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Learn How Futures Trading Works

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

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Futures are a kind of contract that guarantees the delivery of a certain amount of a product or commodity at a certain time in the future at a certain price. These products include tangible goods, such as corn, gold, oil and pork bellies, as well as intangible products, such as currency and stock indexes.

Here’s how futures trading works and what you need to know before diving in.

What is futures trading?

Futures trading is an agreement between a buyer and seller to exchange a good in the future for a preset amount of money. The buyer agrees to pay the cash at the future date, and the seller promises to deliver the product at that time. This point is important — with a futures contract, the buyer is agreeing to take delivery of the commodity, and sometimes taking delivery of that product (such as oil, cattle or sugar) requires a lot of physical infrastructure.

Futures trading usually is the province of highly sophisticated participants, often those who use the commodity or product being traded. But it also includes traders who simply speculate on the price movement of the futures.

Key players

The key players in the futures markets include:

  • Commodity producers and users: These players are buying or selling futures to hedge their bets on a commodity’s price. They use or produce the commodity and want to guarantee a sale at a set price of part or all of the commodity. In this way, they reduce their risk and lock in a price in an often-volatile market. They either deliver the quantity of the commodity or take delivery of it.
  • Speculators: These players are purely bettors, placing their chips on how they think a commodity is going to move. They’ll never take delivery of a physical commodity and will close their position before the delivery date.
  • Other hedgers: These players may own an investment that is exposed to a commodity, so they buy or sell futures to hedge or protect their other investment.

These three groups consist of companies in the given commodities industry, individual and professional traders, and institutional investors, such as pension funds, hedge funds and others.

Top futures exchanges

These traders are exchanging standardized contracts that are swapped on a futures exchange. In the U.S., many of the top futures exchanges are run by CME Group, including the following:

  • Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME): offers contracts on many agricultural products as well as those on financial products
  • Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT): noted for its exposure to agricultural commodities
  • New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX): specializes in energy futures
  • Commodity Exchange (COMEX): noted for its metals futures

Commodities trading is regulated by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC). The CFTC oversees not only commodities futures (such as for corn and soybeans) but also futures for financial products (such as for currency and stock indexes).

Futures contracts explained

Because they’re standardized, futures contracts specify everything a trader should know about the contract.

They’ll specify the following things:

  • The amount in each contract and the unit (bushel, barrel, ounce, etc.)
  • The currency unit the price is quoted in
  • The delivery date
  • How the trade will be settled — either physical delivery or cash settlement

Futures contracts were created to minimize the risk of price fluctuations in a commodity, so companies that need and produce the commodity can access the market and lock in a future price today. Let’s run through an example to get a sense of how a futures contract plays out.

Imagine a cereal manufacturer needs to ensure a supply of corn at a reasonable price over the winter, avoiding a potential shortage and a subsequent price spike. This producer buys 200 contracts to take delivery of 1 million bushels of corn in December of the following year, 15 months out.

On the other side of the contract is a corn producer — an agricultural giant that wants to be sure it gets a fair price for 2 million bushels of its corn next December to avoid an oversupply and unexpectedly lower prices due to a good harvest. It sells contracts on 1 million bushels to the cereal maker and the remaining contracts to various other buyers.

In this example, both parties can benefit by trading some risk, with each locking in future prices at a price that looks good today. Of course, a speculator may jump into the market, expecting the price of corn to rise, and buy corn futures too, maybe buying some from this corn producer. This speculator may sell them later to the cereal maker if it wants to secure more corn.

Regardless of who buys and sells the futures contracts, both buyer and seller must put up a portion of the contract’s value called margin, typically 3% to 12%. This margin is held by the futures clearinghouse as a security on the contract. As the value of the contract fluctuates over time, the parties to the contract may have to add money to the margin to maintain the contract.

After each trading day, the clearinghouse settles the daily accounts between the buyer and seller. If the contract increased in value, it transfers the increase in cash from the seller’s margin account to the buyer’s, and vice versa if the stock fell. If either the buyer or seller falls below the minimum margin level required by the clearinghouse, they’ll have to deposit more money.

Finally, when the delivery date arrives, that’s when the buyer and seller settle up the contract. The buyer will pay the agreed amount, and the seller will deliver the fixed quantity of goods. It’s important to reiterate that a buyer may be agreeing to take physical delivery of goods for commodities in the future or to settle accounts in cash with financial products.

Types of futures markets

There are two broad kinds of futures markets: commodities futures and financial futures. Here are some major products that are exchanged in each.

  • Commodities futures: These commodities consist of the following categories:
    • Metals (including gold, silver, platinum)
    • Agriculture (including corn, soybeans, coffee, cotton, sugar, wheat)
    • Energy (including oil, gasoline, jet fuel, natural gas)
    • Livestock (including hogs, pork bellies, cattle)
  • Financial futures: These products consist of the following categories:
    • Foreign exchanges (including contracts that de-risk currency fluctuations)
    • Indexes (including contracts covering the S&P 500)
    • Interest rates (including swaps of interest payments)
    • U.S. Treasury futures (including contracts on U.S. debt)

There are many other kinds of commodities and financials traded on the exchanges.

How to trade futures

It can be relatively easy to get started trading futures, though it pays to quickly educate yourself before wading in too deep. Many discount brokers offer futures trading — including the larger full-service brokers — but more specialized futures brokers also are available.

In addition to the usual personal information, the broker will ask you questions about your income and assets to gauge how much risk you will be allowed to assume.

While a broker may have a low account minimum to open an account or none at all, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to trade immediately if you deposit the minimum. Each futures contract has its own minimum initial margin, depending on the broker. Often that minimum is a few thousand dollars, so you’ll need at least that amount to get in the game. And then if the contract moves too much against you, you’ll have to deposit more cash to maintain it.

For example, if you’re in the market for an E-mini futures contract on the S&P 500, you’ll need at least $6,600 at one broker to open a contract. Once you have an open position, the broker gives you a bit of wiggle room to hold the contract. As long as your account has at least $6,000 in value (the contract plus any cash), you’re in good standing. When it dips below that amount, the broker will call on you to immediately deposit cash to make up the deficit or sell the contract.

If you’re unable to obtain the ability to trade futures directly, it’s possible to buy exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that give you exposure to commodities futures. These ETFs often are categorized by commodity type (gold, oil, etc.), and some even offer leveraged exposure to the price of the commodity. Plus, you can make a bet on either the upward or downward move of the commodity. There are at least 100 commodity ETFs trading in the market. A sugar ETF? Yes, there is.

What are the risks of futures trading?

There are two major risks in trading futures, especially commodities futures: price volatility and leverage. Traders like the leverage and price volatility of commodities because they have a chance to profit very quickly, but there is a risk of losing a lot of money just as quickly. Savvy traders avoid exposing themselves to too much risk in any one position.

Here’s what you should know about each one.

Price volatility

Commodity prices can fluctuate a great deal, often in response to unexpected factors, such as catastrophic weather or natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes) or more mundane events (an extra long winter or a rainy summer). And commodities may fluctuate for no reason at all or merely because some speculators run the price up or down.

Leverage

Using a margin account, commodities exchanges allow traders to put up only a portion of the contract’s value in order to own it, giving the trader leverage. In other words, this practice allows traders to own more contracts than they have the money for currently. So this leverage allows a small amount of money to control a much larger amount of money.

As long as the trade moves in the trader’s direction (increasing in value), the trader won’t have to deposit more money into the margin account. However, if the contract decreases in value enough, the trader must put more money into the account or otherwise sell the contracts. It’s possible that a volatile price swing (see point No. 1) could lose more than the trader initially invested. If you can’t meet the margin call on a timely basis, the brokerage will sell enough to do it for you.

Is futures trading right for you?

Trading is tough, and it’s even tougher in commodities markets than in (slightly) more predictable arenas, such as the stock and bond markets. The price of commodities can fluctuate violently sometimes, and the leveraged nature of futures contracts can force a futures trader to put up substantial cash just when it’s in short supply.

Individuals often don’t have enough information to compete with well-informed institutional and professional traders. These pros know their specific markets thoroughly and have information flow that may never be reported in traditional news outlets. If a big institution decides to move, it can shift the whole market, and small individual players are forced along with it.

Traders in any market — but perhaps especially in the futures markets — need to have strong risk management. They should understand when to close a position, especially a losing position, so they don’t risk a catastrophic loss. Psychologically, that’s one of the toughest things to do, but it’s the most important because it limits the damage to your bankroll from any one trade.

Bottom line

Futures trading can be tough for a new trader, and it requires a higher level of sophistication and trading acumen than stock investing. But it’s popular because the leveraged nature of futures contracts makes possible a rapid gain on a small change in the commodity’s price. Of course, it’s just as easy to lose money on a small downtick in price too.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

James F. Royal, Ph.D.
James F. Royal, Ph.D. |

James F. Royal, Ph.D. is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email James here

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Investing

Vanguard vs Fidelity: Which Broker Should You Choose?

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

When it comes to building long-term wealth, investing in markets is the key to growing your money. Vanguard and Fidelity are two brokerage giants you’ve probably heard of. In fact, we have ranked both companies among our top picks for the best online brokerages. While it may seem difficult to choose between Vanguard and Fidelity, we’ve broken down each company’s fees, account minimums and special features to help you decide which broker is best for your needs.

For beginner investors who don’t have a lot of money stashed away, Fidelity is the clear winner since it has no account minimum. Established investors who want more personalized attention or who want to invest their money in futures may prefer Vanguard. Read on to find out more about these brokers and how they differ from one another.

Vanguard vs. Fidelity: Feature comparison

VanguardFidelity
Stock trading fees
  • $7 per trade for the first 25 trades per year, $20 per trade thereafter for accounts with less than $50,000
  • $7 per trade for accounts with $50,000 to $500,000
  • $7 per trade for accounts with $50,000 to $500,000
  • $2 per trade for accounts with $500,000 to $1M
  • $0 per trade for accounts with $1M to $5M for the first 25 trades per year, $2 per trade thereafter
  • $0 per trade for accounts with more than $5M for 100 trades per year, $2 per trade thereafter
  • $0 per trade for accounts with $1M to $5M for the first 25 trades per year, $2 per trade thereafter
  • $0 per trade for accounts with more than $5M for 100 trades per year, $2 per trade thereafter
  • $4.95 per trade
Amount minimum to open account
  • $1,000 for Vanguard Target Retirement Funds and Vanguard STAR® Funds; $3,000 for most other Vanguard funds
  • $0
Tradable securities
  • Stocks
  • ETFs
  • Mutual funds
  • Bonds
  • Options
  • Forex
  • Crypto-currency
  • Stocks
  • ETFs
  • Mutual funds
  • Bonds
  • Options
  • Futures / commodities
  • Forex
  • Crypto-currency
Account fees (annual, transfer, inactivity)
  • $20 annual fee for account balances below $10,000; waived if you have at least $10,000 in Vanguard funds or ETFs or sign up for statement e-delivery
  • $0 full account transfer fee
  • $0 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 annual fee
  • $0 full account transfer fee
  • $0 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 inactivity fee
Commission-free ETFs offered
Mutual funds (no transaction fee) offered
Offers automated portfolio/robo-advisor
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • 529 Plan
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • SEP IRA
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees)
  • Trust
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • 529 Plan
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Custodial IRA
  • SEP IRA
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees)
  • Trust
  • Guardianship or Conservatorship
Ease of use
 
 
Mobile appiOS, Android, Fire OSiOS, Android, Fire OS
Customer supportPhone, EmailPhone, 24/7 live support, Chat, Email, 190branch locations
Research resources
  • SEC filings
  • Mutual fund reports
  • SEC filings
  • Mutual fund reports
  • Earnings press releases

Vanguard vs. Fidelity: Fees & account minimums

When deciding between Vanguard and Fidelity, it’s important to understand the companies’ different brokerage account options, fees, and account minimums.

Fidelity offers three investment management services:

  1. Fidelity Go: Fidelity Go is a robo-advisor program featuring an annual management fee of 0.35% of your account balance and a $0 minimum to open an account.
  2. Fidelity Personalized Planning and Advice: Fidelity Personalized Planning and Advice is a hybrid robo-advisor that also gives you access to a team of advisors for coaching, for a 0.50% annual management fee. You need to have at least $25,000 in total minimum investments across all Fidelity accounts to be enrolled in this service.
  3. Portfolio Advisory Services: Portfolio Advisory Services gives you access to professionally managed investment accounts, with annual management fees ranging from 0.50% to 1.50%, depending on your investment balance. There is a $50,000 minimum investment.

Vanguard offers four options, including:

  1. Target Retirement Funds: For novice investors or those who prefer a hands-off approach, you can invest in a Vanguard Retirement Fund based on your targeted retirement date. The account is automatically rebalanced as you approach your retirement date, so you don’t have to worry about manually shifting your investments from stocks to bonds. You’ll need to have at least $1,000 to get started. The average expense ratio on Target Retirement Funds is 0.12%.
  2. Vanguard STAR Fund: The Vanguard STAR Fund is an option that invests 60% of your money in stocks, and 40% in bonds. It allows you to instantly diversify your portfolio across asset classes. To invest in a STAR Fund, you need a minimum of $1,000. STAR Funds have an expense ratio of 0.31%.
  3. Actively-managed funds: For more seasoned investors, you can opt for an actively-managed fund where a portfolio manager hand-picks the fund’s investments. You’ll need a minimum of $50,000 to invest in most actively-managed funds. The expense ratio is dependent on the fund; expense ratios average 0.12%.
  4. Personal Advisor Services: Vanguard Personal Advisor Services is a hybrid robo-advisor option with a 0.30% annual advisory fee for accounts with $5 million or less in assets. To get started, you need to have at least $50,000 in managed assets with Vanguard. Individual investment accounts, IRAs, trust accounts, and Vanguard Variable Annuity accounts all count toward the $50,000 minimum.

You may also be subject to an annual service fee with Vanguard. For example, brokerage and mutual fund-only accounts have a $20 annual fee.

When it comes to transaction fees, Fidelity is much simpler than Vanguard. Fidelity charges a flat transaction fee of $4.95 for any online trades that you make. With Vanguard, your fee is dependent on the kind of security you’re trading and whether you do it by phone or online. For example, you’ll pay $0 to trade ETFs online, but you’ll be subject to a $25 fee per trade if you complete the transaction over the phone.

In terms of expense ratios, Vanguard’s average expense ratio is 0.10% — that’s 83% less than the industry average. However, Fidelity reported that it offers lower expense ratios than other major companies, including Vanguard. Fidelity recently launched four new zero expense ratio index mutual funds that have no minimum deposit requirements.

Vanguard vs. Fidelity: Tradable securities

While both Vanguard and Fidelity allow you to invest in stocks, bonds and CDs, there are other security options to consider:

  • Mutual funds: Fidelity offers over 10,000 professionally managed mutual funds. By contrast, Vanguard allows you to invest in its own mutual funds, or thousands of outside mutual funds. As of August 2019, there are 129 Vanguard-exclusive mutual funds available.
  • Options trading: With options, you can sell securities at a preset price over a set period of time on the options market. Fidelity allows you to invest in the options market, and you can get up to 500 commission free trades over the course of two years. Like Fidelity, Vanguard also allows you to invest in the options market. However, the process to get started is more involved. You’ll have to submit an application and include information about your finances, investment experience and your objectives. Also, your application could be denied.
  • Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs): Fidelity has over 500 commision-free ETFs. Vanguard offers commission-free trading on 1,800 ETFs from the company, and about 100 from outside companies.
  • Foreign exchange trading: If you want to invest in the foreign exchange market, you can do so by signing up with Fidelity FOREX, LLC, a Fidelity subsidiary. You’ll get access to currencies from over 35 countries, and you can transfer money from your brokerage accounts. By contrast, Vanguard doesn’t offer a foreign exchange option.
  • Futures: As of August 2019, Fidelity doesn’t offer futures trading. Vanguard recently launched the Vanguard Commodity Strategy Fund, an actively-managed commodity futures fund.
  • Cryptocurrency: Neither Fidelity or Vanguard allow you to invest in cryptocurrency.

Vanguard vs. Fidelity: Special features

  • Trading platforms: With Fidelity, you can get access to Active Trader Pro if you make at least 36 trades within a 12-month period. This tool gives you real-time insights, actionable alerts, and detailed analytics so you can make informed investing decisions.
  • Investor centers: If you want in-person advice, Fidelity operates over 140 brick-and-mortar investor centers throughout the United States. You can meet with an advisor to get financial and investment guidance, including one-on-one retirement planning or college planning services.
  • Advisor access: With Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, you can schedule an appointment and talk with an advisor via phone, email or chat.
  • Comprehensive assistance: Vanguard Personal Advisor Services doesn’t just offer help with your investments. You can also contact an advisor for guidance on Social Security, health care funding or the right approach for withdrawing from your retirement savings.
  • Robo-advisors: Both Vanguard and Fidelity offer robo-advisor options. However, Fidelity’s program — Fidelity Go — has a $0 minimum to get started, whereas Vanguard Personal Advisor Services has a $50,000 minimum.

Vanguard advantages

  • Investment options: Vanguard’s funds have low expense ratios and excellent past performance records. You can choose index funds or actively managed funds so you can maximize your investment.
  • Complete financial planning: Vanguard’s programs will take into account your outside investments, such as a company-offered 401(k), when building your personalized financial plan. Taking those other accounts into consideration will ensure your investments are properly balanced for your goals.
  • Actively managed funds: For seasoned investors who have more assets, opting for a Vanguard actively-managed fund can be a smart move. The company offers more than 70 U.S. based actively-managed funds, including a range of stock, bond and balanced funds.
  • Past performance: Vanguard has an outstanding record. The company boasts that 88% of its funds have performed better than peer-group averages over the past decade.

Fidelity advantages

  • Low account minimums: Vanguard has account minimums ranging from $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the account, which makes it harder for new investors to get started. Fidelity allows you to get started with just $0, making it a great choice for beginners.
  • Technology: For those who prefer online trading or using an app, Fidelity is more technology-friendly. And, the firm’s Active Trader Pro platform is a powerful resource.
  • Flat transaction fees: Unlike Vanguard, which has different transaction fees depending on the type of security and how you complete trades, Fidelity has a flat $4.95 fee, so there are no surprises.
  • Investor education: Fidelity has a robust library of investor education resources, including articles and videos, so you can become better informed on investing topics.

Vanguard vs Fidelity: Which is best for you?

Vanguard and Fidelity offer excellent investment options for investors of every experience level, allowing you to grow your money with confidence. When looking at which company is best for you, it’s important to consider your starting point and the level of attention you think you’ll need.

With Fidelity, you can get started with $0 and can take advantage of flat transaction fees and its educational tools. And, if you do need to speak to someone in person, you can meet with an advisor at one of its investor centers.

If you’re a more established investor with a significant amount of assets, Vanguard may be a better choice for you. You can take advantage of Vanguard’s low cost funds and its low fees, and get access to comprehensive financial planning.

If you’re researching all of your investment options, make sure you check out the best online stock brokers of 2019.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina |

Kat Tretina is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Kat here

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Investing

E*Trade vs. TD Ameritrade

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author’s opinions and recommendations alone. It has not been previewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

E-Trade and TD Ameritrade are two of our picks for the best online brokers available in the market today. While these firms share broad similarities in the services they offer, there are some important differences that can hopefully help you make an informed choice between these two key industry players.

Based on our comparison, E-Trade is less expensive for high volume traders who do more than 30 trades per quarter. TD Ameritrade seems to offer a wider range of trading options, including foreign exchange and cryptocurrency, plus more portfolio management options for larger balance accounts.

E-Trade vs. TD Ameritrade: Feature comparison

E-TradeTD Ameritrade
Current promotions

For customers who deposit at least $10,000, E-Trade offers up to 500 commission-free trades for each stock or options trade executed within 60 days of funds becoming available.
For new accounts with a deposit of at least $25,000, you'll also receive a cash bonus, which can range from $200 to $2,500 depending on the amount deposited. 

Deposit $3,000 or more and get 60 days of commission-free online equity, ETF and option trades.
Stock trading fees
  • $6.95 per trade (less than 30 trades per quarter)
  • $4.95 per trade (more than 30 trades per quarter)
  • $6.95per trade
Amount minimum to open account
  • $500
  • $0
Tradable securities
  • Stocks
  • ETFs
  • Mutual funds
  • Bonds
  • Options
  • Futures/Commodities
  • Stocks
  • ETFs
  • Mutual funds
  • Bonds
  • Options
  • Futures/Commodities
  • Forex
Account fees (annual, transfer, inactivity)
  • $0 annual fee
  • $75 full account transfer fee
  • $25 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 yearly inactivity fee
  • $0 annual fee
  • $75 full account transfer fee
  • $0 partial account transfer fee
  • $0 inactivity fee
Commission-free ETFs offered
Mutual funds (no transaction fee) offered
Offers automated portfolio/robo-advisor
Account types
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Coverdell Education Savings Account(ESA)
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Custodial IRA
  • SEP IRA
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees)
  • Trust
  • Guardianship or Conservatorship
  • Individual taxable
  • Traditional IRA
  • Roth IRA
  • 529 Plan
  • Joint taxable
  • Rollover IRA
  • Rollover Roth IRA
  • Coverdell Education Savings Account(ESA)
  • Custodial Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA)/Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA)
  • Custodial IRA
  • SEP IRA
  • Solo 401(k) (for small businesses)
  • SIMPLE IRA (Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees)
  • Trust
  • Guardianship or Conservatorship
Ease of use
 
 
Mobile appiOS, AndroidiOS, Android, Windows phone
Customer supportPhone, 24/7 live support, Chat, Email, 30 branch locationsPhone, 24/7 live support, Chat, Email, 364 branch locations
Research resources
  • SEC filings
  • Mutual fund reports
  • Earnings press releases
  • SEC filings
  • Mutual fund reports
  • Earnings press releases
  • Earnings call transcripts
  • Earnings call recordings

E-Trade vs. TD Ameritrade: Fees & account minimums

Some brokers charge an annual or monthly fee to maintain your account. Neither E-Trade nor TD Ameritrade impose such a fee, nor do they charge a fee if your account is inactive during the year. However, E-Trade does impose a $500 minimum to open an account at the firm. TD Ameritrade requires no minimum account balance.

E-Trade and TD Ameritrade charge investors a flat fee for each stock trade. At E-Trade, the charge is $6.95 a trade for the first 30 transactions in a quarter. When you make more than 30 transactions per quarter, E-Trade drops its commission to $4.95 per trade. TD Ameritrade charges a flat $6.95 commission per trade. This makes E-Trade less expensive for high volume traders. Both firms offer a range of commission-free exchange traded funds (ETFs) and the ability to purchase mutual funds without a transaction fee.

Both brokers charge fees for professional account management services. At E-Trade, fees range from 0.30% to 0.90% of assets under management, depending on the services chosen by the investor. At TD Ameritrade fees are similar, ranging from 0.30% to 0.90% of assets the firm manages.

E-Trade charges a $75 fee for a full account transfer and a $25 fee for a partial transfer. TD Ameritrade charges the same $75 fee for a full account transfer. However, at TD Ameritrade, partial account transfers are free, offering investors additional flexibility.

Many online brokers offer special incentives to attract investors. E-Trade and TD Ameritrade both currently offer commission-free stock and options trading. At E-Trade you get $600 (and up to 500 free trades) for a $10,000 deposit. At TD Ameritrade you must deposit at least $3,000 to get 60 days of free trades. In addition, you get $100 if you deposit $25,000, $300 if you deposit $100,000 and $600 if you deposit $250,000. Offers vary over time.

E-Trade vs. TD Ameritrade: Tradable securities

In addition to trading stocks and bonds, E-Trade and TD Ameritrade offer their customers a wide range of investable asset classes to choose from:

  • Mutual funds: For investors interested in the professional management that mutual funds offer, at E-Trade you can invest in more than 4,400 mutual funds with no transaction fee. Meanwhile, TD Ameritrade offers more than 13,000 mutual funds.
  • Options: An option allows an investor to sell a security at a predetermined price for a certain period of time. At E-Trade investors can trade options at regular commission rates plus an additional fee of $0.75, which drops to $0.50 with 30 or more trades per quarter. TD Ameritrade permits investors to trade options for $6.95 plus $0.75 per contract.
  • ETFs: Including ETFs in your portfolio is a great way to add an element of diversity. E-Trade gives investors access to more than 250 ETFs free of commission. At TD Ameritrade, investors have access to more than 550 ETFs that are commission-free.
  • Foreign exchange trading. At TD Ameritrade, investors can access the currencies of more than 20 countries. E-Trade does not offer foreign exchange trading.
  • Futures. If you decide to trade in futures you are essentially agreeing to sell a security or other asset at a set price at a predetermined time in the future. E-Trade offers futures trading for $1.50 per transaction. TD Ameritrade gives investors access to more than 70 futures products.
  • Cryptocurrency. TD Ameritrade recently began offering cryptocurrency investing through ErisX, a regulated exchange for cryptocurrency trades. E-Trade does not offer the ability to invest in cryptocurrency.

E-Trade vs. TD Ameritrade: Special features

E-Trade offers two levels of managed account services. Core Portfolios is the company’s robo-advisor product, which offers you an automated portfolio of ETFs customized to your investment goals. Just complete a five-minute online questionnaire to get started, which includes information about your goals, timelines and attitudes about risk. The minimum investment is just $500 and the annual fee is 0.30% with no commissions.

Blended Portfolios is E-Trade’s second level of managed accounts. Investors work with a financial consultant to tailor a portfolio that meets their needs, however you need a $25,000 minimum balance to gain access to Blended Portfolios. Annual management fees range between 0.65% and 0.90%, depending on the total amount of money invested under the service.

TD Ameritrade offers investors three levels of managed portfolios. Essential Portfolios is the firm’s robo-advisor option, offering five goal-oriented ETF portfolios. The minimum investment is $5,000 and the annual management fee is 0.30%.

Selective Portfolios offers more personalized service, and invests in both ETFs and mutual funds. A financial consultant helps you set investing goals, and a support team that regularly updates you on how the account is tracking towards those goals. The minimum investment is $25,000, while annual fees range from 0.55% to 0.90% depending on account balance.

Personalized Portfolios provides TD Ameritrade’s highest level of service, with tailored advice and portfolio construction. It gives you a one-on-one relationship with a financial consultant, plus extra guidance and support from a team of investment professionals. The minimum investment is $250,000, and annual fees range from 0.60% to 0.90%, depending on portfolio type and the total amount invested.

E-Trade advantages

  • If you are a high-volume stock trader, after you do 30 trades in a quarter, the cost per trade drops to $4.95 from $6.95. TD Ameritrade offers only a flat fee of $6.95 per trade.
  • E-Trade offers its clients access to solid research tools including market news, recordings and transcripts of earnings calls as well as the ability to analyze companies with fundamental stock research, technical research and bond, mutual fund and ETF research tools.
  • E-Trade has a “better” bonus for new clients. For a deposit of only $10,000 you get $600 and up to 500 free trades. While TD Ameritrade offers 60 days of free trades for only a $3,000 deposit, you need to deposit $250,000 to get a $600 cash bonus.

TD Ameritrade advantages

  • TD Ameritrade does not impose a minimum balance to open an account. At E-Trade, the minimum initial investment to open an account is $500.
  • Some transfer fees at TD Ameritrade are lower. For example, there is no charge for a partial account transfer while E-Trade imposes a $25 fee.
  • TD Ameritrade has 364 branches located around the country to provide customer support. E-Trade has only 30 branches.
  • TD Ameritrade offers investors access to more mutual funds and ETFs that are free of transaction fees. For example, TD Ameritrade offers more than 13,000 mutual funds, nearly three times the number of mutual funds at E-Trade(4,400).

E-Trade vs. TD Ameritrade: Which is best for you?

When the time comes to choose between E-Trade and TD Ameritrade, E-Trade is likely to appeal to high volume traders, since the cost per trade drops to $4.95 after 30 trades in a quarter. Similar price cuts are available for options as well. TD Ameritrade will appeal to investors who are looking to trade foreign exchange and cryptocurrency. And for investors who are looking for stronger portfolio consulting options, TD Ameritrade offers a wider choice of customized investing advice for larger account balances.

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Peter Fleming
Peter Fleming |

Peter Fleming is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Peter here