It's not impossible, but it is difficult. In 1994, the first online travel agencies launched. The same year saw the first online trading and investment platforms. By 1996, Booking.com had transformed the travel industry by making access to travel commission-free, while firms like Etrade had reduced trading commissions to a fraction of what they had been at investment banks. But we're still waiting for online-trading commissions to be eliminated entirely.
How can it be done? Well, financial markets aren't charities, and those providing access to the markets deserve the chance to make a profit just as investors do. But there is an answer and it's staring us in the face — we see it every day when we walk down the street, surf the internet and watch TV: advertising.
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Think Spotify, which revolutionized the music industry when it gave consumers the choice to pay with their attention, rather than their wallets. Now, people can pick between two models to access music — a free one with ads and a paid-for one without (plus some optional extras). Why can't the same apply to online investment?
After all, online traders and investors are a highly sought after demographic. By definition, they have disposable income and are also likely to be well-educated and tech-savvy. This makes a perfect audience for high-end, big-spending consumer brands.
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Financial-services firms can also benefit from access to this demographic's screen time. Imagine how much better fund issuers, ETF providers and other issuers of financial products could use their marketing budgets if they could target by risk appetite, past behavior and investment habits direct from a trading platform or investment portal? Companies could reach the right people at the right time with products that fit individual investment strategies —rather than relying on expensive hit-or-miss TV or print ads.
However, this revolution is not Big Brother's. If it is to succeed, it has to make privacy and data security an absolute priority. Targeting at an aggregate level means individual data can remain secure. It's a win-win situation: the institutions get better return on advertising spend, marketing their products more directly to the best audience possible, and investors access the markets for free.
Of course, lower costs are often associated with lower quality. Everyone knows the free local newspaper that's heavy on ads and light on news. But moving to the advertising model doesn't change how the markets are accessed. It does what companies like Booking.com have done to travel agents; it makes the same service available for free because there was no need for it not to be anymore.
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This is the future. And it's not just good for the investors: it's actually good for the brokers, too. A better, cheaper service could also attract new online investors, meaning more business all around.
Indeed some brokers have already made great efforts to make trading and investing cheaper for their clients, but all would do well to get behind the free trading movement and push for a better deal for themselves and their clients.
What's more, those on the other side of the negotiations don't need to lose out either. The downward pressure on service providers' fees could be compensated with smarter marketing spending.
So the free trading model benefits everyone. It provides free access to the markets for investors, targeted access to a desirable demographic for advertisers, and access to cheaper fees and more users for the brokers. The only losers in all this? The brokers who refuse to adapt.
Commentary by Gijs Nagel, director and co-founder of Degiro, an online stockbroker based in the Netherlands. Degiro distinguishes itself by offering institutional fees to retail investors.