Even with new broker commissions, the economics of owning mutual funds have improved hugely for DIY investors

The cost of buying stocks from digital brokers is slowly trending toward zero, but mutual funds are heading in the opposite direction.

Digital brokers serving clients online and by mobile device used to be pretty consistent in not charging clients anything to buy and sell most mutual funds. But in response to changes in securities regulations, some brokers have reintroduced the fund commissions they abandoned years ago.

It’s fine to be annoyed at these fees, but keep an open mind about funds. Those new securities regulations have decisively improved the economics of fund investing for do-it-yourself investors.

The new rules prohibit digital brokers from selling mutual funds with trailing commissions embedded in their fees as of June 1. Trailers, which account for a significant chunk of a fund’s management expense ratio, are designed to compensate advisers and their companies for advice, planning and service to clients. Digital brokers provide no advice – that’s why they’re much cheaper than full-service brokers.

Some digital brokers are using buy and sell commissions on funds to compensate for revenue they used to receive from trailers. For example, RBC Direct Investing charges a commission of 1 per cent of the gross amount you’re buying or selling to a maximum of $50, while Scotia iTrade charges $9.99, Questrade charges $9.95 and CIBC Investor’s Edge charges $6.95. Other brokers are sticking with a zero fund commission for now, although there may be exceptions for certain funds.

If you make regular biweekly or monthly investments in mutual funds through a digital broker, then these commissions can add up in a way that meaningfully erodes your returns. But if you’re a periodic investor or plan to invest a lump-sum amount, don’t let mutual fund trading commissions dissuade you.

The funds sold currently by digital brokers might surprise you with how cheap their fees are. Brokers now sell Series F funds or something similar, with zero trailers. Expect the management expense ratios for these funds to be upward of a full percentage point cheaper than the Series A and B funds that digital brokers used to sell primarily.

Consider the Fidelity True North Fund – the Series F version has an MER of 1.09 per cent, while the A and B versions had fees of 2.46 and 2.24 per cent, respectively. An exchange-traded fund tracking the S&P/TSX Composite Index can be had with an MER of 0.06 per cent, an outstanding value.

But Fidelity True North Series F has regularly outperformed the index over the past one- through 10-year periods. There’s no way to tell whether this fund can continue this run of success – index investors would say this uncertainty is a major reason why they avoid active management.

A new deal for DIY investors who like mutual funds

Regulators have cracked down on digital brokers selling mutual funds with trailing commissions embedded in their management expense ratios. As a result, investors are now able to buy low-fee Series F mutual funds instead of higher cost Series A and B. The catch: Some brokers now charge a commission when you buy or sell a fund that can range from $6.95 to as much as $50. Here’s an example of how investors who prefer mutual funds can be much better off with a Series F fund, even if they have to pay buy and sell commissions. The example is based on a $50,000 investment in Fidelity True North, a Canadian equity fund. Gross returns before fees are assumed to average 7 per cent over all time frames. 

Fund: Fidelity True North MER (%) Annualized net returns after MER is applied to a gross 7 per cent return (%) Dollar amount of investment based on net returns ($): After one year Dollar amount of investment based on net returns ($): After five years Dollar amount of investment based on net returns ($): After 10 years
Series B 2.24 – includes trailing commission 4.76 52,380 63,088 79,602
Series F 1.09 – no trailing commission 5.91 52,955 66,628 88,785

Source: Ativa Interactive investment fees calculator

But if you like what Fidelity True North offers, then it’s a much better bargain today than it was when all you could buy was the higher-fee Series A or B version. This applies even if you have to pay a commission to your broker to buy and sell a fund.

If you plan to make regular investments in a mutual fund, then consider using a broker that charges nothing to buy or sell. BMO InvestorLine, CI Direct Trading, Desjardins Online Brokerage, National Bank Direct Brokerage and TD Direct Investing confirmed this week that they are not charging commissions on mutual funds at this time.

Tip: Make sure the specific fund you want is available without commission. Some brokers may make exceptions for particular fund companies.

Digital brokerage mutual fund commissions

Regulatory changes for digital brokers selling mutual funds have resulted in some companies introducing commissions to buy and sell funds. Here’s a comparison of fund commissions charged by brokers for online trades:

Broker Commission
BMO InvestorLine None
CIBC Investor’s Edge $6.95
CI Direct Trading None
Desjardins Online Brokerage None for most funds
HSBC InvestDirect $6.88 starting July 1
National Bank Direct Brokerage None
Qtrade Direct Investing $8.75 starting June 30; no commisions for money market funds, high interest savings accounts and pre-authorized contribution plans
Questrade $9.95
RBC Direct Investing 1 per cent of the gross trade amount, to a maximum of $50
Scotia iTrade $9.99
TD Direct Investing None

ETFs remain the best option for the cost-conscious investor, at least the funds that track widely followed stock and bond indexes and have ultralow fees. The cost of ETF investing looks even better if you use one of the many brokers that have eliminated trading commissions for stocks and ETFs, or that charge nothing to buy at least a limited selection of ETFs. A couple of others offer no-cost ETF purchases and sell transactions at the usual cost.

Still, the recent regulatory change makes mutual funds more attractive than ever for DIY investors. This applies even if you have to pay a commission to buy and sell your funds.

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