Commission-Free ETFs Arrive in Canada

It seems like every week we hear high-profile announcements about new ETFs, very few of which promise anything genuinely new. Then along comes something unique in Canada and I haven’t seen so much as a press release about it. Yesterday I logged on to my Scotia iTrade account and discovered that the brokerage now offers dozens of commission-free ETFs.

This is a big deal. While ETFs in Canada are dramatically cheaper than index mutual funds (with a few exceptions), one hurdle remains: buying and selling ETFs incurs commissions. In small accounts with the big banks’ discount brokerages, you can pay as much as $29 per trade. Of course, $10 trades are now commonplace, but even that fee makes small monthly contributions and dollar-cost averaging prohibitively expensive.

Last year, several U.S. discount brokerages—including Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard—began offering commission-free ETF trades. I wrote a post in February 2010 wondering aloud if any Canadian brokerage would follow suit, and suggested that BMO was the obvious candidate, since they are the only firm to have both a discount brokerage and a family of ETFs. Now it turns out they’ve been beaten to the punch.

iTrade teams up with Claymore

The Scotia iTrade deal is a partnership with Claymore, and most of the commission-free ETFs are from that provider: in fact, Claymore’s whole family is on the list of eligible ETFs. This isn’t surprising, as Claymore has been the leader in the effort to close the gap between mutual funds and ETFs: they were the first to launch a dividend reinvestment plan (DRIP), pre-authorized cash contributions (PACC) and systematic withdrawal plans (SWP).

Eight iShares and seven Horizons ETFs also eligible for commission-free trades. The iShares products on the list are mostly sector ETFs, plus a couple of specialized Canadian and emerging markets funds. The flagship iShares products are all absent, probably because Claymore has core ETFs that compete with them.

The menu of Horizons ETFs includes non-leveraged commodity funds (copper, silver, oil and gas, though not gold) as well as  Horizons S&P/TSX 60 (HXT) and the Horizons S&P 500 (HXS). These are the swap-based ETFs I wrote about back in June. They provide exposure to the large-cap Canadian and U.S. equity markets using derivatives and may be a good choice for taxable accounts. HXT is the cheapest ETF in Canada at just 0.08%—combine that tiny fee with zero trading commissions and it becomes a very tempting alternative to the granddaddy of ETFs, the iShares S&P/TSX 60 (XIU).

Kudos to Scotia iTrade and Claymore for introducing something genuinely new and useful into the chaotic ETF landscape. Here’s hoping they’ll spur other brokerages and ETF providers to offer something similar.

52 Responses to Commission-Free ETFs Arrive in Canada

  1. Preet September 13, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Wow – how did this slip under the radar?

    Do you know how long this has been available and if there are any other restrictions/qualifications? (I see that if you hold an ETF for less than 1 business day you pay the going rate to sell)

  2. Canadian Couch Potato September 13, 2011 at 9:46 am #

    @Preet: I just noticed this on the iTrade website yesterday, so I think it is brand new. Not sure why they’ve kept it so low-key.

    There really don’t seem to be any onerous conditions. You just have to trade online or by Teletrade (as opposed to calling a broker) and you have to hold for one day. There is no minimum order amount. To test drive it, I just added two shares to my CBO holding and it went through no problem — a $41 trade with no commission.

  3. CanadianInvestor September 13, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Great news and good find. It’s a good week for online discount investors since yesterday I got a note from BMOIL that cash settlement of trades in USD is now live in registered accounts. What’s next, a free share of the brokerage’s parent bank with every new account?

  4. leduc September 13, 2011 at 12:27 pm #

    I also saw that yesterday and talked to an iTrade broker that told me it was all new. At first, I was ecstatic at the possibility of doing dollar-cost-averaging with ETFs, but after looking at the line-up, I was a bit disappointed. Obviously, iTrade has an agreement with Claymore and only offer iShares and Horizon ETFs to fill the gap in the asset classes where Claymore doesn’t offer ETFs. The thing is that Claymore’s MERs are relatively high (higher, indeed, than TD e-funds’ MER). Unfortunately iTrade doesn’t offer free trading on US-listed ETFs and I doubt they will offer Vanguard’s new ETFs.

    Buy the way, I read that since Vanguard filed a preliminary on August 23rd, they new ETFs should be approved for sale by the regulators no later than November 23rd. Does the regulators always wait to the 90th day before approving the funds? When can we expect it trade on the TSX?

  5. Canadian Couch Potato September 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    @leduc: Even the brokerages in the US that offer free ETF trades only extend the privilege to a limited menu. It’s a great start, especially for people who already use Claymore products. You can build a pretty cheap and well diversified portfolio with what’s in that list.

    Re: Vanguard’s new ETFs, the regulators require that a final prospectus be filed no more than 90 days after the preliminary prospectus, but it can be filed earlier. I would guess the ETFs will appear in November, though probably not as late as the 23rd.

  6. SavingMentor September 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Wow, that’s really amazing. It’s also the first I’d heard of HXT as well (must have been living under a rock). Too bad I’m with Questrade and not Scotia iTrade. Hopefully some other discount brokerages will follow suit with this!

    Next time I need to buy some more S&P/TSX 60 I’ll probably give HXT a shot instead of XIU. It probably wouldn’t make sense to pay the commission and switch with my existing holdings though.

  7. Sean September 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm #

    Very good idea and I’m sure other brokers will follow. Obviously, itrade will be getting a kickback from the MER’s that Claymore charges (sort of like a trailing fee) EVERY DAY that you own the fund. That’s what is meant by the word “partnered”.

    You’ll actually end up paying more in fees if the MER increases by even a small fraction every year.

    The best bet is the Horizon product (HXT) provided they don’t increase the MER from 0.08% – mind the risks of swaps and derivatives though!

  8. Think Dividends September 13, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Good news indeed… Claymore is sticking a thorn in the side of new arrival Vanguard and the whole MF industry (as trading commissions were their main argument)… Low MERs are meaningless if you are paying $29.95 to make a small trade… Well done Scotia and Claymore… Nice post Dan!

  9. Canadian Couch Potato September 13, 2011 at 4:07 pm #

    @SavingMentor: Your $4.95 commissions at Questrade are a pretty great deal, too!

    @Sean: There is no reason to believe that MERs will increase. I’m not aware of any ETF in Canada that has raised its MER—obviously as the ETFs get more popular, they gain economies of scale, and there is no reason to raise the fee in percentage terms.

    Note too that one $10 trading commission is equivalent to a 0.10% MER on a $10,000 investment. So for small investors making two or three purchases a year in each fund, these commission-free ETFs really are a significant savings.

  10. rg September 14, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    Will you make any changes to the model portfolios section as a result of this?

  11. Canadian Couch Potato September 14, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    @rg: No, definitely not. Remember, this only applies to a single brokerage. However, for Scotia iTrade clients, it may make some sense to consider substituting a couple of individual funds, especially in a small portfolio.

  12. My Own Advisor September 14, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Wow, great stuff!

    Nice move Claymore!

    Great update Dan.

  13. Darnell September 14, 2011 at 11:28 am #

    So do you think that people with Waterhouse accounts should consider pulling the pin and moving immediately over to iTrade??

  14. Canadian Couch Potato September 14, 2011 at 11:58 am #

    @Darnell: It’s important not to make major portfolio decisions for the wrong reasons. If you have a portfolio of Claymore funds with another brokerage, then sure, a switch makes sense. But if you’re not an advocate of fundamental indexing (or you don’t know what it is), then it makes no sense to adopt Claymore’s equity funds just because of the commission-free trades. Make sure you know what you’re buying.

    If you use traditional cap-weighed index funds, it certainly makes no sense to switch from TD Waterhouse, since the TD e-Series funds are much cheaper and always have no commissions.

    If you already use iTrade and have holdings in XIU or XSP, then I would think about using the equivalent Horizons ETFs, especially in a taxable account. But again, make sure you understand how the swaps work (click the link in the post).

  15. Dan Hallett September 14, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    Dan B – great catch and write-up. Admittedly, I read your post quickly but the question that immediately popped to mind is what’s in it for Scotia to offer free trades. Not sure if you dug into this yet but some possibilities off the top of my head include…

    – if you buy eligible ETFs from iTrade you might just trade in other securities, thereby generating trading commission;

    – Claymore may be compensating Scotia. The webpage linked above says that “This advertisement has been paid for in part by Claymore Investments, Inc.”

    – I wonder if Claymore is also paying something small to cover iTrade’s costs for trade execution. Probably not if, overall, it generates enough new business for iTrade.

    – I wonder if Scotia is involved in market-making with respect to the ETFs.

    There may be other ways for Scotia to get paid here but I think it’s an interesting question worth exploring.

  16. Canadian Couch Potato September 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    @Dan H: See this article in the Globe for some answers: “Claymore is paying for part of the marketing for the commission-free ETF program, and it’s supplying educational content for iTrade’s website.”

    More good news from the Globe article: “Qtrade Investor said on Wednesday that it will meet or beat the Scotia deal with a zero-commission ETF program to be announced in the weeks ahead.” Let the games begin.

  17. Canadian Couch Potato September 14, 2011 at 8:48 pm #

    Just spoke with Som Seif at Claymore, who clarified some points:

    @Sean: No portion of the funds MERs are being paid to iTrade under this arrangement.

    @Dan H: Claymore is involved in the marketing of the program, but is not paying Scotia’s costs for trade execution. And Scotia is not involved as a market maker either.

    Som explained that iTrade wants to position itself as the go-to brokerage for ETFs. They appear to be willing to give up some commission revenue in order to attract new clients, which sounds perfectly reasonable, since it is harder to differentiate the brokerages these days. Dan, as you suggest, people who move to iTrade because of this initiative are likely to trade other ETFs and stocks as well.

  18. bob September 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Wow.

    How does this change your position on when it makes sense to switch from e-series index funds to ETFs (i.e., what size portfolio)?

  19. Canadian Couch Potato September 14, 2011 at 11:32 pm #

    @bob: I don’t think this affects that decision at all if your concern is cost. The TD e-Series mutual funds are all cheaper than Claymore’s ETFs. In fact, even Option 3 of the Global Couch Potato (with RBC index funds) is not significantly cheaper than using Claymore ETFs that trade for free. I suppose you could make an argument for using HXT, but I really don’t think you can go too far wrong with the TD e-Series funds.

    I’m concerned that some investors may be inclined to change their asset allocation based on trying to save a few commissions. For example, Claymore’s CLF and CBO are excellent bond funds (I use them myself), but they’re short-term only. If you switch to these from a broad-based fund like XBB, you’re changing your strategy significantly. Make sure you think these things through before making changes to your portfolio.

  20. Be'en September 15, 2011 at 1:38 am #

    It will be interesting to see who else joins the party. If nothing else, the likes of TD Waterhouse might lower their commissions to a few dollars a trade!

  21. NorthernRaven September 15, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    Because Horizon’s US Dollar fund (DLR) is on this list, Scotia customers should be able to do “gambit” currency exchanges at very low cost. Buy DLR, transfer it to your US account, and sell it as DLR.U for US dollars. Without the $20 for the two commissions, much smaller amounts become feasible to convert.

  22. Canadian Couch Potato September 15, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    @Raven: Just a couple of notes about doing Norbert’s gambit at iTrade. This will only work in a taxable account, as iTrade will not let you hold US cash in a money market fund in an RRSP, nor will they do wash trades. Their US-Friendly RRSP largely eliminates the need for this anyway. In a taxable account, my guess is that you would have to pay one commission to sell: DLR.U is not on the list of free trades. I would definitely call them before trying it.

  23. NorthernRaven September 16, 2011 at 12:29 am #

    DLR.U has the same CUSIP identifier number as DLR – I believe they would be the same security, trading in two different currencies. Definitely something to check out, but I suspect both sides would be commission-free, even if DLR.U isn’t explicitly listed.

  24. Lenny September 16, 2011 at 12:30 am #

    Guys, I have an account with Scotia iTrade. I am not very familiar with ETF’s but I’d like to give it a try. Could any of you recommend to me a good couch potato portofolio using those commision-free ETFs?

  25. JKB September 18, 2011 at 8:31 am #

    I got really excited when I first read this, but when I told a friend of mine he reminded me that Claymore ETFs already offer a Pre-Authorized Cash Contribution plan. You should be able to set it up with your existing discount broker, and it allows commission free monthly, quarterly or annual purchases of any of Claymore’s funds. There are some caveats of the PACC, including needing a minimum purchase of $50 and not being able to buy fractional units, but there might be similar caveats for the iTrade offer, I haven’t looked hard enough to find out. Here’s Claymore’s PACC info:

    http://www.claymoreinvestments.ca/en/investment-options/exchange-traded-funds/etf-drip/pacc

  26. The Wealthy Canadian September 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    Hi Dan,

    Great job providing details on the list of commission fee ETFs.

    I was happy to see CLF make the list because it’s on my radar. I think your point about HXT’s dirt cheap MER and no commission fees will prove to be an alluring factor for investors in comparison to XIU as they plan to park their hard earned dollars.

    Do you know if Scotia will honor the same list of commission-free ETFs for Scotia McLeod Direct Investing clients? I couldn’t find the details on the links you provided. I recall speaking to a Scotia McLeod rep a few weeks ago regarding commission fees, and they alluded to a possible upcoming integration of some sort in the coming months to offer similar fees as iTrade clients. Not entirely sure if this is accurate, but this was what I was told; now I’m curious if the ETFs would apply as well.

    Nice post.

  27. Canadian Couch Potato September 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm #

    @Wealthy Canadian: Scotia has been pretty vague on their plans, but it seems clear that they will eventually put Scotia McLeod Direct Investing out to pasture and integrate it with iTrade. It makes no sense for them to have two discount brokerages. Remember, they also bought out Trade Freedom a while back and merged that with iTrade. The process is taking a while to complete (longer than they expected, I think), but it will happen eventually.

    If you’re with SMDI now, you should definitely think about switching to iTrade immediately. I did this about a year ago, and the process was quick and easy: all I needed to do was sign one form and fax it back to them.

  28. The Wealthy Canadian September 21, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for such a detailed response. I will seriously look into integrating my SMDI into iTrade ASAP. It will also be advantageous when I begin to purchase more ETFs.

    You’ve been very helpful and I appreciate such a timely response.

    Cheers,
    TWC

  29. Small Potatoes October 19, 2011 at 1:51 am #

    Unfortunately, if you read the fine print in the Scotia iTrade fee schedule, you’ll find a significant GOTCHA for the small-time investor.

    Picture this scenario: You are just starting out with investing, and you only have $1000 to invest, along with a plan to make $100 monthly payments thereafter. Well, as it turns out, if you do not make at least one *commissionable* trade per quarter, Scotia will charge you a fee of $25! That’s $100 per year in penalty fees just because you’re not trading anything other than commission-free ETFs. Worse, if you were to make the requisite 1 trade per quarter to avoid this fee, that’s *still* $80 per year in comission fees alone! On that hypothetical $1000 portfolio, this equates to a MER of 8%! Even a $10,000 portfolio is still hit with an additional 0.8% MER on top of whatever the ETF’s annual fee is, which is a significant increase, even tripling the MER in some cases. For example, a $10,000 investment in a Claymore ETF with a 0.6% MER, Scotia will charge you an additional 0.8%, which more than doubles the MER to 1.4%!

    So, while this offer might be nice for people with large portfolios who are already trading stocks *anyway*, it really cannot be considered an exclusive investment strategy for portfolios smaller than $10,000. TD e-Series is still the king for now.

  30. Canadian Couch Potato October 19, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    @Small Potatoes: I would go a step further and say that TD e-Series are a better choice for investors with $50,000 or more. Remember, the e-Series funds are significantly cheaper than Claymore’s ETFs. You also need to make sure you are comfortable with the Claymore strategies (fundamental indexing, etc.) and not let the zero commissions blind you from all other investment decisions.

  31. ETF virgin October 23, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    I didn’t see an answer to Lenny’s post from September 16, 2011 at 12:30 am. I was wondering the same thing. What would your couch potatoe portfolio look like if you were only using the eligible free-trade ETF’s (from itrade)? I’d like this info to help me determine whether to open a TD acccount with eseries funds or an itrade account.

  32. Canadian Couch Potato October 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    @ETF virgin: See my response to @Small Potatoes. The TD e-Series funds are cheaper and are still the better choice for a simple Couch Potato portfolio. The commission-free ETFs are great, but they’re not a game changer.

    You may also find this post helpful:
    http://www.canadiancapitalist.com/building-a-diversified-portfolio-out-of-claymore-exchange-traded-funds/

  33. ETF virgin October 23, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    @Canadian Couch Potato: Thanks for the link. As for the fees that Small Potatoes refers to in his post, I contacted itrade and they confirmed that they only apply to non-registered accounts so there would never be any “dormant” fees to any kind of RSP, RESP or TFSA. Hence, that 8% MER that Small Potatoes was referring to would not apply in my situation. Also most of the ETF’s Claymore offers have decently low MER rates as well (i.e. most of their fixed income etf’s hover around 0.05).

    Aside from the MER, do you mind explaining why you still think the e-series is still the better choice? I appreciate the help!

  34. Canadian Couch Potato October 23, 2011 at 7:12 pm #

    @ETF virgin: I’m not sure where you saw the figure of 0.05%. The MERs on Claymore’s equity ETFs are about 0.72%, approximately double that of TD’s e-Series funds. On the fixed income side, the Claymore short-term bond ETFs are very inexpensive, but the overall MER of a portfolio built with Claymore ETFs will be more expensive than one built from e-Series funds. The Global Couch Potato on my Model Portfolios page (Option 2) has an MER of 0.43%.

    Before you use Claymore’s equity ETFs, you should also make sure you understand the strategy they use:
    http://www.claymoreinvestments.ca/libraries/literature_en/fundamental_indexing_-_an_overview.pdf

  35. ETF virgin October 23, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    @Canadian Couch Potato: Sorry the MER rate should have 0.5, not .05. I priced out your Global Couch Potato with what I believe to be comparable Claymore ETF’s that are trading for free through iScotia and got a combined MER of 0.52%. To be more specific I calculated 20% MER for each of the following ETF’s: CRQ, CLU.C, CIE, CBO, CLF. That is only 0.09% more than having a TD eseries portfolio.

    Also for those in the same position as me (junior investor with less than 50k in investments), TD Waterhouse discount brokerage accounts cost $$ (for myself I’d be looking at 100$ for 2 basic RSP and 1 RESP account). Of course you can always open a TD CanadaTrust account but then you have still have no ability to invest in anything but TD products. With iScotia, there are no fees/minimums for any of their registered accounts so it’s almost like you’re getting the best of both worlds.

    From my posts it may look like I’m sold on Claymore EtF’s but that isn’t the case at all. I’m just trying to determine whether that product is comparable quality to the T e-series funds. I’m willing to pay an extra .09% if that means I set up a discount brokerage account and have it for life (if I go the eseries route through TDCT I’d most likely have to open up a discount brokerage account later on when I’d convert those eseries to etf’s).

  36. Canadian Couch Potato October 23, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    @ETF virgin: OK, sounds good. Just wanted to make sure you had thought this through and weren’t jumping to conclusions based only on the zero commissions. Best of luck!

  37. Axim February 22, 2012 at 5:33 pm #

    Thnx Small Potatoes for pointing out that fine print re. fees.

    Can anyone comment on Qtrade.ca and their similar 60 commission-free ETFs… I scanned through their Commission & Fee Schedule but don’t see an admin fee similar to iTrade.

    (I have the TD e-series funds right now but would like to venture into ETF trading and specifically get comfortable with a trading platform so thought this would be a good start. This site is very informative!)

  38. CJ March 6, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Regarding “Small Potatoes” post on October 19, 2011 at 1:51 am:

    I am a new investor so these “low activity fees” are a drawback to me.

    There appears to be a way around this:
    Close your cash trading account and keep the registered accounts. (TFSA and RRSP)
    Registered accounts have no low-activity fees.

    Caveats: this only works if you have contribution room in your TFSA and RRSP. Since I’m just starting out, I do have room to play with here and by using commission-free ETFs from iTrade, I can avoid ALL fees associated with investing, until my portfolio or transaction activities grow to a point where I’m comfortable with the fees.

  39. CJ March 6, 2012 at 11:33 am #

    I just got off the phone with Scotia iTrade customer service.

    1st: very knowledgeable and helpful staff there.
    2nd: the VERY fine print under the fine print adds this:

    “The Low Activity Account Admin Fee will be waived…for customers with aggregate account equity at Scotia iTRADE greater than $10,000…”

  40. Jerry April 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    Scotia iTrade increasing fees effective April 2012.

    Changes are:
    -Fixed income minimum commission is now $24.99 (was $19.99).
    -If you have assets less than $50K, commission is now $24.99 (was $19.99).
    -Registered accounts now have annual fee if you have less than $25K for RSP, or $15K for RESP. Fees are $125/year for RSP, $25 for RESP.

    Qtrade is the better option. They offer a buck a bond trades as well (minimum only $19). They offer same commission free ETF. Aggregate assets only have to be $15K to avoid $50/year fee for registered accounts.

    People’s predictions about Scotia increasing fees after acquiring eTrade is now coming true. Is this just the beginning?

  41. CJOttawa April 4, 2012 at 2:56 pm #

    iTRADE has nixed the “no fee, no minimum balance RRSP”.

    I just closed my account.

    Apparently, Scotia iTrade doesn’t want the business of those just starting out as investors.

    They do still offer the no fee TFSA.

  42. Canadian Couch Potato April 4, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    @Jerry and CJ: This is pretty disappointing. It also makes little sense from a competitive standpoint, since there are so many other options out there. But as you say, banks, brokerages and most financial advisors have little interest in working with small accounts. It’s a bit shortsighted, because small accounts eventually become big accounts.

  43. jay December 2, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    I have searched the website site for an alternative for Option 1 of the Couch Potato model but need some expert advice.

    From the commission free ETF list on VirtualBrokers, what is the best suggestion for creating an alternative to Option 1?
    https://www.virtualbrokers.com/contents.aspx?page_id=99

    Thanks

  44. Canadian Couch Potato December 2, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

    @Jay: It’s no longer necessary to make substitutions, since Virtual Brokers now allows you to by all ETFs with no commissions:
    http://canadiancouchpotato.com/2012/11/22/virtual-brokers-becomes-the-etf-leader/

  45. Michal February 17, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    When I read prospectus for commission free scotia itrade ETFs (ishare) I see that there is additional adviser class unit fee, that doubles original MER. I wonder if this is what in fact we pay by buying those commission free ETFs. Any idea…

    Thanks

  46. Canadian Couch Potato February 17, 2014 at 11:14 am #

    @Michal: Some of the iShares ETFs (the ones formerly run by Claymore) have “Advisor Class” units with higher fees, but these have different ticker symbols than end in “.A” and are designed for clinets who work with advisors. As long as you by the regular “Common Class” units you are aren’t paying these fees. There’s no hidden cost to the commission-free ETFs at iTrade: they’re legit.

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