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Posted: February 4th, 2020

Analysis of the E-brokerage Industry

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Executive Summary

The financial brokerage industry has undergone dramatic changes worldwide in the last decade, due to the rise of the Internet. E-brokerage brought huge opportunity to the industry as it introduces enormous amount of on-line traders but at the same time posted serious threat as it open up the market to new competitors. In this thesis, we investigate past and current challenges the brokerage industry faced. From our literature review, we studied the impact of online trading to the brokerage industry and the online traders, and proposed solutions pinpointed to the facts we found. We studied the challenge the brokerage industry faced from the perspectives of strategy, marketing and technology and carried out strategic analysis using value chain and framework of five forces by Michael E. Porter. A small scale survey was conducted to collect local people attitude towards online/mobile trading and we used the data collected to justify the information we found during our literature review. Finally, we proposed a basket of suggestions for the brokerage industry in various aspects including product enhancement, customer education, partnership, differentiation, customer segmentation and more. An in-depth interview with a local broker firm was organized to value our suggestions, their feedback are positive.


The tough challenge among e-brokerage industry is still going on and in fact, it is getting even more furious. The situation was more rigorous during bearish market after the burst of IT foams, SAR outbreak and the recent financial tsunami. The strategy the brokerage firms adopted to handle the challenges they faced determine who will survive the competition and stay in the market. Losers will soon be squeezed out of the market. This is especially true for small to median size local brokerage firms who are now facing new competitors like direct banks and oversea online trade provider like E-Trade. Confronted with growing competition, old-guard brokers are being forced to restructure and re-focus their market offerings. Various strategies were adopted, some brokerage firms seek to maintain their lead in value-added services through a focus on knowledge/advise – more financial planning and investment advice – rather than transactions -processing trades. Other firms attempted to comprehend how to offer on-line services without alienating their brokers, to minimize channel conflict.

The purpose of this article is to analysis the current e-brokerage practices and device new service directions and enhancement to existing products to increase competence of our local brokerage industry. We will first present the evolution of security trading in Hong Kong and characteristic of different types of brokerage firms and customers. From our literature review, we found that online trading exerted great impact on both brokerage industry and online traders. For brokerage firms, they faced vigorous competition due to new competitors, reduced customer loyalty and market fragmentation due to low entry barrier. While illusion of knowledge and control, lack of personal advice and overwhelmed by information were the hurdle online traders faced. We have presented the strategic challenge faced by the brokerage industry and analysis their strategy using value chain and framework of five forces algorithm. We have devised a basket of suggestions and discussed with a brokerage firm the feasibility to comprehend our research.

Financial Broker Industry In Hong Kong

Evolution of security trading in Hong Kong

The ultimate goal of a well-functioning stock market is to bring together all possible buyers and sellers, so that the market price reflects the combined preferences of all participants. The history of securities trading in Hong Kong can be traced back to 1866. The present Sock Exchange of Hong Kong (HKEx) was established as a result of the unification of four exchanges during the big market boom in 1986, while the first stock exchange began its operation in 1891.

Exchange System Architecture

Computerized trading system was first introduced on 2 April 1986 and in 1993 the exchange launched the “Automatic Order Matching and Execution System” (AMS), which was replaced by the third generation system (AMS/3) in October 2000. AMS/3 is the core system used to serve securities trading which has significant enhancements in central market functions, open connectivity and system capacity as compared with AMS/2. AMS/3 supports multiple trading facilities for market access. Most of the participants developed their own Broker Supplied System (BSS) which interfacing with AMS/3 via the Open Gateway (OG) facility for greater control to the front-end solutions instead of the Multi-workstation System (MWS) by HKEx. The open connectivity of OG has made possible the large-scale automation of Participants’ operations, enabling Participants to offer new investor services and experience efficiency gains. In 2002, a new generation of the system, CCASS/3, was launched for clearing and settlement. MDS (Market Data Feed System) is the key system used for delivery of securities price data to about 60 local and international information vendors. HKATS (Hong Kong Futures Automated Trading System) is the electronic order matching system operated for the derivatives market.

Advancement in information technology, especially the Internet, is revolutionizing traditional commerce. Obviously the securities industry, and in particular the on-line brokerage, is at the forefront of this revolution. Here in Hong Kong, retail online trading as a proportion of total retail investor trading continued to grow in 2008/09, reaching 43 per cent from 39 per cent in 2007/08. Its contribution to total market turnover was 10 per cent, up from 7 per cent in 2007/08. For stock options, retail online trading contributed 23 per cent of total retail investor trading (up significantly from 15 per cent in 2007/08) and 2 per cent of product turnover (1 per cent in 2007/08). For other derivatives, retail online trading contributed 49 per cent of total retail investor trading and 18 per cent of total product turnover (up from 44 per cent and 15 per cent respectively in 2007/08).

Types of Brokerage Firm

The basic function of a brokerage firm is to execute buy and sell orders for clients. Traditionally these firms have offered the investigation of the quality and the possibilities of investing in a variety of investment products. It is still accustomed for brokerage firms to offer information about possible investments free of charge. This activity of bringing free of charge stock investment reports is one of the main tools that are utilized by brokerage houses to compete against other firms. To investors, it continues to be an important service. However, with the bloom of communication technology, especially the Internet, more and more investors rated that investment reports as less important service. Instead, those investors preferred other types of services that charged less commission and service fee, by forfeiting those investment reports. In order to capture this vast diverse clientele, the brokerage industry segmented itself. After the restrictions in commissions were eliminated, several brokerages began to open up their doors as discount brokerage firms. At that time, brokerage firms were classified into two types: full service brokers and discount brokers. Full service brokerage firms continued to offer informative stock reports and a level of service much higher than other brokerage houses. They looked for purchasing and selling opportunities for clients and offering more customer and portfolio advisory service than was available from discount brokers. Discount brokerage houses, on the other hand, only dedicated themselves to execute orders for clients with minimal services. These differences in services and philosophies led to great differences in commission costs. It was evident that these differences were an important factor in the return of an investment.

Type of customers in brokerage industry

In Hong Kong customers of brokerage firm can be divided into three typical categories:

l Prestige Group: These are customers with large amount of capital put in to the brokerage firm for investment. They have granted total authority to the brokerage firm to execute trading decision on behalf of them. Although they are minority in terms of the customer base of brokerage firm, they contribute a great portion of revenue to the brokerage firm.

l Middle Group: Customer of this group usually trade through account agent of the brokerage firm. They utilities financial information, report and analyzing tools provided by the brokerage firm to make trading decision. Account agent will also actively contact these customers whenever they see an investment opportunity fit for them.

l Basic Group: Customer mostly uses service of brokerage firm to maintain account balance and execute trading order on the own. Although multiple channels are supplied to them, they mostly adopt on-line trading as their first choice of trading media.

Although the first two groups of customers contribute quite a large portion of the revenue of brokerage firm, we will concentrate our research on the third group for two reasons. First, there is a clear trend that this group of customer is increasing in a fast pace. Second, by investing and improving the on-line system, the other group will also be benefited.

Literature Review


Simply put, “On-line brokerage” can be defined as selling of securities which encompasses equity like stocks and warrants and derivatives like bonds, mutual funds etc, on the Internet. Although traditional banks and brokers also provided online trading after year 2000, new entrants like direct banks and new brokers offered a genuine e-commerce business model. Direct banks are internet-only banks or “virtual banks”. These banks were designed without a traditional banking infrastructure with physical branches. This cost-saving advantage enabled many of them to offer savings accounts with higher interest rates, loans with lower interest rates and minimal management fee and commissions than most traditional banks. More and more customer joined in as online trade and a peak was hit on year 2000. At the same time, new competitors like traditional brokers and virtual banks joined in proactively by acquiring existing brokerage firm or using their own business model. At that time, then customer base and knowledge of the traditional institutions was still advantages for online trading enhancement.

The strategy online brokers adopted was customers segmentation and directed their offer to the most preferred customer group, the active private investors, which allowed them to swiftly catch up the market. Compared with banks, absence of physical branches thus low overhead costs gave these internet brokers an advantageous in cost structure. They competed with each other rigorously to achieve the biggest market share in the shortest time frame to reach the break even point. The strategy to conquer and develop loyalty of new customers was invested massively in marketing. They also adopted a cut-throat commission rate to attract private individuals who were more sensitive to this cost of investment. The position of banks and traditional brokers in the brokerage business was deeply undermined by the pressure caused by these new entrants.

Bloom of on-line trading

For the first time ever, investors could, from the comfort of their own homes, accessed a wealth of financial information including breaking news developments and market data on the same terms as market professionals did. In addition, on-line brokerage provided investors with tools to analyze this information, such as research reports, calculators, and portfolio analyzers. Finally, on-line brokerage enables investors to act quickly on this information. The technological and regulatory barriers that gave traditional brokerage and securities companies’ edges were rapidly becoming extinct. First, new provider quickly gained access to the market by leveraged on the use of Internet technology. Without expensive branch networks and labor-intensive advisory services, new competitor like direct banks and new online brokerage firms were able to process retail clients’ orders in relatively low cost. Second, the bull markets in year 2000 attracted large number of new online customers. For example, lot of local residents became online investors and started to hold security when frequent and gigantic scale IPO activity were taking place during 2006. These new customers welcomed the new internet investment style that encompassed vast amount of free of charge real time information, enhanced market transparency, convenience and low commission. Together with the rising share prices in bull market atmosphere, these new customer, in particular, heavy traders quickly got accustomed to doing online trade.

The Internet also made other comparisons easier. For example, it increased price competition for products for which price comparison was previously more difficult. New information applications enabled investors to compare the quality of trade execution provided by different brokerages and thus extend the trading costs that investors consider beyond commissions.

Companies scrambled to create viable strategies that balance many priorities. Typical considerations included:

  • Should they defend their existing customer base or enter into new customer segments?
  • Grow their existing business or expand into new products?
  • Acquire, partner or go alone?

Basically, companies were competing not only to offer different and better products and services, but to design robust, lucrative business models that took advantage of emerging forms of electronic commerce. Electronic commerce – the facilitation of exchange of value over computer networks – fundamentally changed the brokerage business in part by increasing the velocity of financial services [1].
Impact of on-line brokerage

Hurdle on brokerage firm

Rigorous competition

With the advancing Internet technology, investors had became less reliant on stockbrokers for trade execution or obtaining research information as such services were readily available on the Internet. In addition, the Internet was a convenient and efficient channel for doing stock trade transactions and for providing information support to investors. Indeed, the trend of self-investing led to the proliferation of Internet brokerages around 2000, offering trading services on the Internet at very low commission rates compared to using traditional brokerages.

Reduced customer loyalty

Lower transaction costs online led many investors to e-brokerages and away from traditional brokers to place their trades Another concern was that since investors feel that they can distinguish between the good and bad advice that they find on the Internet, they therefore were not be willing to continue to pay a financial planner solely for their expert opinion. This was in part due to the information illusion discussed in next section: illusion of knowledge and control, where investors feel that since they have access to so much information that they had no need to pay for such service and can do it better on their own.

Reduced customer-broker cohesiveness

Before on-line trading is prevalent, a single stock trade typically involves multiple telephone conversations between a customer and a broker. The broker may take the opportunity to reinforce the personal relationship with the customer by discussing pros and cons of the trade or offer tailor-made investment package. On the contrary, on-line traders are more on their own. Together with the convenience to switch broker, the loyalty of the customer to the brokerage firm is largely weakened. Although transactions are the bread and butter of brokerage companies, brokerage firms were also strived to developing client relationships in order to provide total solution to their customers. The income by providing strategic planning, advisory services, financial advices, margin loan and other client services are also vital to brokerage companies..

Market fragmentation

Market fragmentation occurs when too many competitive suppliers enter an active or new market. It happened starting from 1998 and peaked around 2001, when online trading started to take off and attracted many different competitors. They all aimed attract on-line investors and to achieve the largest possible market shares by all means, for example, by giving them some extra bonuses. However, the sudden downturn of the market quickly turned a lot of these new investors to passive customers, if not entirely retired, due to lack of knowledge and experience. This phenomenon was even more obvious after market started to plunge beginning at 2001.

As a matter of fact, it is too risky for e-brokers’ to over-rely on commission as the main source of revenue. After all, the demand for brokerage services highly depends on investment atmosphere of stock market. The number of on-line executed orders during bullish and bearish market varies significantly. These large variation experts high risk for those who base their income on commission. In order to safeguard possession of active traders during both bullish and bearish market, it is very important to educate them and foster a correct investment culture.

Lower entry barrier

The Internet changed how information is delivered to investors and the ways in which investors can act on that information. On-line brokerage provide a effective and convenient access media between customers and the brokerage firm, the unit cost of operations is much reduced. It had lowered both the fixed and marginal costs of producing financial services, thus enabling newer, smaller companies to challenge established providers of these services. On-line brokerage firms, such as E*Trade, are among the most vivid and successful financial service firms to provide on-line financial advice, research tools, and financial information that emerged in the last decade. These e-commerce firms transformed the way traditional services were delivered and offered a vast assortment of new services.

Hurdle on customer

Investors in general and on-line investors in particular now make decisions in a very different environment than investors in the past. They have access to far more data. They often act without personal intermediaries. They can conduct extensive searches and comparisons on a wide variety of criteria. Although the quantity they can produce may be large, it is the quality that matter. As a consequence, they trade more actively, more speculatively but less profitably than before. On-line trader stress heavily on commission and management cost when choosing broker firm to use. However, there are other unobservable costs that are unaware by them: information-processing costs, information illusion, illusion of control, frequent trading behavior, and the lack of personal advice.

Information-processing costs

Information-processing costs are the costs that online investors sustain before they actually make a transaction and it is defined by the time and energy that the investor expands trying to reach an investment decision. Because of the huge volume of information found on the Internet that it can take investors a lot of extra time to find, sort, and analyze all of the relevant information. This in turn can out-weigh the benefits of online trading for some investors because they might not be able to afford the opportunity. In fact, the overwhelmingly huge amount of information available on the Internet scales many investors away, let alone their validity or intentional hoax.

Illusion of knowledge

The proposition that more information leads to better decision-making is intuitively appealing. But the truth of the proposition depends on the relevance of the information to the decision and on how well-equipped the decision maker is to use the information .The vast amount of on-line investment data available will enable investors to confirm their prior beliefs and may lead them to become overconfident in their ability to pick stocks and other securities. Faster feedback may focus investor’s attention on recent performance. Psychology shows that when people who initially disagree on a topic are given arguments on either side of the issue, they become further polarized in their beliefs. They are impressed by the arguments with which they already agree and they discount opposing views. Not only are people more impressed by arguments they favor, but they actively seek out confirming evidence. For this reason, investors are more likely to visit chatrooms or forum of like-minded investors. If controversies ensue, they are likely to be convinced by those with whom they already agree. Investors who believe that additional information makes them better investors are unlikely to seek out or attend to evidence that indicates otherwise. Thus, on-line investors are likely to become overconfident. They may believe that they have more ability to perform tasks such as stock-picking than they actually do. In theoretical models, overconfident individual investors trade more actively and more speculatively than they otherwise would, hold under diversified portfolios, have lower expected utilities, and contribute to increased market volatility. In an empirical study of investors at a large discount brokerage who switched from phone-based to personal computer-based trading by Barber and Odean, they find that after going on-line, investors tend to trade both more actively and more speculatively.

Illusion of control

This illusion results when investors think that because they have access to so much information via the Internet that they have an advantage over the entire market and this can lead them to make bad investment decisions. These investors then have an exaggerated sense of control over the outcomes of their investments. Frequent trading is another cost associated with online investing. Low transaction costs can encourage frequent trading and day-trade strategy according to Konana, Menon and Balasubramanian. As an example, in Singapore, 71.1 per cent of online investors say that they trade more frequently than they did prior to online trading (Teo, Tan, & Peck, 2004). Researches show that most of the on-line traders adopt short term trading strategy: a risky strategy rather than the believed “buy and hold” strategy. The Internet also seems likely to change what information investors focus on, because it reduces the cost of some kinds of information more than others. For instance, the Internet especially facilitates comparisons of real time data, and thus has changed investors’ focus by emphasizing the importance of speed and immediacy. While the serious individual investor of a decade ago may have checked stock positions once a day in the morning paper, casual investors now may check theirs several times an hour. Many more investors pay attention to short term-even intraday- return trends than ever before. Worse still, many firms advertise their ability to deliver real time data or to execute investors’ orders rapidly, making the situation even worse.

Lack of personal advice

The downside of investing online is the lack of personal advice from those in the financial field (Vakil & Lu, 2005). According to Phelan (2001), the Web will never be able to substitute for the judgment and expertise of financial planners, nor will it be able to protect investors from all of the scams that are abundant on the Internet. In reality, the news and new information people found on the internet might not be as new as they think. Moreover, many online traders only focus on the here and now and do not look at the whole picture or at the future as financial advisors are trained to do, thus jeopardizing their investment.


Our research examines the pressures for change over the past decade that was overcoming the inertia in the brokerage industry. We viewed the challenge from the perspectives of traditional brokerage firm and electronic brokerage firm.

Traditional brokerage firm

To provide online trading, traditional brokerage firms were forced to decide on which of the two approaches to go, either establishes new subsidiary with a new brand name or provide under its own name. For the first case, brokerage firm suffer from overlapped company structure and considerable marketing expenditure to build the new name, which prolonged the period to reach break even point. The later case, though easier to setup, brokerage firm is putting their reputation at stake when the service do not meet customers’ expectation.

The strategy adopted was to have differentiated brands serve the younger, more tech-savvy investors that gravitated to on-line trading without nibbling full-commission business. With the advent of the World Wide Web, discount brokerage firms face a comparable disintermediation dilemma. Commissions were suddenly under pressure, customers wanted to trade directly, and competition is coming from non-traditional sources like direct banks. To address the competitive threat, some entrenched firms adopted the supermarket approach by providing other supplementary services like providing financial information and news. However, such approach was in fact a typical re-intermediation path that directly competed with full service brokerage firm which offered a wider portfolio of products and services. Nevertheless, creating a financial services supermarket was a misguided strategic choice for three reasons:

– First, many successful 1990’s businesses have rediscovered the virtues of adhering to their core competencies and the power of strategic outsourcing in order to gain agility. Most of the conglomerates which attempted to enter the financial services arena – learned the hard way that adding unfamiliar lines of business can dilute their ability to compete, weaken shareholder and customer loyalty and multiply management complexity. The reason for failure was economic. Risk and cost sharing in the production or delivery process can enable better time to market and make providing a product/service bundle more efficient than integrating everything in-house.

– Second, offering additional products to an existing customer base does not prevent customers from leaving. Also, the decision to add new products to an existing portfolio is complicated by an uncertain environment such as the Internet. In an uncertain techno-marketplace, a firm is often making an informed guess about what it thinks is best for a customer without fully knowing what that customer’s preferences and goals are.

– Third, technology-enabled firms like ETrade were taking the “re- intermediation” path in a new way by providing customers with interactive and personalized services at little or no cost. This branding and trust-building approach enables the service providers to learn directly and accurately from each customer what’s actually important to him or her. Armed with this intimate customer knowledge, these companies are better positioned to build loyalty and increase profits for the long term. Clearly, re-intermediation was a difficult strategy as sustainable competitive advantage was becoming rare in the on-line environment. High performers today look for a series of short-term advantages over a long period of time instead of attempting to plot a far-sighted course in an environment with too many unpredictable variables. Innovative Internet-based intermediaries were the real threat to the entrenched players. These firms were adopting dramatically more effective means of forging interactive relationships with customers added value, which was essentially the incremental benefit that the new “in the middle” firm brings to the customer. They were looking to exploit synergism across different product lines. They innovated more frequently and organized to seize opportunities much faster than their competitors. The reason was: concentrated focus on traditional sources of competitive advantage – such as cost, technology, and differentiation – was inadequate because competitors were quick to replicate advantages. They seek to identify and rapidly responded to subtle changes to the finest ingredient: the individual customer. To sustain competitive advantage, it was important to embrace business practices that encourage deep customer insight and thinking about how to materially improved the customer’s value proposition.

Electronic brokerage firm

Online brokers rushed to pour money to increase their capacity to absorb the fast growing demand during boom in 2000. The only way considered effective to increase market share at that time was advantageous offers and promotions, combined with enormous marketing expenses exposing them to a very high costs. The development of the online brokerage market was highly dominated by such marketing approach. Absence of physical branches and thus reduced operation cost entitle internet brokers the advantageous cost structure. Instead, they allocated this saving and invested on massive marketing campaign in order to achieve the biggest market share as soon as possible. By attracting and developing the loyalty of new customers, these brokerage firms were expecting soon to reach the break-even point.

The bull market during the boom had dusted the eye of these online brokers. They failed to anticipated adverse situation when significant downturn in capital investments occurred and stroke their over investment. The stock markets had proved its volatility in a year time, when the boom burst in 2001. The serious regression caused by global slump of economy and the later SAR outbreak during 2003 had made the situation even steeper for the industry. The depression lasted for a couple of years before reaching a rising track started on 2007. Stock market transaction was drastically dropped from hundreds of billion down to tens of billions and last for years. Investors were either scared away or suffered from great lost by the sudden market plunge and prolonged recession. The once admirable capacity had turned into the biggest burden for brokerage firm. Naturally, all of them suffered from great investment lost, if not bankrupted altogether.

All the internet brokerage firms had paid a huge price for this costly experience. The lesson they learnt made them re-evaluated the challenges ahead and the goals to attain. They have learnt that low commission rates or excessive marketing expenses would not give them competitive advantages and made the break-even point harder to reach. Instead, they had to revise the services they offered and discover alternative source of revenue. Suffered from the great impact of market volatility, they were looking for a flexible enough business models that is able to cope with the huge capacity demand during a bull market while enable them to safely transit bearish market. We can classify the challenges facing online brokerage firms into three categories: strategy, marketing and technology.

Strategic challenge

The characteristic of online brokerage had fundamentally changed the brokerage industry. New competitors like insurance companies, banks and financial portal had entered the arena. With the competitive advantage in possessing technology, a large customer bases and knowledge of their customers, they posted great threat to traditional brokerage player who want to participant in online brokerage. The large customer bases not only significantly reduced marketing cost but also helped to minimize development and operation cost due to economy of scale. Coupled with the open standard characteristics, traditional brokerage players had an up hill battle to fight.

The value chain of the brokerage was invaded by these new competitors, forcing traditional p

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