Unless you have a huge amount of money invested in the market and you're making your own trades, you probably use a stock broker—hopefully a discount broker. Why does that matter? Because the incentives of how a traditional broker makes money might work against your own interests.
Duties of a Stockbroker
A stockbroker has specific legal requirements and duties. The most important is helping individuals buy and sell financial instruments such as stocks, bonds, and derivatives. You probably pay a flat rate per transaction with your broker.
Hopefully you're paying $10 or less. Your broker has to do some work to mediate these transactions, but you're paying someone for work you could do yourself with an online discount broker.
Every dollar you pay someone to do work that you could do (and probably faster) is a dollar that's not earning money for you.
In the olden days, some unscrupulous brokers made lots of trades on behalf of their customers, churning their accounts to generate more commissions. This is unethical and illegal. You're not likely to find this happening at a reputable brokerage, but it only highlights the fact that the reward structure of Wall Street has its agenda aligned strongly against yours.
What do stock brokers and investment brokers do? That depends what you're paying for, whether you know it or not.
How Much Does a Stockbroker Make in a Year?
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a stockbroker was $71,720 in 2012. This is a median value; half of all brokers make more than this amount and half make less.
Some stockbrokers do make millions of dollars. They're probably working on Wall Street, but they're rarer than you might think. Salaries depend on experience and geography. Brokers working in New York City will make more than brokers working in the Midwest, for example. (The top 10% of brokers in New York City can make over $300,000 annually.)
Brokers make their money in several different ways, mostly from your actions.
Want a report on a stock you heard about? Want a tip on a new ETF? Every time you call your broker for advice, get out your wallet.
It's okay to pay someone to help you do research or to do something you don't have the time or skill to do on your own, but ask yourself what you're getting for your money. If it's worth $50 not to do a few minutes of research on your own (and remember, you still have to read and understand whatever your broker sends you), it's worth it.
(There's still no excuse to invest in something you don't understand, however. That's just risky.)
Sometimes brokerages and mutual funds and other companies want to encourage investors to buy into funds and other investments. They'll offer brokers referral fees to sign up new investors. Sometimes these funds are good deals. Other times you might get pressured into buying an underperformer only because there's an incentive for someone to sell it to you.
According to the PayScale stock broker survey, the largest source of wages in this profession (and the source with the largest range of variance) is commissions. As with many sales professions, with experience and promotions, salary often becomes a negligible component of total compensation—the better the broker, the more in commissions he or she expects to receive. Sometimes a stockbroker can make a six figure salary from commissions alone.
Where does this money come from? You already know the answer; the more you trade, the more you pay. Even if the broker's not providing specific value to you, you're still paying for his or her time and attention.
When Should You Pay Broker Fees?
Is it worth it to pay a broker? That depends on the value you get! If you're getting good research and finding undervalued stocks that you couldn't (or wouldn't) find on your own, fees might be reasonable. If you're getting market-beating returns even after you take out a percentage of management expenses, it might be worth it. You can learn how to do stock research and picking on your own anyhow!
Most individual stockholders aren't seeing these amazing returns, however. They're paying handsomely every year for mediocre gains. (Ask yourself "how much does a stock broker earn from me?" and compare that to how much he or she makes for you.)
For this reason, you're often better off buying something with very low fees, such as the S&P 500 Index Fund. Until you're confident enough to evaluate investments to see if you're getting the value you're paying for, stick with something with proven value and low costs. (See The Little Book of Common Sense Investing for more details.)
If you're content to make a few trades per year and comfortable doing research on your own, a discount broker will give you a lot of what you need for low per-transaction fees, with the option to pay more for personal advice only if you want it. If you're reading this, you know you don't even need a broker to buy and sell stocks, much less to do your research for you.
Take control of your investments. Save a few dollars on every trade. Put more of your money to work for you, and it will pay off.
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