CI Direct Trading, formerly known as Virtual Brokers is an online brokerage that has been helping self-directed investors make the most of their savings since 2009. Owned by the giant CI Financial, CI Direct Trading offers one of the lowest unit commissions in the industry. Here’s a look at a platform that proves the adage that “in small pots, the best ointments!”

There are three good reasons why you should consider CI Direct Trading over another industry player. The penny-per-share trading ($1.99 minimum, $7.99 maximum) is a good first argument. The free purchase of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) is another, although the usual fees apply when you sell. 

Finally, the powerful portfolio analysis tool provided by a third-party company called Wealthscope is worth a look. But beware! The freshness that CI Direct Trading brought to the industry is fading, somewhat, as its competitors refine their service offerings.

What makes CI Direct Trading different from the competition?

We recently told you about it: the investment consulting firm Dalbar Canada undertook a study between January 19 and 22, 2021, to verify the quality of telephone service offered by Canadian brokers. Dalbar Canada representatives called each broker five times during normal business hours to assess the wait time for investors to speak with an agent.

The industry average wait time was 92 minutes. The longest wait was nearly five hours. CI Direct Trading and Qtrade Direct Investing were the only brokers to answer more than one call in less than 10 minutes. For those who want to be able to rely on fast phone service, this is something to consider. 

On another note, CI Direct Trading offers several platforms to appeal to different types of investors. As is the case with the competition, the web version ensures simplicity and efficiency. The mobile version offers agility for those who wish to place a buy or sell order in a hurry.

Monthly pay options are also available for high-volume investors. The PowerTrader Pro desktop application, which was previously only available to institutional investors, can be added at a cost of US $250 per month. This gives you access to the platform’s diverse range of trading tools.

Other more advanced applications lik RealTick, ITS Trader Lite and IRESS are also offered at a higher cost: US $400, US $580 and US $1120 per month, respectively.

Finally, the diversity of available information sources is a nice surprise! While other reviewers have noted only the availability of Morningstar’s analysis, I note the presence of reports from 5i Research and Zack Advisor. Reports from research centres on mutual funds, bonds, preferred stocks and ETFs are obviously also available.

Some of the features of CI Direct Trading are now worth your attention.

1. Wealthscope Portfolio Analysis

This powerful analysis tool evaluates your portfolio to give it an overall score based on performance, income, fees, diversification and downside protection.

You can also track your portfolio’s performance against a benchmark, create a hypothetical portfolio to assess its potential return, or create a brand new portfolio based on the answers to a simple questionnaire.

2. Dual Currency Accounts 

Dual currency accounts are available for both registered and non-registered accounts. You can hold funds in both Canadian and U.S. currency and trade in either market without having to undergo an expensive currency conversion. However, U.S. dollars only registered accounts are available for $15 per quarter.

3. Self-Directed Dividend Purchase Plan 

Dividends received are not automatically reinvested in the securities that generated them. Instead, they accumulate in a separate account and this cash is then deployed to automatically purchase the securities of your choice at a set frequency. The term for this feature is “self-directed dividend purchase plan”, or SDPP. Good thinking!

4. Financial planning tools

CI Direct Trading offers a range of financial planning tools – net-worth calculators, mortgage payment options, debt consolidation plan, for example – to help you make better decisions with your money. While all online brokers offer such tools, CI Direct Trading’s tools sometimes stand out from the crowd. 

5. Chart Comparison 

This feature allows you to track multiple symbols simultaneously and over various periods from a single chart. This is a great way to compare the performance of different stocks at a glance.

6. The analyst’s point of view

The “Analysts” feature gives you a complete overview of the recommendations from their experts. Compare them with those issued for other companies operating in the same sector.

Do CI Direct Trading have any weak points?

The “Research Centre” is difficult to navigate. There is a lot of information provided and it takes several attempts to find the type of information you want. This is a shortcoming that will probably diminish with prolonged use.

What are the fees for using CI Direct Trading?

CI Direct Trading offer low commissions and an ideal platform for building a portfolio of Exchange ETFs. The base commission is one penny per unit, with $1.99 minimum, $7.99 maximum per equity trade, but the investor can purchase any ETF offered in Canada and the U.S. at no charge. The sales commission remains, however.

Active investors, those with 150 trades in the previous quarter, receive a commission of $3.99 per trade. Just $5,000 in assets is enough to avoid the quarterly account maintenance fee of $24.95. The other way to avoid it is to be under 26 years old or to have made at least one equity trade in the previous quarter. 

If you are subject to this charge instead, you should know that the maintenance fee you pay will result in an equivalent credit that can be used for commission-free trading in the following quarter, provided that the account remains open until the end of the credit period.

CI Direct Trading: what is the verdict?

Nothing seems to have been forgotten by the creators of CI Direct Trading: everything is there! At a lower cost, generally speaking, you’ll find features comparable to what the competition is offering in the industry. Not to mention the ability to chat with an agent and little technological bonus that we like, such as financial calculators and an enhanced Dividend Reinvestment Plan (DRIP) among others. 

Investors looking to minimize their trading costs can turn to CI Direct Trading and Questrade. The latter perhaps offers more value, however: it charges no inactivity fees as of October 1, 2020. There’s also Qtrade, which does well, with relatively good commissions, no-fee ETF purchases and a more polished platform. In any case, there is no lack of choice: with so many quality brokers, it’s hard to go wrong!

What we like about CI Direct Trading

  • ECN fees are eliminated from the current fee schedule.
  • There is no minimum account size for customers in Canada. Clients outside of Canada must have a minimum account size of $25,000 CAD.
  • Free ETF purchase. Very attractive commission rates, similar to industry leaders.
  • Investors have access to a variety of tools, features and research reports.
  • Fast customer service by phone is confirmed.

What we dislike about CI Direct Trading

  • Trading is only available on major North American markets.
  • Registered U.S. dollar accounts are available for $15 per quarter.
  • Some online brokers innovate faster.