Millennials are flocking to cryptocurrency and cannabis stocks, TD Ameritrade CEO says

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TD Ameritrade

  • We talked to TD Ameritrade CEO Tim Hockey about investing, markets, and millennials.
  • He says the $1.2 billion brokerage has seen a huge uptick in interest surrounding cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and cannabis stocks.

Millennials are leading an investment revolution. Now the largest demographic in the economy, young investors under 35 are catalyzing a transformation in the asset management and stock trading world.

Investment accounts opened by this demographic rose 72% annually, TD Ameritrade CEO Tim Hockey told Business Insider.

In a wide-ranging interview following the $1.2 trillion brokerage’s earnings report that beat Wall Street expectations, Hockey said the firm has seen an explosion of interest in cryptocurrencies, cannabis stocks, and ETFs, particularly from millennials.

However, he did caution that the cryptocurrency market was by no means mature. That’s why only a select group of TD Ameritrade clients have access to the Cboe bitcoin futures marketplace, which was launched in December.

Hockey also said TD Ameritrade has seen huge uptick in interest around cannabis and blockchain stocks. Here’s the full interview:

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Graham Rapier: It looks like TD Ameritrade had a phenomenal quarter. What do you attribute those good numbers to?

Tim Hockey: The headline beat of $0.80 for non-GAAP was a spectacular number versus where most of the analysts were at, which was around $0.51. We think about $0.23 of that was driven by the tax effect, but even then, there were high single-digit cents depending on what you include, in terms of the beat. It was very strong organic growth, as you saw in the results. It was trading levels, it was stock lending, it was margin at all-time highs, so very broad based.

Rapier: Let’s talk about millennials. Is TD Ameritrade doing anything to attract younger investors? Has there been an uptick from the demographic?

Hockey: The way I would describe our distribution strategy is high-tech and right touch. We have the best trading and education platforms in the industry, in my view. And what do younger clients need? They love technology, and we’ve got the platforms that are the best out there. And they’re in need of education, to make sure they are educated investors. They’re younger in their investing and trading careers so as a result we’ve got that combination for them.

It seems to be working because our new accounts opened by millennials are up 72% year-over-year, and that’s driven by both our offerings as well as what’s of interest in the marketplace right now. Clearly, the two biggest stories of the quarter were the sectors of cryptocurrency and cannabis. Those are two sectors that didn’t even exist a few years ago. That has driven the skewing of our new accounts opened to the younger trader and younger investor.

Rapier: How are you attracting them to your firm? Are there any new things you’ve tried?

Hockey: Funny you should ask, last quarter I sat down at a restaurant with my 26-year-old son and we traded 100 shares of stock at the table using Facebook Messenger’s bot. We launched that last quarter.

Rapier: You recently turned on 24-hour trading, what was the logic behind that new offering? Is it receiving the response you expected?

Hockey: I’m glad you asked! It’s 24/5, so that allows clients to participate in after-hours market moving news that they didn’t have before because markets were open 9:30 to 4. Previously they had opportunities to do this only in the futures markets, but now we’ve offered 12 broad-based ETFs that are quite liquid, for example SPY, QQQ, the gold sector, oil, gas, China… these are all broad-based ETFs that can all now be traded 24 hours a day, five days a week.

It’s only been two days, so it’s just starting to get traction now in the media. It’s still quite narrow, but even last night we’re seeing a three cent spread, which is a nice tight range for people to trade in, even after hours.

Rapier: You also launched bitcoin futures for some clients back in December, how much interest are you seeing from clients in the cryptocurrency space? Will more products show up soon?

Hockey: We just turned on the Cboe product in a very limited release – just to futures clients that were more sophisticated and understood the risk they were taking, and we’ll expand that over time.

This market is certainly not mature. I would say that what we saw in terms of levels of absolute interest prior to the holiday season seemed to peak. Everybody was talking about crypto of all types all the time because it seemed like it was a one-way increase.

Ever since the pricing has been normalized and there’s been a bit of a correction, then you’ve seen a little bit less froth, if you will, in the market. We’ve actually seen that in the first few weeks of January, crypto trades – not just the Cboe product, but companies that are related to blockchain – have contributed a couple of points less toward our trading activity. It seems to have peaked just before the holidays.

The technology certainly has not matured, and I believe the transformative nature of what blockchain can do is only just starting to be understood by the majority of the world.

Rapier: Will we continue to see more companies pivot to crypto and blockchain?

Hockey: There’s a distinction between blockchain and cryptocurrencies, but they are absolutely being conflated in many people’s minds. They don’t quite understand blockchain but they’re being told that it is transformative. What comes with that is cryptocurrencies, and they don’t quite understand the linkage between the two and what the differences are between the various ones.

There’s also a bit of FOMO, the fear of missing out. “Oh my god it’s only going up, so therefore I need to participate.” That’s the classic sign of a bit of market hysteria. That will sort itself out as it always does. That’s why you’ve heard many people like Warren Buffett say “we’ve seen this movie before, it doesn’t end well.” He’s talking about that phenomenon as opposed to the blockchain technology in and of itself. There are some potential cryptocurrency survivors and thrivers as that technology matures.

Rapier: Have you seen any “Robinhood effect” as other brokerages start to offer commission-free trading?

Hockey: There’s been about a 50-year trend to continue to lower the price of a trade for a retail investor. TD Ameritrade, and Chuck Schwab and others, were all born out of a change in regulations in 1975 that allowed us to price what was then $70-$80 per trade, and here we are now down at the $6-7 range.

Our $6.95 price point is an all-in price point, which includes the best education and the best platforms for the best price. Others have a different price point and they sometimes include different things. We’re clearly very keen on our value proposition and clearly our clients are too, particularly millennials like we talked about earlier.

Rapier: Millennials are enthralled with passive investing and ETFs, are you seeing the same trends there?

Hockey: We have $197 billion in ETFs overall. We just launched last quarter our refreshed ETF market center, which allows up to almost 300 ETFs to be traded for free. People often ask “if people are moving to passive, why would anyone want to be a self-directed trader anymore?” But ironically the instrument that was created as a result of the passive trend was the ETF. Today, ETFs are one of our most actively traded sectors, and it didn’t exist a number of years ago.

The market has had this quite long bull run, in a time where yields and other investment types have been relatively low. So as a result, cost has been a very large factor that people take into account. I think what will happen is, when markets start to top out, and perhaps have a downturn, which is inevitable at some point, there will be a bigger divergence in my own view of active and passive.

People will start to realize that not all instruments go up all the time. Pretty much everybody has been rising on this long-term bull market, but when you actually have a bear market, people continue to want to search for the winners and losers. There will be a bigger distinction between those who are actively winning versus those that are just now starting to ride the passive trend downward with markets, then you’ll see a shift back to active trading and investing, in my own view.

Rapier: What do you think could upset this bull market that’s been going for so long now?

Hockey: I’m not a market strategist or economist, but I’m also old, so I’ve seen this before. In hindsight, there’s always something that tips the market over. There’s an event or a realization that something was overvalued. If you objectively look back at the turning points in previous cycles, there will be something that will come along.

It’s not easy to spot in advance, or everybody would, but it’s usually fairly transparent and obvious in hindsight. I can’t spot anything, there are lots of good trends and euphoria in corporate America about the tax changes and opportunities to invest.

Unemployment is low. Interest rates are low but rising, maybe that will do it. Debt levels of consumers are increasing, but still not at the rates they were just prior to the last downturn, so it’s any one of these factors could do it.