2017 Interactive Brokers Review
Interactive Brokers is a popular online trading platform that offers options for retail traders. If you are considering getting into options trading from home, or you have a history in trading and are looking for a better platform, then you may have heard of Interactive. It is large and publicly traded, so it attracts attention for that alone. I will review the platform and run down its most important features as well as my opinion on whether it is a good platform and, if so, for whom it works best.
Account Commissions Structure
Perhaps the most important single feature of any options broker is the fee structure. If the fees are too high, then you'll never wind up making a profit on your trading. Profit margins on options trading can be thin enough before you take into account taxes and fees. Interactive Brokers is towards the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to fees.
If you are just starting out, then the advanced features at IB might not be of much use to you and therefore the fees could be too high to justify. Again, it is your decision and there is a demo account feature so that you can see how you fare with the platform, but more on that later. For now, here is the fee structure.
First of all, on stock trades there is a $0.005 fee per share with a minimum fee per trade of one dollar. That implies you will start to pay more than the minimum once you reach a trade size greater than 200 shares. Options fees vary based on the complexity of the contract. The range is 25 cents to 75 cents per contract. For mutual funds, the fees range from nothing at the low end up to $14.95 at the top per trade.
The UI is perhaps one of the weaker elements of IB. The interface is a little outdated in appearance. It runs on Java, so it is fairly universal. The platform also has mobile access on both OSX and Android. That said, the desktop interface simply looks old, with early 2000s design, layout, and buttons. However, there is an argument that old does not necessarily mean bad. The interface is still efficient and rather easy to use. That is a big advantage because there are many options brokers that have very poor interfaces. Modern brokers have a tendency to over-design their UIs, leaving you with too many fancy graphics and too few clear menus. A simpler, older interface is also a faster one.
The platform itself is incredibly feature-rich, which makes it easier to forgive the appearance of the interface. Moreover, the existence of an API for the platform means you can plug in a third-party plugin if you are attached to certain charting software, for example. That API is your key to customizing the interface and how it stores and displays information. It is rather generous with how it works with outside tools, so the default assumption should be that if you want to try a plugin, it will probably work. The API and the platform itself are very algo-friendly.
Interactive Brokers almost never runs promotions. The company positions themselves as one of the elite brands in the online options world, so to offer promos would cheapen that branding. Of course as consumers we would prefer them to just offer the promos and be done with it, but that is their choice. Do not expect to see matching deposits or welcome bonuses at Interactive Brokers.
The minimum deposit to open an account with Interactive Brokers is $10,000. That goes for any kind of individual trader account. If you are 25 or younger then the minimum drops to $3,000.
What brings people to Interactive Brokers is the combination of lower fees and pro-grade features. Clunky interface aside, there is the potential to execute many different kinds of options contracts via IB's platform. Perhaps the most significant feature is the API and the ability to plug in third-party software. Some of this comes in the form of interfaces, charting, and other tools to guide your trading. Other software assists the trading itself via algorithms. You can use an existing set of algos provided by a third party, explore what IB has to offer in-house, or even write your own algos and connect them via the API to automate your own trading. This feature will be worth more if you are more comfortable with digging into software. If all you want is a ready-made interface with no attachments or exterior connections, then IB does not have the right feature set for you.
The platform also has a security feature that I like. When you sign up, you get a physical card in the mail and you use the passcode on that card to log in. It is an extra step, but really boosts the security of your account. This is called two-factor authentication. It is based on the idea that the best security depends on something you know (your account info) and something you have (the card). The two-factor system ensures that even if a hacker gained access to your username and password, they cannot log in because they do not have your card. It can be annoying to go through the extra work, but the increase in security is massive because it is nearly impossible to maliciously obtain both factors and use them.
The bottom line for Interactive Brokers is that it lives and dies by how much value you get out of the API and the low fees. Most people I know who are long-term customers wind up using alternative interfaces. If you are the type who likes to load up with extra features and customization, then IB is for you. The API and low fees make it clear that IB is aiming for the automation market, so that's the best way to take advantage of the platform. Think about it and try out the demo account- if you can deal with the UI then you might have a good value options broker.