Investing > What is a Stock Broker?

What is a Stock Broker?

This guide explains what stock brokers are, what they do, and why you probably need one.

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Reviewed by
Updated October 13, 2020

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What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think of a stock broker? If you’re like most new investors, images of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street may come to mind.  Yet while that image may have been accurate a few decades ago, it’s more accurate to think of the modern-day stockbroker as a computer 💻, rather than someone in a colorful jacket yelling buy and sell orders on the floor of a busy exchange.

The world of finance is complicated. The job many people consider a “stockbroker” is more accurately described as a trader. There are traders who trade other people’s money for them, known as broker-dealers. There are also traders who trade for their own firm’s account, known as proprietary traders or hedge fund portfolio managers.

Likewise, the person who manages your money is called an Investment Advisor. Investment advisors often have jobs called Financial Advisor or Wealth Managers, and their job is to manage other people’s money.  As such, their goal is to get more clients and manage increasingly larger sums of money.

So where does a stock broker fit into this picture? In fact, what is modern stockbroker? 🤔

Ultimately, a broker is a person or software platform that allows you to buy or sell stocks, bonds, options, and other securities. For individual investors, brokers are classified as either full-service or discount brokers. When considering your options for different brokers, you should weigh factors like ease-of-use, available research tools, technology like mobile apps, and fee structure.

Most online, discount brokerage platforms offer the same basic order execution tools. However, to be a serious investor, you’ll want to first invest the time into researching brokers and learning how to use tools like real-time data, robust charting, and advanced analysis tools. As famous investor Nicolas Darvas put it, “I believe in analysis and not forecasting.”

Here’s a brief overview of all the major sections we’ll cover in this guide:

What you’ll learn
  • How Online Brokers Platforms Operate
  • What is a Broker
  • The Difference Between Stock Brokers and Real Estate Brokers
  • Broker Laws and Financial Regulation
  • How To Become a Stock Broker
  • How to Get Started With a Stock Broker

5 Examples of Online Brokers Platforms and How They Operate

There are different types of brokers, but they mainly fall into these categories or a combination of them: Depending on what type of investor you are or what type of broker you want to be, there are several ways to invest. According to the investment style you choose you can belong to one of the four main categories of brokers:

  •  Full-service broker
  •  Discount broker
  •  Online broker
  •  Robo-advisor

Which Stock Broker Has What You're Looking For?

Answer a few quick questions and we'll recommend a stock broker that offers what you want.

Which of the following best describes what you're looking for?
How much do you expect to invest in the next 30 days?
$0 $12,500 $25,000+

Now we’ll show you five online broker platforms and provide you with details on how they operate:

1. TD Ameritrade

If you are seeking a top-notch discount broker, then TD Ameritrade can be your best pick.

Also known as TD Ameritrade Holding Corporation (AMTD), this broker provides a full-service option and discount brokerage options with the ability to trade stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), mutual funds, options, futures contracts, retirement investments, and income investments.

Based in Omaha, Nebraska, TD Ameritrade has 11 million accounts and manages more than $1 trillion for its clients. They also charge a simple trading fee of $6.95 per trade.


2. Charles Schwab

Charles Schwab’s platform provides advanced research and trading tools for all kinds of traders.

Charles Schwab is a full-service brokerage firm that offers all kinds of technology and services to every kind of trader. If you are an active trader or need a full-service broker for trading advice, there are multiple levels of account management and investing.

They offer a number of online tools to help their clients make trades on their own, and they provide a guaranteed refund for clients unhappy with their fee-based services. However, Charles Schwab also pushes investors to use their financial advisors instead of making trades on their own, which can cause investors to lose confidence or change their portfolio too drastically.


3. Acorns

Screenshot of Acorns website homepage with Take control of your money banner showing a smartphone running Acorns app and Get started button
Acorns provides excellent savings tools and advanced trading services for rookie traders.

Acorns is a hands-off investor’s dream. As a brokerage account and savings tool, Acorns takes leftover change and small investments to build a nest egg. It basically uses robo-advisors to help beginner and passive investors make money through their savings.

They charge a $5 fee to start investing and a $1 to $3 monthly fee for account management. Their ETF expense ratios average at 0.10 percent. For an automated investing solution, this could help college students and beginner investors save some money.


4. E*Trade

E*Trade was among the first discount brokers that started providing its services online.

E*Trade was probably the first discount online broker. Many people have seen E*Trade through their outlandish commercials, such as a baby broker advising on investments. E*Trade does contend that trading is that easy through their platinum, and they have a lot of tools and options to help their investors make it simple.

One of the benefits to E*Trade as a brokerage is that they offer robust trading, research, and analysis software. This broker also does not charge a commission for stock and ETF trades. Options are rated at $0.50 to $0.65 per contract, but it depends on trading volume.


5. Interactive Brokers

Screenshot of IBKR website with Trading Platforms page selected
Interactive Brokers’ online broker platform aims to provide its customers with superior trading tools.

This is another online broker. Interactive Brokers Group, Inc or IBKR holds over $150 billion in equity from their clients. They also have low commissions going down to $0.005 per share with a minimum of $1 trades.

With their electronic exchange, you can access options, futures, and equities. There are also several mobile tools available through this broker, but you do not have access to your own investment advisor.


What is a Broker? 🤔

Brokers play the role of a market maker, which means they act as a liaison between buyers and sellers. They either make or take liquidity based on the type of order they place. Brokers “make liquidity” by placing marketable orders and “take liquidity” by placing limit orders.

Brokers are often entire firms rather than a single person. These firms often offer many services including managing money, offering investment advice, and even creating their own financial products like ETFs or mutual funds to sell to their clients. Brokers receive commissions for each transaction and earn interest as account custodians. To help grow their assets under management, brokerage firms often offer signing bonuses for new clients. This bonus makes it a good idea for you to shop around every once in a while to make sure you are getting a good deal.

💡 Want to get started with one of the best stock brokers? Check out our list of 6 best stock brokers and see which one suits you the best.

New technology has not only disrupted the manual buying and selling of orders. Many of the “online brokers” have expanded their discounted platforms beyond just trading to include robo-advisors and related algorithms that expand their offerings into the world of advisory. If you have signed up for an online broker or an app, you may use tools informed by AI rather than a human broker.

To become a broker as an individual, you have to be licensed, and many brokers also get advanced degrees in business, finance, economics or accounting. Certifications also help brokers work in specialized fields or go after high-level positions.

How Brokers and Brokerage Firms Operate? 💡

  •  Brokers can be a single individual or a firm that charges a commission or trade fee for placing buy and sell orders that you submit as an investor.
  •  The term “broker” can also be used interchangeably for a digital broker or online broker that charges a commission to place buy and sell orders.
  •  There are also discount brokers that place trading orders for clients, but they do not provide any investment tips, market intelligence, or 1-on-1 advice.
  •  A “full-service broker” typically includes your own advisor who provides investment tips and solutions for your portfolio, while also executing buy and sell orders for you.
  •  To be a legitimate broker, you must register and be certified through FINRA, and depending on the services you are providing you may need to either register as an RIA or a broker-dealer with the SEC (at least in the United States).

Discount vs. Full-Service Brokers: Weighing Your Options

Discount brokers can execute a variety of orders for their clients, and they typically do not charge as much in commission as a full-service broker. Trades typically cost as little as $5, but you will never spend over $15 on commission fees with discount brokers. The goal for these brokers is to appeal to the masses and structure their rates based on volume.

While they don’t offer investment advice, new online brokers often have “robo-advisors” or online tools to provide market intelligence and portfolio analysis instead. Employees of discount brokerage firms typically work off salary rather than commissions or fees like a full-service broker. Online trading platforms are typically considered discount brokers because of their low fees and zero commission rates.

Discount BrokersFull-Service Brokers
Require an annual fee for executing equity delivery and charge fixed amounts for tradingCharge a commission on executing each trade
They mostly offer a fast, robust trading platformProvide a trading platform along with detailed and frequent investment advice
Suitable for those who conduct research on their own and/or have a financial advisorIdeal for those looking for advice and guidance in investments
Mostly offer stocks and commodities tradingOffer a wider range of services than discount brokers

Full-service brokers offer more services like market intelligence and research, retirement planning, investment advice, and access to all investment types. Investors use this type of service when they want someone else to help with their buy and sell decisions and to help consider individual investments in the context of their overall financial situation.

Brokers earn more compensation if they trade at higher volumes and selling more investment products to their clients. For example, they may earn more compensation through a managed investment account.

Stock Brokers vs. Real Estate Brokers 🏘

Brokerage takes on a different meaning in the real estate world. These brokers work with clients who want to sell and buy real estate properties. They also must have a license to practice.

Real estate brokers typically have duties like:

  •  Researching the market values of real estate properties in both commercial and residential markets
  •  Listing and marketing properties for sale on behalf of their clients
  •  Showing properties to potential buyers
  •  Providing advice to clients on provisions, offers, and other real estate fees
  •  Prepares and submits offers to clients for consideration

Real estate brokers may also work for buyers. In this case, they help buyers find the best properties using their market knowledge and insights.

  •  Find all properties within a buyer’s preferred home shopping area and sort by price range and buyer’s income limits
  •  If a buyer wants to make an initial offer or decides on a purchase, the broker drafts up the offer and purchase agreements
  •  Brokers also negotiate with sellers to get a better price and reduced closing costs for their buyers
  •  Manage inspections and negotiating cost based on repairs needed before a purchase is final
  •  Work with buyers and sellers through closing and taking possession of a property

Broker Laws and Financial Regulation ⚖

To become a broker, you must first register at FINRA or the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. This is the self-regulating body for broker-dealers. FINRA maintains that brokers adhere to a standard of conduct known as the “suitability rule.” This rule requires that the broker must have sufficient reasons for suggesting a client invest in a particular stock or product.

Another part of these standards states is known as the “know your customer” or KYC rule. This means that the broker must take steps to identify what their clients want to do with their investment portfolios.

Every broker needs to operate in compliance with rules and regulations imposed by the regulatory bodies.

In doing so, the broker can show reasonable grounds for their suggestions of an investment product. In addition, the broker must look into a client’s financial documents, such as their tax status, income, investment objectives, and other research to inform their recommendations.

These standards are separate from those required by the SEC or Securities and Exchange Commission for RIAs, AKA Registered Investment Advisers. These standards must be strictly adhered to under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. RIAs must always abide by these rules and act in the best interests of their customers while also being completely transparent about their fees.

Real estate brokers must also abide by certain standards and rules. However, these are largely governed at a state-level. All real estate brokers must operate under a license as issued by their respective states. There are certain laws regarding rules of conduct between clients and brokers as well. For instance, brokers have strict limitations on how they advertise incentives to prospective clients. Laws that pertain to forex brokers are much more stringent, more information can be found on our forex risk page.

How To Become a Stock Broker

  1. Education. Brokers must have a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree 👨‍🎓. Earning a degree in business, accounting, marketing, economics, or finance puts you ahead for the top positions at brokerage firms.
  2. Pass the licensing exam. This includes completing the General Securities Registered Representative Exam (Series 7). Some states also have their own Uniform Securities Agents State Law Exam (Series 63).
  3. Get a certificate. Increase employment opportunities by getting a certification as a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) or a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA).
  4. Pick the right firm ✅. Some companies pay for their employees’ MBA degrees while others expect you to work 60 hours for an extremely small salary and no commission. If you want to earn higher salaries, you may want to intern first and understand what type of brokerage is best for you.

Should you go for an MBA? Most brokers who want to advance do end up in a Master of Business Administration program, and they combine it with a CFA program.

Now that you know the basics of how stock brokers operate, you can get started with one and boost your stock trading strategies.

Get Started With a Stock Broker

Fees
Commissions

$0

$0

Account minimum

$500

$0

Minimum initial deposit

$0

$5

General
Best for

Beginners and mutual fund investors

New investors

Highlight

Low fees

Value-based investing

Promotion

None

$5 bonus

Rating
Fees
Commissions

$0

$0

Account minimum

$0

$0

Minimum initial deposit

$5

TS Select: $2,000

TS GO: $0

General
Best for

New investors

Active options and penny stock trading

Highlight

Value-based investing

Powerful tools for professionals

Promotion

$5 bonus

None

Rating
Fees

Commissions

$0

$0

$0

Account minimum

$500

$0

$0

Minimum initial deposit

$0

$5

TS Select: $2,000

TS GO: $0

General

Best for

Beginners and mutual fund investors

New investors

Active options and penny stock trading

Highlight

Low fees

Value-based investing

Powerful tools for professionals

Promotion

None

$5 bonus

None

Want to learn more about different kinds of brokers? See our guides to future brokers, options brokers or brokerages where you can short sell.

All reviews, research, news and assessments of any kind on The Tokenist are compiled using a strict editorial review process by our editorial team. Neither our writers nor our editors receive direct compensation of any kind to publish information on tokenist.com. Our company, Tokenist Media LLC, is community supported and may receive a small commission when you purchase products or services through links on our website. Click here for a full list of our partners and an in-depth explanation on how we get paid.

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