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Why zero-fee apps will never exist for ASX shares

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The Robinhood smartphone app has been both praised for making investing accessible to the average folk and criticised for triggering addiction.

But one undisputed legacy is that it has made $0 brokerage standard in the United States. 

When the app launched in 2013, first-time investors absolutely loved the idea of not paying a fee for every small transaction. So after just 7 years, more than 13 million users have flocked to Robinhood.

Its popularity forced the older platforms to follow. Even most of the online brokers operated by the big 100-year-old companies now offer a free option.

But what about Australia? We’ve not yet seen a ‘zero fee’ platform for trading shares on the ASX.

Like so many financial and cultural trends, will it head across the Pacific to our shores?

Unfortunately the short answer is ‘no’.

ASX’s monopoly means it can charge whatever

The main reason ‘no fee’ can never happen in Australia is that ASX Ltd (ASX: ASX) runs an effective monopoly in this country.

Stake is a trading platform especially designed for Australians to invest in American markets.

The company’s chief executive Matt Leibowitz told The Motley Fool that there are 13 exchanges in the US, meaning they are all competing for liquidity – or “flow”, in industry parlance.

“So what they do to provide liquidity is they actually provide a rebate,” he said.

“So if you make liquidity you get paid, say 10 cents. If you take liquidity, you pay 15.”

The exchange thus makes money from that 5 cent difference. 

This rebate mechanism, called ‘payment for order flow’, is how each of the exchanges – like NASDAQ or NYSE – try to lure business away from its rivals.

And online broking platforms can afford to execute customers’ trades for free by living off the PFOF rebate.

But the ASX has no such need to show such generosity.

“In Australia you’ve got a monopoly… The ASX is actually charging a per-trade fee, regardless if you make or take liquidity,” Leibowitz said.

The ASX knows that if you want to buy or sell shares, it’s the only game in town.

ASX’s monopoly has other impacts too

The ASX infamously had a systems outage last month when the entire trading day was cancelled after just 24 minutes of operation.

The Australian Investments and Securities Commission was unusually stinging in its criticism of the outage, even questioning the exchange’s fitness to hold its market licence.

“Market licensees are required to operate a market that, to the extent reasonably practicable, is fair, orderly and transparent, and to have sufficient resources (financial, technological and human) to operate the market, including for any outsourced services,” the corporate watchdog stated at the time.

“Well-functioning financial market infrastructure is critical to the integrity and reputation of the Australian equity market and the trust and confidence investors have in it.”

Some market participants publicly stated ASX has no incentive to properly fund its systems because it doesn’t have any competitive pressure.

The same criticism was made in October when the new website crashed, leaving users unable to view company announcements.

In Britain, listed companies may choose from a range of providers to distribute their market announcements and meet their disclosure obligations. These suppliers include news agencies.

But all ASX-listed companies must go through the ASX to post announcements.

OpenMarkets chief Ivan Tchourilov told the Australian Financial Review at the time the situation was not serving the best interests of the market.

“The industry is concerned that ASX has too much power to dictate play and there isn’t much of an opportunity for competitors to create a diverse environment that will ultimately benefit customers.”

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Motley Fool contributor Tony Yoo has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.

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Tony Yoo