Published by Blain Reinkensmeyer
On Tuesday, February 17th, 2015 .
Interactive Brokers comes with a $10,000 minimum funding and is not suitable for casual investors, but provides fantastic support for international trading. It also offers active traders a very competitive commissions schedule for low-cost trading.
Leader in access to international markets as well as investment offerings; lowest margin rates in the industry; vast selection of order types.
Steep initial investment to open an account; fees charged for inactive accounts; trading platform comes with heavy learning curve.
Interactive Brokers (IBKR) is known primarily for two key elements: international investing and highly competitive commission rates. While there are some catches to its competitive commissions offering, which will be broken down in the review below, the broker is worth close consideration.
By presenting a portal through which clients can trade on more than 100 market centers in 30 different countries, and deal in stocks, options, ETFs, futures, forex, and bonds, Interactive Brokers has something to offer any seasoned investor who has at least $10,000 ($100,000 for margin accounts).
Commissions & Fees
All investors want competitive commissions, and active traders are no exception. With this in mind, and because Interactive Brokers caters particularly for hyperactive traders and institutions, keeping commissions low is their No. 1 priority.
Starting with margin rates, Interactive Brokers offers the lowest rates in the industry. Rates vary from 1.60% down to a staggering 1.15% for clients who hold more than $1 million with the brokerage. New clients should be aware of the miscellaneous fees and minimums with Interactive Brokers. In a nutshell, spend at least $30 in commissions each month and you are in the clear; otherwise, charges for inactivity can reach up to $20 or more. A full breakdown can be found on the Commissions & Fees tab in the navigation menu above this review.
Stock trades run at $.005 per share with the flat-rate structure ($1 minimum). Alternatively, the Cost Plus structure, which starts at $.0035 per share, can be used, but does not cover exchange, regulatory, clearing, and transaction costs. Some math will reveal that for small order sizes, i.e., several hundred shares, Interactive Brokers is a fantastic deal. Trade several thousand shares or more though, and Interactive Brokers quickly becomes pricey.
Options are $.70 per contract with no minimums, and active options traders will enjoy that exercise and assignments that are practically free.
The only x-factor when trading through Interactive Brokers is that they do receive payment for order flow and do internalize trades. While routing and rebates can be controlled under Cost-Plus pricing and the site claims their smart-order routing consistently achieves aggressive price improvement, we do not have enough data to say whether the quality of executions is actually superior to its competitors.
One noticeable weak spot in Interactive Brokers’ offering is its customer service. During our testing, we found support to be consistently poor, both via phone and email.
During phone testing for this review, we were connected to a rep within one minute several times, one call took several minutes to connect, and another took multiple attempts that ended in failure. Once connected, reps had different levels of experience and courteousness. For example, on only one occasion were we ever asked if we had any further questions before concluding the call.
When it came to email support, the experience was inconsistent. In testing for this year’s review, one of our email tests received a response within an hour, but for two others it took more than two days to receive a response. Responses were also all over the board, with one receiving our highest marks and most of the others being good or just ok.
Additionally, 24-hour support should not be confused with 24/7. Phone support is not available on Saturdays. Furthermore, phone support hours are not 24 hours a day. When we inspected the website, we discovered that the hours of operation depend on your regional location.
Platforms & Tools
The flagship platform Interactive Brokers offers is its Trader Workstation (TWS). The platform is set up to trade everything under the sun, including global assets, and to be used by those with ample market experience. New traders beware: This platform is not built for you. Instead, we recommend using the HTML browser-based IB WebTrader or Mosaic within TWS.
Because Interactive Brokers supports so many investment types and international currencies, the broker had to rethink order and watch list management. What they came up with, which by no means is easy to adjust to, is truly a work of art. The best way to describe it is to think of an Excel workbook. Columns are optional data fields (160 to be exact), and rows can be any security imaginable. Everything streams seamlessly and trades can be made straight from it.
There is one usability disadvantage that comes from supporting so many investment types, and that is pulling up quotes or trading securities. Even typing in AAPL for Apple yields a slew of possible matches, which can be overwhelming for unseasoned investors.
Since TWS is difficult to master, Interactive Brokers began building out Mosaic, a more user-friendly version of Classic TWS. Both can be run at the same time, which can be confusing if you are not used to the platform; however, once you get the hang of it, it isn’t too bad.
Originally, clients could only place simple trades, view charts, have a watch list, and perform other basic actions. Over the years, Interactive Brokers has ported many of the legacy features and functionality over to Mosaic, and today it is nearly 100% standalone.
There is a variety of other TWS tools that are not covered within this review. Algo trading, Options Strategy Lab, Volatility Lab, Risk Navigator, Strategy Scanner, and social sentiment analysis, to name a few, are all available within TWS. The broker is built for trading with a staggering 63 different order types available for clients. While TWS is no thinkorswim by TD Ameritrade or TradeStation, the platform is very impressive in its own right. All data considered, Interactive Brokers earned 4.5 stars for Platforms and Tools.
Interactive Brokers offers little to no research. The broker does offer a good variety of education, but overall we found it to be just okay.
Mobile trading with Interactive Brokers is mostly an enjoyable experience. On the iPhone app, we did not like the limited technical study options available for charting or the lack of watch list syncing. However, we greatly appreciated the streaming real-time data throughout the app, alongside the extensive order entry capabilities.
Interactive Brokers’ complete offering of investments is fantastic. The range of offerings covers not just trading in market centers around the world, but trading in general, as Interactive Brokers supports equities, options, futures, forex, fixed income, CFDs, futures options, and more. The lone weak spot is in the mutual funds arena as Interactive Brokers makes only 2,771 funds available for purchase (the broker launched a new tool in 2014, Mutual Fund Replicator, to help clients find ETF replacements for any mutual fund they are considering). Regardless, Interactive Brokers earned the No 1 rank for Offering of Investments.
With highly competitive commission rates, more than 50 different order types, staggering low margin rates, support for every investment imaginable, trading in more than 100 international markets, and an adaptive trade platform suitable for any pro, Interactive Brokers has quite the offering for investors who fit into its target mold.
Blain has been involved in the markets for over 12 years, heading StockBrokers.com equity broker research and reviews. His personal blog, StockTradingToGo.com, provides to-the-point daily market recaps to over 17,000 subscribers.
All pricing data was obtained from a published web site as of 11/01/2014 and is believed to be accurate, but is not guaranteed. The StockBrokers.com staff is constantly working with its online broker representatives to obtain the latest pricing data. If you believe any data listed above is inaccurate, please contact us using the link at the top of this page. For stock trade rates, advertised pricing is for a standard order size of 500 shares of stock priced at $30 per share. For options orders, an options regulatory fee per contract may apply.