Just as the process for processing stock trades has changed, the terms we use for the people and businesses who facilitate trades has changed, too. Today, instead of using the term “stockbroker” as an all-encompassing term for any person or firm that deals in stocks, we generally divide companies into two categories: “discount brokers” or “full service brokers,” labels that better describe what they actually do.
Online stock brokers are discount brokers. They aren’t in the business of giving you advice or phoning you up with stock picks for frequent traders. Instead, discount brokers simply focus on the very basic service of helping you buy or sell a stock (or other type of investment) when you want to from the convenience of your own home. Because discount brokers forgo many of the frills, they can price their services at rock-bottom prices. The best online stock brokers charge $0 to place a stock trade, a bargain especially considering what traditional brokers charge. In addition, discount brokers also tend to have lower minimum investment requirements, some with no minimums at all, making them accessible for everyone.
Firms we label “full-service brokers” are more closely related to the stockbrokers of days gone by. Full-service brokers often employ human brokers who can help you make a trade, find mutual funds to invest in, or make a retirement plan. That said, full-service brokers are costly, since people are inevitably more expensive than computers. A popular full-service broker charges a minimum of $75 to place a stock trade, which can jump as high as $500 or more to buy a large amount of stock. Buying a mutual fund through a full-service broker can potentially set you back thousands of dollars since they often charge fees equal to a portion of the amount you invest. Full-service brokers are more likely to have higher account minimums; some advisors only work with clients who have $1 million in assets or more!
Realistically, the lines between the two types of brokers are slowly starting to converge. Discount brokers now have wealth management services that offer the help of a human advisor at a full-service price. Some full-service brokers also offer a basic level of service at discounted prices. Merrill Edge® Self-Directed is the discount brokerage arm of the full-service brokerage Merrill Lynch, for example.