Personal finance digression: Robinhood is a pretty good app

Every once in a while I take a break from blogging about travel hacking and write about whatever personal finance topics are on my mind. For the past few weeks I've been playing around with an app called Robinhood, and thought I'd share my impressions.

Robinhood is a mobile-only trading platform

I don't exactly understand why mobile-only applications are so popular at the moment, but Robinhood is a good example of one. As far as I can tell, there is no way to log into your Robinhood account on their website to view past trades, deposits, withdrawals, dividends, etc.

Fortunately, the app is pretty good! The main page of the app shows the current value of your account, including cash and the market value of all the shares you currently own. Below that, there's a newsfeed that shows headlines based on general market events and news specific to the shares you're tracking. Finally, the main page shows your current share positions and any ticker symbols you've saved for the app to track.

That latter functionality works even if you don't have any shares deposited with Robinhood. In other words, you can use the app to simply track the price of any stocks and ETF's you're interested in.

I've always been curious why most brokerages report share prices with a 20-minute delay, which doesn't seem particularly consumer-friendly. In any case, it's cool that Robinhood reports share prices in real-time.

Buried slightly deeper in the app's menus are the options to view past transactions, make deposits to and withdrawals from your Robinhood account, cancel pending orders, and all the other things you might want to do with a brokerage account. They even show you all your scheduled dividend payouts on a single screen, which I've never seen in a brokerage account before (although my experience with them is limited).

Robinhood executes commission-free trades of US stocks and ETF's

Now we come to the real point of the app: Robinhood doesn't charge any commission to buy or sell US stocks and exchange-traded funds.

Most brokerage firms will charge you $7 or more to execute simple trades. If you want to buy or sell a single share, that commission can easily dwarf any paper profits you made on the underlying security.

There's not much else to say: Robinhood doesn't charge those commissions. They do list a number of fees for trading listed foreign securities, "Euroclear," and "Canadian." Those situations haven't come up for me yet.

Robinhood makes deposits from a bank account immediately available

This is a neat gimmick: in order to get you trading as soon as possible, Robinhood makes funds available immediately when you initiate a deposit from your linked bank account.

When I initiated a purchase in my Vanguard brokerage account the other day, it took 3 or 4 days for the funds to become available and the price had already moved away from me, so I do appreciate this feature of Robinhood.

Two minor problems and one philosophical grievance

There are two things that will become immediately obvious as soon as you start using Robinhood:

  • Robinhood does not service tax-advantaged accounts. You can't set up Robinhood as a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, Health Savings Account, 529 College Savings account, or any other kind of account besides a taxable brokerage account. If you're in a tax bracket where short term and long term capital gains are taxed at different rates from ordinary income, you have to be aware of what kinds of capital gains and losses you create through the app. For my sins I've already earned $15 in short term capital gains which I'm not looking forward to reporting next year.
  • Robinhood's newsfeed function is not hosted natively in the app. I think the newsfeed is a sort of silly gimmick, but if a headline does catch your attention you have to wait for your mobile browser to load the website, which more often than not has a paywall keeping you from reading the article that interested you! Note to all app developers: If you're going to have a newsfeed, host the articles on your app!

Still, those are both quibbles. The real problem with Robinhood is that it makes day-trading incredibly easy, and more or less encourages its users to day-trade. It does this in two ways.

First, by not charging fees for each trade, Robinhood removes any disincentive from quickly moving in and out of stocks. Don't get me wrong: I don't think it's good that brokerages charge fees for trades. That's money customers would rather keep. But that basically bad practice does at least discourage people from buying and selling stocks based on minor price changes. It acts as a subtle encouragement to hold securities for the long term.

Second, the newsfeed is, more or less, a stream of constant headlines telling you to buy, sell, or short whatever stocks you happen to have loaded into Robinhood. Their algorithm simply shows all headlines related to your shares from a range of financial websites, blogs, and actual news sources. For ConocoPhilips, my current newsfeed shows:

  • ConocoPhilips: Shorts Closing In On The Bottom
  • How To Play The Growth In US Oil Exports With Fat Dividends (Part 1)
  • Oil Patch: The 'Circle The Drain' Phase Begins
  • Short Conoco Philips Now

You can, and should, ignore the newsfeed, but as far as I can tell you can't hide or mute it, and it creates this sensation of light dread whenever I open the app.

Conclusion: Gambling is fun

Robinhood should not be your main brokerage account. That should be some place like Vanguard, where you can buy low-cost mutual funds without paying a commission, and set up tax-advantaged accounts like IRA's.

But if you have some money set aside for fun, Robinhood really does allow you to buy and sell US listed shares and ETF's without paying a commission, leaving you all the upside — and downside — risk from your stock market hunches.

Besides that, Robinhood allows you to buy and sell Vanguard ETF's like VTI (Total Stock Market ETF) and VXUS (Total International Stock ETF). As I like to say, although the personal finance and financial planning industries are obsessed with tax-advantaged accounts, there's no law against holding securities in a normal, taxable brokerage account. So if you'd like to save more money than you're able to in your IRA's and 401(k) accounts, you can buy and hold low-cost Vanguard ETF's in Robinhood without paying any commissions for the trades.

P.S. My top-secret gambling strategy

It seems crazy to write this much about a trading platform without revealing my proprietary gambling strategy. I have a simple rule: always bet the hard ways.

Wait, that's craps.

My proprietary gambling-on-the-stock-market strategy is to buy consistent dividend-paying stocks when they near their 52-week low. If the stock price recovers, I sell it. If it doesn't, I collect the dividend until it does. So I bought Royal Dutch Shell at an average of $38.73 and sold it at $44.86 (for my sins it's now at $45.27). Currently I'm holding BP, International Paper (IP), ConocoPhilips (COP), and the aforementioned VXUS.

I don't recommend this strategy to anybody, since it's based on nothing. But gambling, famously, is pretty fun.