Thursday, November 4, 2010

online discount brokers, part 1: why I had to start looking

On this latest spell of my life as a US resident, I started out with Bank of America's "self-directed trading" service -- nothing fancy, but usable, and I did love the 30 free stock trades per month (given that my account size met their threshold).

Alas -- this summer they automatically switched my account over to "Merrill Edge", the "Wealth Management Platform" (ha!) they got from their acquisition of Merrill Lynch.

Among many minor inconveniences, I found out I couldn't trade options any more -- had to apply all over again. I did, and found out I was only allowed to sell covered calls -- no options buying any more, no selling cash-secured puts any more (!).

Selling covered calls is my main use of options (since I'm a pretty conservative investor!), but I missed the ability for occasional buying of some puts or calls to temporarily hedge a position, and the somewhat more frequent use of cash-secured puts as an alternative to a buy limit order to perhaps purchase a stock if it goes down enough.

I nevertheless endured, kinda golden-chained by the free stock trades I guess (I'm a real penny-pincher!-), until Merrill mysteriously locked me out of my online accounts for weeks, on varying claims about "funds due" (when I had plenty of cash in the account!) or "sale-not-long" (whatever exactly they mean by that).

Phone customer service was almost invariably good (with the exception of one guy with a strong Brooklin accent who appeared to be looking for a fight, and even though he was totally clueless about what the problem was still kept trying to pin it on me), eventually excellent when we (me and my wife -- we trade usually together and by consensus) were finally escalated to a manager who gave us his direct phone number (saving us the incredibly long waits any normal call to customer support usually involves), online-rate trades ($4.95 for stocks -- he couldn't unfortunately gave us the free trades we would have gotten if actually online) rather than the ridiculous rate for human-assisted trades as long as the mysterious lock-out remained, and really bent over backwards to try to find out about the problem and fix it for us.

Alas, he couldn't -- though it eventually disappeared, as it happens, just after the settling date following the expiration date for some calls I had sold (a couple of which got exercised); so I suspect their bug may be related to the one that recorded me as selling the same covered calls twice at a few minutes' time difference (when I had stock enough to cover only one of the two sales -- and remember, I'm not allowed to sell uncovered calls, so, even had I tried -- which I obviously didn't, as I'm not crazy yet;-) -- their SW obviously should have blocked me!-).

That customer-service manager was incredibly good in his follow-through, even offering to waive the fees for account transfer to some other broker, if, given how we justifiably felt after that episode, we just wanted to get rid of Merrill altogether (which we definitely did!-).

So, I had to start looking around -- and I did, and I plan to post one or more follow-on "episodes", in the course of the next few days, about what transpired afterwards...

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