Saturday, June 11, 2011

Standard Chartered Online Shares Trading Brokerage in Singapore

Update (21 Jul 2012): Clients lose their voting rights in shareholders' meetings when their shares are held in the SCB nominee account. I came to know about this when I was not able to vote against the takeover of Nera Telecommunications by ST Electronics. I felt bad about this after calling upon fellow shareholders to vote against the takeover but was not able to act on my own call.

This week, Standard Chartered has announced a new online trading with a pricing structure which will shake up the brokerage industry in Singapore. The cheaper pricing will be good for retail investors and SGX as it will stimulate trading volume. To paraphrase the Jedi Masters, I sense a disturbance in the Force.

The easy part in evaluating this new platform is finding what is good about it. The promoters will blare out their strengths with a loudspeaker. The difficult part is finding out the things to watch out for beneath their strengths. For this, you have to dig hard and ask questions to get answers which are not readily available.

Since I have a personal interest in getting the best offers from brokers, I have been digging for information this week. I will share what I found here. I will pay more attention with what makes me not so comfortable because it is more important as discerning customers to know what is not so good rather than what is good. However, I will state upfront that I am very pleased with what I learn so far with the new online platform from Standard Chartered bank. Even though my account is still not activated yet, I would like to express a big thanks to the new online SCB(standard chartered bank) trading platform.

Commission rates for the SCB platform are highly competitive versus the other brokers. For the Singapore market, SCB commission rates are 0.18% of traded amount if you are a priority banking customer and 0.2% if you are not. 0.18% matches the DBS cash-upfront account which I earlier recommended. In fact, for trading Singapore stocks, its closest competitor is the DBS cash-upfront account.

The SCB platform beats the DBS cash-upfront account on some aspects. Firstly, the 0.18% commission applies for both buy and sell transactions. In contrast, DBS cash-upfront can only be used on buy transactions. After the shares are deposited into CDP, 0.18% does not apply (unless you sell within 3 days before the shares reach CDP).

If you cannot qualify as priority banking customers, DBS cash-upfront is still cheaper. To qualify as priority banking customers, you have to put in at least SGD200k with SCB. I have checked with SCB that shares held in their nominee account can also be counted as assets to qualify as priority banking customers. Otherwise, it will be a problem after customers become fully invested.

Like the DBS cash upfront account, you have to deposit cash upfront to be able to buy stocks. In other words, no contra-trading.

The major pricing advantage SCB has over all other Singaporean brokerages is NO MINIMUM COMMISSION. 'No minimum commission' is a wonderful thing for small, young retail investors who cannot afford to trade in reasonably large amounts to minimize brokerage fees as a percentage of the investment. It will save money for small and disciplined investors who practise dollar-cost-averaging in the Singapore market. The minimum commission has been a sticking point for Singaporean retail investors who want to buy illiquid penny stocks (some of them can be neglected, value stocks). Sometimes, I end up paying the minimum commission of SGD25 on a tiny SGD200 transaction of an illiquid penny stock. This works out to more than 10% of the investment.

On first look, SCB commission rates charged for foreign markets look like a winner compared to the other brokers. Don't jump to conclusions yet. One has to factor in the currency exchange rates. From my experience, the exchange rates offered by brokers are much better than banks. If SCB uses the bank rates, then it is no longer as cheap as what it appears. I cannot confirm on the exchange rate until I start using the account (not activated yet). Anyone knows better out there?

One advantage of SCB platform compared to other Singaporean brokers for foreign markets is that a nominal interest is earned in the settlement account. I have checked with SCB that the interest rate is 0.1% for all currencies (even for the Aussie dollar). This is low but still better than the other Singaporean brokers that I know who pay zero interest. However, compared to other US brokers like Interactive Brokers, it is not as good. For example, click here to find out what Interactive Brokers is paying on the various currencies in their accounts. To enjoy better higher interest, one way is to open foreign currency accounts with SCB and shift your idle funds from the settlement accounts to the foreign currency accounts which enjoy higher interest rate during periods when you want to stay out of the market. This is important for the Australian market as the Aussie dollar currency enjoys one of the highest interest rate in the developed world.

Another advantage of buying foreign shares using SCB is that there are no custodian fees to be charged on the shares held in the nominee account unlike most other Singaporean brokers with the exception of  DBS Vickers.

On pricing, SCB is considerably cheaper for the Australian, Japanese and European markets compared to the other Singaporean brokers. If the currency exchange rate is reasonably good, then it is a no-brainer to use SCB online brokerage (among the Singapore brokers) for trading foreign equities. I will still use a US broker for trading US stocks.

Singapore shares bought using SCB platform are stored in a nominee account unlike the rest where shares are deposited into our CDP account. There are some risks to consider;

1. You can only sell your shares using SCB because shares are not deposited into the CDP account. One may face the risk of not being able to sell out on a high-volume panicky day because the IT system fails due to heavy traffic. Traders hate to be stuck in their positions, particularly when they want to sell. Compared to the US brokers, Singapore brokers still have much room for improvement in terms of the stability of their IT infrastructure on high-volume trading days. Experienced Singaporean investors will know what I mean.

I called up the SCB hotline and the customer officer told me that in such an event, customers can phone the bank and execute their trades. The commission will still be the same rate as online trading if it is their system's fault. However, it is highly doubtful if the phone service will be able to take in the traffic should their website break down on a high-volume day.

By the way, the hotline number is 1800 242 5333. Don't call their general helpline number because the customers officers manning that line are not knowledgeable on online trading matters.

2. Are clients' assets protected if SCB becomes bankrupt? Are they segregated into a safe, untouchable account in which the custodian cannot use it for their own purposes? The hotline officer told me that SCB cannot touch our shares in the custodian account. The chances of SCB becoming bankrupt is remote. There are those who argue that Barings bank, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns have gone bankrupt. Never say never. However, big banks do not go bankrupt overnight. There will be ample warnings signs in the newspapers to signal us to get our money out. Besides, SCB is a big bank and their big size gives me confidence. The events of 2008 has shown us that in the banking industry, the Darwinian rule survival of the fittest does not apply. Survival of the fattest (too big to fail) is what matters.

3. Can clients still exercise their voting rights as shareholders when their shares are kept in a nominee account? How about charges for corporate actions? I was assured that by the hotline officer that there will be no charges for corporate actions. However, clients will lose their power to vote in shareholders' meetings. Therefore, the SCB brokerage account is suitable for small-time retail investor but not suitable for the big players who are accumulating shares for control.

One thing I like about a nominee account is that the risk of a accidental short-sell is removed. The system knows exactly how many shares you own and should prompt you if you try to sell more than you own. This is what happens with my US broker and I expect the same thing for SCB platform. The SCB platform does not permit shorting.

The usual disclaimer applies: Do your own due diligence before believing my words. I am not paid to advertise or advise. So, don't hold me responsible for bad advice. I will be grateful if readers can correct factual mistakes or unintended misconceptions.