Stock brokers are people or firms licensed to buy and sell stocks and other securities via the stock market exchanges. Back in the day, the only way for individuals to invest directly in stocks was to hire stock brokers to place trades on their behalf. But what was once a clunky, costly transaction conducted via landline telephones now takes place online in seconds, for a fraction of what full-service brokers used to charge for the service. Today, most investors place their trades through an online brokerage account. (A little lost? Check out our explainers on brokerage accounts and buying stocks.)
Most of these services offer some form of free portfolio tracking - this enables you to create a portfolio and track it properly to see how you do with no money on the line. This used to be known as paper trading in the 'good old days' before 2001. This kind of exercise can be a good way to learn and play around with things without being either serious or costly.
Every investor should try to establish what their goals and objectives are prior to investing. There isn’t necessarily a wrong objective, but it’s more important to understand your goals because that will help drive your decisions. For instance, if you plan to regularly trade in and out of stocks, you might be better off opening an IRA account so you don’t have to pay taxes on your trades. If you plan to be a long-term investor, taxes won’t be as important of a factor and you could hold your account in a taxable or tax-free account.
The idea of perception is important, especially in investing. As you gain more knowledge about investments – for example, how stocks are bought and sold, how much volatility (price change) is usually present, and the difficulty or ease of liquidating an investment – you are likely to consider stock investments to have less risk than you thought before making your first purchase. As a consequence, your anxiety when investing is less intense, even though your risk tolerance remains unchanged because your perception of the risk has evolved.
Fidelity earned our top spot for the second year running by offering clients a well-rounded package of investing tools and excellent order executions. It has continued to quietly enhance key pieces of its mobile-responsive website while committing itself to lowering the cost of investing for its clients. Fidelity joined in the rush to cut equity and base options commissions to zero in October 2019 but remains devoted to offering top-quality research and education offerings to its clients. The firm also makes it easy for clients to earn interest by sweeping uninvested cash into a money market fund. Fidelity also shares the revenue it generates from its stock loan program, and allows clients to choose which stocks in their portfolios can be loaned out.
Financial markets can be intimidating the first time you try to put your money to work, so it helps to have an online broker that understands that and puts in an effort to help. To determine the best broker for beginners, we focused on the features that help new investors learn as they are starting their investing journey. Brokers were selected based on top-notch educational resources, easy navigation, clear commission and pricing structures, and the overall quality of their portfolio construction tools. We also looked for low minimum account balances, as these can be a barrier for new investors with limited capital. Finally, we put an emphasis on the availability of demo accounts so new investors can practice using the platform and placing trades.
Online discount brokers: This label is generally given to the companies you see on the list here. While discount brokers are increasingly offering "extras" like research on stocks and funds, they primarily exist to help you place orders to buy investments at a very low cost. Many investors don't need the hand-holding of a full-service broker, and would prefer to save money by paying no commission for online stock trades. That way they ensure more of their money goes toward their investment portfolio, not paying for frills.
A full-service broker might charge you as much as $300 in fees to invest $10,000 in a mutual fund or up to $100 to invest that same amount in a stock. On the other hand, a discount broker typically charges no commissions for online trades and has a list of no-commission mutual funds. That means the cost difference alone is reason enough for new investors to use a discount brokerage firm.
The use of borrowed money “levers” or exaggerates the result of price movement. Suppose the stock moves to $200 a share and you sell it. If you had used your own money exclusively, your return would be 100% on your investment [($20,000 -$10,000)/$10,000]. If you had borrowed $5,000 to buy the stock and sold at $200 per share, your return would be 300 % [(20,000-$5,000)/$5,000] after repaying the $5,000 loan and excluding the cost of interest paid to the broker.
Every online brokerage firm on the list above has its strengths and weaknesses. It might be ideal for one customer and at the same time might not work for someone else. Before opening an account, there are a lot of parameters to consider besides commissions, well-known brokerage name, and pretty website. Some of the most important of these parameters are surcharges and fees; friendliness to client's knowledge level (perhaps one is a beginner? or needs a professional-level trading platform?); availability of investment products a client wants to buy (for example forex, futures, or NTF mutual funds) as well as availability of online community, virtual trading, and discounts. We suggest to investors to take a time to read brokerage reviews, and see for themselves if a particular firm is the right fit.
However, it might be best to not become too much of a market "expert". Some of the most famous and successful investors of all time, such as Peter Lynch, the famed manager of the huge Fidelity Magellan fund. He suggested that looking for clues in normal life is a great way to find opportunities. Lynch used to closely follow the shopping habits of his wife to see what brands people were buying. He believed that most people working professionally on the NYSE lived in a bubble.
Risk tolerance is also affected by one’s perception of the risk. For example, flying in an airplane or riding in a car would have been perceived as very risky in the early 1900s, but less so today as flight and automobile travel are common occurrences. Conversely, most people today would feel that riding a horse might be dangerous with a good chance of falling or being bucked off because few people are around horses.
Whatever happens on a stock exchange and no matter how much influence computers, algorithms and high frequency trading may have, human nature will always have an important role to play. Typically, human nature becomes more important when momentum is changing and there is excitement or panic in the air. It would seem wise to try and understand this mass psychology or group thinking which is often referred to by investors as the madness of crowds.
In that case, it is possible to invest passively in capital markets. This means that a private investor puts aside either a lump sum or an amount each month and the money is invested into a fund. That fund contains the savings of lots of other private investors and is managed by a professional equities investor. The fund will then be invested in an equity market (such as the NYSE) or a sector (such as energy).
Before deciding where to allocate your investments, it’s critical to think about your long-term and short-term goals. It’s important to know how much risk you are willing to accept. As you approach retirement, fixed-income securities, such as highly-rated bonds and money market accounts, offer a greater level of safety. But a younger investor might want a more high-risk, high-reward strategy for at least part of their investments to maximize returns over a long period of time.
The best way to practice: With a stock market simulator or paper-trading account. Many brokers offer these virtual trading platforms, and they essentially allow you to play the stock market with Monopoly money. Not only do you get to familiarize yourself with trading platforms and how they work, but you also get to test various trading strategies without losing real money. The link above has a list of brokers that offer these play platforms.