School season has begun here in the US, and as a parent, this usually means busy weekdays. But thankfully, I am going in with an investing strategy specifically catered to this very situation i.e. I can focus on my work and life while my invested capital works in the background to generate more cash.
I mentioned in one of my previous posts regarding how I have been using M1 Finance for my individual brokerage account to manage my dividend portfolio. I have now spent over an year with this firm and I thought it was a good time to sit down and start penning down my thoughts about this brokerage service, things I like about it, things that I don’t quite like as much and looking ahead.
Hopefully, this will serve as a honest review of the brokerage service for someone that is getting started in investing and looking around for a brokerage.
Why did I choose M1 Finance to begin with?
There are plenty of options available to the average retail investor in terms of brokerage services here in the US. Firstly, there are the big-name established brokerage firms that have been around for a long time such as: Vanguard, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, E-Trade etc. Then, there are the relatively newer options such as Robinhood, WeBull, Acorns, M1 Finance etc.
About an year back, I wanted to explore this space a little. I already had exposure to some of the big-name brokerage firms because of some employee-based stock plans, retirement accounts etc. And while these brokerage firms are stable and the services they offer are reliable, the overall experience of investing through them was a little inefficient. For instance, the user-interface (UI) available on the web-portal to the retail investor seems either so dated, or very confusing or just needs some improvement.
In contrast, the new kids-on-the-bloc were offering a refreshing experience in terms of the UI, including better mobile apps, zero-commission fees on trades and also the option of trading with fractional shares. The zero-commission fees on trades, in particular, was a significant game changer and, now, several of the big-name brokerages also offer the same service to the average retail investor. Given that I already had some accounts with the big-name brokerage firms, I decided to give one the newer options a try, and chose M1 Finance based on some initial research.
Another thought that was brewing in my head: While my wife generally has no interest in investments and finance-related matters in general, I did not want to scare here away by using a brokerage whose interface was too verbose, confusing and overwhelming for the first time user. Perhaps, a more beginner-friendly refreshing UI might even ease her into this work, if she wanted to dabble in it for any reason whatsoever.
M1 Finance – quick peek
M1 Finance has a unique approach in terms of how an investor can maintain his/her portfolio. The portfolio is maintained as a “pie”, wherein each pie is a collection of stocks or more pies called “slices”. M1 Finance offers a collection of example pies that the investor can choose from OR the investor is free to build his/her custom pie.
The investor can allocate percentages to each of the “slices” within the pie such that they total to a 100%. The allocations can be changed at any time during the life of the portfolio. When the investor deposits cash into the brokerage account, M1’s algorithm uses the cash to issue trades such that they conform the percentages allocations set by the investor. M1 also offers an “auto-invest” option such that this process can be automated. Whenever a specific allocation percentage goes over the target allocation set by the investor, M1 auto-trading algorithm classifies this slice weighting as overweight and instead invests any new deposited cash towards slice weightings that are underweight.
Trades on M1 can only happen during mornings when the markets open for the day. M1 plus, another tier of membership, offers afternoon trades as well. However, M1 plus membership comes at a cost of $125/year, at the time of writing this post.
M1 offers services such as regular individual brokerage account, Traditional and Roth IRA accounts, custodial accounts, trust accounts etc. They also offer other banking services such as M1 spend (debit card), M1 credit card with 2% cash back that gets automatically reinvested into your investment account, M1 borrow (loans) etc. I have not used any of the other services outside of the investment account.
- Excellent user-interface: The user-interface for both the website as well as the mobile APP (I have tried iPhone APP) are phenomenal and refreshingly better than some of the big-name counterparts. I have generally never had any issues with the UI and it has operated reliably during the last one year. It is extremely easy to place a trade and very easy to track portfolio performance using their time-weighted return metric. The landing page of your portfolio typically shows a graph of over portfolio’s total worth since the day it was first created. In addition, it is easy to track how much dividends have been earned during the entire lifetime of the portfolio, or simply doing the last week, month or day. It appears that M1 has eliminated a lot of clutter and kept the user-interface simple for the beginner investor.
- Unique approach to portfolio management: The “pie” based view does take a little while to get used to, but once you get it, it is actually a pretty simple way to manage a portfolio. For instance, your portfolio could be based on something like a lazy 3-fund portfolio i.e. three ETFs or index funds: one corresponding to the total stock market, one to the total bond market and one the international stock market with a percentage split for each of the funds. It makes complete sense to have this represented as a “pie” with each “slice” being one of these three funds. It then becomes very easy to which “slice” has grown to be overweight and where you could deposit your capital to ensure that your target allocations are maintained.
- Auto-invest: The auto-invest feature is pretty interesting. If I wanted to put my portfolio management into “auto-pilot” mode, I could do so with M1’s auto-invest feature. I would simply need to setup a “auto-deposit” from my banking account such that a fixed amount of cash would be withdrawn each month/week and deposited into my brokerage account. Once the cash lands here, it will be automatically used for trading per the target allocations for each of my stocks/slices. This removes emotion out of the investing and place trades at regular intervals by simply dollar-cost averaging into positions that are underweight.
- Fractional shares : I think this particular feature is a game-changer. If I can own a piece of Amazon (ticker: AMZN, trading at $3316 at the time of writing) or Google (ticker: GOOGL, trading at $2828 at the time of writing) with just $50, that is not at all a bad deal. There is a good possibility that I may not have enough capital at a given time to own one share of AMZN or GOOGL. A lot of the big-name counterparts still do not offer fractional shares but this is slowly changing.
- Customer Service: The customer service experience with M1 has been a mixed bag. While it was pretty great when I started out with it, there were days when it would be impossible to get a real person to talk to either over the phone or via email. This is a pretty fundamental aspect of a brokerage service. I should be able to reach out and talk to a real person if I have questions about the account, my statements or any feature on the portal.
- Moving holding between “pies”/”slices”: This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of M1 Finance. If you add a stock to a particular “pie”, and invest with that configuration, if you have to move the same stock over to a different “pie”, you cannot do so readily and there is a possibility that the act of doing so will cause you to sell the stock and then re-buy it for the same amount in the new pie configuration. This is not ideal for several reasons: this would change by cost-basis for the stock, and would also be classified as a taxable event. To explain this with an example, say I was interested in investing in Visa (ticker: V), but I placed in a pie called “Finance” and bought 10 shares of V. Say I now wanted to move this holding into a new pie called “Technology” (because Visa can be classified as a Technology company as a well), I would not be able to do so without first selling my shares for V from my “Finance” pie and then re-buying shares worth the same amount in my new “Technology” pie. It appears that people have been requesting this feature since the last few years now, but M1 does not really have a clear answer for this.
- Apex clearing house: M1 uses Apex as their clearing firm on the back-end. While this has not turned out to be a huge problem during the last year, I need to open a separate account with Apex clearing to have access to data regarding my portfolio with M1, such as stock trades placed, cost basis etc. I would rather have this data be made available through M1 itself rather than have to go through a second source of information.
- FINRA / SIPC: Reputable brokerage firms in the US are all registered members of SIPC and/or FINRA. Per SPIC regulations, M1 Finance can support customer claims of upto $500,000, with $250,000 is cash claims. While M1, through their Apex clearing house, claims to have additional insurance over SIPC coverage, it is not clear if it would be a safe option to maintain your assets with this firm if and when your portfolio exceeds this amount. In comparison, the big-name brokerage firms have been around for a lot more longer and are more reputable and trust-worthy for larger portfolios.
- Trading windows: As things stand, M1 only allows you to trade stocks at one (two if using M1 plus) time during the day. And this is early in the morning when markets open up. This clearly means that M1 is NOT suitable for day-trading. This is not such a huge deal for me, since I am a long-term investor, Having said that, I would like to have the flexibility to buy stocks when I please or when I sense an opportunity at any stage during the day when the markets are open. I would like decide for myself when to buy or sell a stock rather than have a restriction imposed on me due to my brokerage service.
I am pretty happy with trying out M1 for a year, but I think the time has come to move my investing journey over to a different brokerage due to the cons I have listed above. At present, Fidelity seems to be offering a good option for a move. They are a firm that has been around for a really long time. So I will have absolutely no concerns about insurance coverage for my assets if it grows into a large value. They have recently updated their user-interface to catch up to the modern age, offer fractional shares (atleast through their mobile app) etc.
Eventually, I would also like to begin trading options to supplement my monthly dividend income. M1 does not offer this option at present, and Fidelity does.
The transfer of assets from M1 will result in a taxable event, since the existing fractional shares will not be transferred and would have to be sold. But this is not so much of a concern for me since this move is the right thing to do from a long-term perspective.
I might return back to M1 Finance for a new account if things improve and if they have actively worked on some of my concerns listed above.
Until next time…
Disclosure: Long V, No positions in AMZN, GOOGL in my dividend portfolio.