TRADE?

Which online brokerage is best for you?
They both are about the same...

I have had online accounts with both TD Ameritrade and E*Trade for several years now.  Which is the best?  It is hard to tell, as they both have a very similar look and feel, and also have very similar trading charge structures.

From the GUI standpoint, I like the E*Trade interface better.  The Ameritrade "trading ticket" appears at the bottom of your page, which is a bit disconcerning, but not a major hassle. The E*Trade stock lookup is also easier to use, as you can type in a stock name, where as Ameritrade requires a symbol, unless you want to jump to their "symbol lookup" page.

E*Trade also seems to have a better interface to show me what I have spent on these stocks and what they are worth now.  However, both systems don't track my overall gains in the portfolio (combined dividend and capital gains) so I can see if I am making money overall.  It would be nice to have a graphical representation showing what my portfolio is worth versus what I paid into it.

For Example, when I log into my E*Trade account, it invariably shows a slight negative value in the account.  I am losing money, right?  Um, not exactly.  I started this account with an investment of about $57,000 back in 2005 and it is worth close to $76,000 today.  Taking into account additional contributions of about $3000, this still represents a 26% gain over 5 years, or about a 5.3% annual rate of return on my money.  Not bad, but not stellar, either.  But a whole lot better looking that the "-2.83%" return on equity that the E*Trade "performance" report shows (this report shows only the increase in stock value and does not take into account dividend profits).

Both sites could use a little more investor feedback in that regard - telling investors how much their accounts have increased in value - as it would encourage investors to put more money into their accounts, if they saw that they were actually making money, in terms of dividends and capital gains.

Both accounts allow me to have periodic deposits made from my checking account, which I try to do to the tune of $100 a month each, as a forced savings plan.  One account (E*Trade) I used for a before-tax (self-directed IRA) the other (Ameritrade) I used for an after-tax savings.  The latter has taken a beating as of late, as I had to cash in some stocks to tide me over some rough times in the past.  But I am poised to re-fund this account, now.  I only wished I was in a position to so do 12 months ago!

Both online discount brokerages seem to work pretty well.  Once in a while, it seems that E*Trade offers to do discounted trades, which can be a nice incentive to trade.  Since my Ameritrade Account is much smaller, I have had less opportunity to play around with trading on it.

But $9.99 is a heck of deal, compared to the bad old days.  I recall back in the 1980's, going to a broker, stock certificate in hand, to sell my Republic Bank of Texas stock.  I think he charged me $50 to do the trade.  Ouch.

UPDATE:  December 28, 2010: 

One infuriating thing about E*TRADE is that you cannot search the history of your account online for more than three years back.  Also, you cannot really look at your overall account and answer the question, "Is this account worth more than I have put into it, or what?"

The account summary only shows what you paid for individual stocks and what they are worth now.  If you look at those numbers, it shows that from an equity perspective, my stocks, on average, are worth what I paid for them, perhaps 2% less.  Sounds like I am losing money, right?

But if you look at the overall amount contributed, and then the present account value, I actually have a 23% gain over the last five years (and considering the last five years, that's not too shabby!) or an average of about 4% per year.  Not great, but considering how things went in 2008, not too bad.

Why the discrepancy?  To begin with, the "gain" calculation shown in the account summary shows only capital gains, not dividends, so the money you make from dividends is not shown there.  Also, I think since some of these stock purchases were made using money from sale of other stocks, it does not show the effect of earlier capital gains.

Whatever the cause, the display on E*TRADE is a little confusing, and perhaps a bit worthless.  As an investor, I want to see how the overall account is doing.  Some of my Mutual Fund accounts, such as Fidelity, provide a quarterly summary with a simple number on it (and the same number from the previous quarter and same-time-last-year).  At a glance you can see how the fund is doing lately, and by comparing the statements to earlier statements (I keep them all in a big honkin' binder), You can see the overall growth pattern for the account.

Why is this important?  For the small investor, it is psychologically useful to be able to see growth occurring - as it encourages more investment.  When I look at this account and see it showing negative 2% gain (which is not really correct) I get discouraged.  It wasn't until I took out my calculator and did some quick math, that I realized that the account was growing faster than that.