When you're just getting started with investing, comparing brokerage firms is pretty easy. Nearly every broker lets you trade stocks and mutual funds, so you can focus on things like minimum balances, commissions, account fees, and research resources.
Yet when you go beyond the basics, you might not find the same level of support you get with stocks and funds. If trading options is part of your financial strategy, you won't necessarily get the same low commissions that apply to stock trades. Looking for individual bonds and other fixed-income securities? Not every broker offers them. And round-the-clock traders who want access to futures trading and foreign stock markets will have to be more selective about which broker they pick.
Still, things are better than they used to be. When discount brokerage firms first emerged, they typically offered only bare-bones investing choices. That meant that even if you went with a discount broker for stock trades, you typically needed a full-service broker for other types of transactions.
Now, discount brokers have expanded their offerings. Many firms let you trade options, bonds, and CDs. Fidelity, for example, has a system to help you find a wide variety of different types of fixed-income securities, including Treasury bonds, corporate debt, brokered CDs, tax-free municipals, and even zero-coupon bonds.
Around the world in 80 clicks
Brokers are also catering to traders who want 24-hour access to world markets. Several brokers offer direct trading in foreign markets, as well as the ability to make currency exchange transactions to fund foreign investments.
Of course, some of the brokers that offer these services charge additional fees for global trading. Still, for relatively unknown securities that don't trade on U.S. exchanges, these services let you invest where others can't.
A future in futures?
Futures trading gives investors significant leverage, allowing them to control large blocks of assets while putting up just a fraction of their value. Until recently, investors had to open accounts with specialized brokerages in order to trade futures. However, you'll find that a number of brokers that have traditionally offered stocks now also include futures among their investment offerings.
Not for the meek
As brokers incorporate more services and products, it's easier to see differences among their websites and trading tools. Some feature extremely low commissions, but have trading interfaces that can be intimidating even to experienced investors. Others have more user-friendly applications, but they charge more.
That means you have to do more research to find the best fit for your trading style once you've become an expert investor. If you trade a lot, however, that research is well worth the effort, as it can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year in lower commission costs. On the other hand, if you're a buy-and-hold investor who's mostly comfortable with stocks and mutual funds, then having those other products is just an interesting feature that you'll probably never use.