Th is is my 750th and last daily column in this space. (Well, it’s actually my 751st, but 750 sounds better.)
My deal with Ameritrade was for three years, and if I were they, I wouldn’t renew it either. I cost a fortune. They no longer need me as a draw. Have you noticed their $8 commission? That’s a lot more draw than a quirky column from me could ever be.
My deal with Joe Ricketts, Ameritrade’s boss, was that I could write as much or as little as I wanted, on any topic that I wanted, with no editorial interference. (Ameritrade did have the right to kill a column they hated, but never did.) They didn’t endorse my opinions and I didn’t endorse Ameritrade. If people chose to assume Ameritrade wouldn’t be publishing me if they thought I was a total jerk, well, so be it. And if people thought I wouldn’t be taking their money if I thought they didn’t offer good value—they were right. But that was only implied, not stated.
Now that it’s over, I want to say that Joe and Ameritrade could not have been more upright throughout this process, or more decent to work with—even when they must surely have rolling their eyes at some of my opinions. And even though, I have to guess, I may be just a tad more liberal than Joe. (Picture the world’s largest tad.) They lived up to the deal 100% of the time and without exception. And Ameritrade’s Pam Reynolds, who has been proofing and formatting the last several hundred of these, has been a complete pleasure to work with. The best.
It was perhaps a year into this three-year deal that I figured, gosh, maybe I should open an account with Ameritrade. I was a little worried to do it, because (a) how good could it be for $8 a trade? and (b) if I didn’t like it, then what would I do? (Kind of the same reasoning that keeps one from visiting the doctor for routine checkups—no news is good news.)
I had been doing a good bit of my business with Accutrade, a precursor and sister company to Ameritrade, so I knew—at least based on my own experience—that the parent company was sound and decent. But what had seemed at first like an amazing bargain—$48 a trade—now seemed . . . well, I do try to be careful with my money.
Anyway, like many of you, I switched some of my business to Ameritrade. And like many of you, too, I was frustrated that it took a while—at the time, they were getting so many new account applications, it was hard to keep up. But ever since, I have been amazed to see that—guess what!—it works for me at $13 (I generally place limit orders) just as well in most respects as my full service account. In some respects, it works better.
I first marveled in print some 20 years ago that it cost fifty cents or so to clear a check—a unique handwritten document that had to physically travel from the merchant to its bank to my bank and back to my mailbox—but $618, or something, to buy 500 shares of GM. There was, after all, nothing handwritten about the stock. It could all be done by computer. Why $618 and not 50 cents?
Well, thanks to Joe Ricketts and others, it’s largely happened. The other day, for reasons that are beside the point, I bought 1600 shares of a high-priced stock in my full-service account and sold 1600 shares of exactly the same stock in my Ameritrade account. (A large trade for me.) Both orders were placed the night before to be done at “the open.” That assured I would get the same price on both trades. So the trades were as simple as pie and essentially identical. The confirms came. One broker charged $305, the other $8.
This is not to say everyone should become a do-it-yourselfer. Let alone a frequent trader. I still believe that for most people, a lifelong program of regular monthly investments in low-expense no-load mutual funds (see my book for a couple of suggestions) is the best way to invest for the long-term. (And that for anything less than the long-term, the stock market is definitely not the place to be.) But for those of us who enjoy doing it ourselves—buying, holding, and occasionally trading (with the added advantage of controlling the tax consequences more than we could in a mutual fund)—what a boon in convenience and economy is an outfit like Ameritrade.
I should also say one more thing. Over the last three years, a handful of you have written me with complaints about Ameritrade. Some complained about how long it took to set up an account—but that didn’t bother me much. As someone with an account already set up (once it was set up), I was kind of hoping Ameritrade wouldn’t activate new accounts until it was able to digest them. (Kind of like the immigrant who, once here, takes a hard line on immigration.) Of more concern to me were the handful of compaints about service and snafus. But my sense was that, in relation to the huge volume of customers and transactions involved, it was not alarming to get an angry message every once in a while. Such problems, I can tell you from personal experience, are not restricted to Ameritrade, by any means, or even to discount brokers.
So Ameritrade is losing me as a columnist, but not as a customer.
And as for you terrific people, I can’t thank you enough for the hundreds and hundreds of interesting, amusing, insightful, constructive comments, questions and, yes, criticisms. I have learned a great deal from you, and hope you will keep me bookmarked as this column moves to www.andrewtobias.com. It may or may not acquire other sponsorship, may or may not remain daily forever. But let’s just see where it goes.
See you Monday.