Gone are the days when a major brokerage house would provide its customers only with research on stocks that had been prepared by its own analysts -- whose opinions may have been influenced by conflicts of interest. Thanks to a $1.5 billion settlement with federal and state regulators, a dozen big brokerages have agreed to make available (for free) to their customers additional research reports from more objective, outside firms. In fact, 10 of the brokerages have already been doing so for nearly two months -- these include Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MWD) and Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER).

The independent houses include Morningstar, Argus Research, Renaissance Capital, Standard & Poor's, Thomson Financial, and BNY Jaywalk (which is actually a clearinghouse for many research providers). These houses do tend to have clients and interests of their own, so they're not absolutely objective, but still, it's good for investors to have access to a range of opinions.

There are some other interesting ramifications for investors:

  • The less-expensive brokerages out there, ones not included in this settlement -- such as Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) and E*Trade (NYSE:ET) -- will nevertheless be likely to add more independent research to their offerings as they compete with the settlement brokerages. Already, Standard & Poor's research is available not only from Merrill Lynch but also from E*Trade -- and many other outlets.

  • The independent research providers themselves stand to make a lot of money -- perhaps half a billion dollars from this settlement alone. This should pique the interest of those who might invest in them. Standard & Poor's, for example, is an arm of McGraw-Hill (NYSE:MHP), and Thomson Financial is a division of Thomson Corp. (NYSE:TOC). Morningstar, meanwhile, though currently a private company, plans to not be one for long. An initial public offering is in the works.

Perhaps ironically, though, many customers don't seem to be noticing or caring about the boosted research offerings. That's not entirely nutty -- it is best, when possible, to rely on yourself instead of strangers when it comes to making investing decisions.

This probably makes you wonder what your brokerage is offering or will be offering in independent research. You can get an answer just by asking. This is a good time to reevaluate your brokerage to make sure it's offering you the services, prices, and conveniences that make the most sense for you. Learn more about how to evaluate brokerages in our Broker Center, which also features details on several brokerages that support your friend the Fool.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.