Free trading: for investment, not speculation.
Don’t assume that Freetrade can be reduced to its name: just another Robinhood-like brokerage app for share traders and speculators to freely gamble away their stimulus checks on GameStop or take a punt on the latest cryptocurrency miner. While ‘trading shares for free’ is a core aspect of what Freetrade offers, ultimately this is only one means to a more comprehensive end: enabling its users to become wizened medium-to-long-term investors, who, instead of getting burned and indebted by playing around with leveraged derivatives, stick with investing (and very likely the platform) for the long term. The app-based facilitation of free trading, alongside provision of services aimed at successful longer-term investment (of either the active or passive variety) is arguably the value Freetrade brings to the table of retail investment/wealth management platforms in the UK, and soon elsewhere.
Freetrade is still a young company. It hasn’t been widely recognised within the investment platform sector- try find mention of them in the AIC’s research, for instance. There is also a lot on their “roadmap“, i.e. their plans for improving and adding features over time. So in the review that follows, the Basics, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly are all likely to change over time, and I’ll endeavour to keep each section up to date. The current version of this review is dated April 2021.
If you’re a lazy reader and for some silly reason want to join Freetrade based on the strength of my opening paragraph, you can sign up to Freetrade here using my referral link, and we’ll both receive a free share worth up to £200. But if you’re a little more discerning, I hope the review below will help you to make up your mind.
1. The Basics
1.1. Pre-requisites & Onboarding
In order to open a Freetrade account, you need to be a based in the UK (i.e. resident for tax purposes) and have a UK bank account. With Freetrade’s slated European launch (from 2021 Q2 onwards), the same requirements would apply in the relevant country.
After downloading the app from the app store (be it Android or Apple) and creating an account, you will receive an email asking for an identification document and proof of residence. After sending those through (I just replied with them as attachments), Freetrade’s onboarding staff (who have actual human names) should approve your account within 7 to 10 working days, assuming your documents were satisfactory. In my case, it was perhaps 3 working days and my account was approved on a Sunday of all days. Rather strange – but I didn’t mind.
1.2. Adding and withdrawing funds
It’s a simple matter to top up funds (although I gather this simplicity is recent) – I did an instant bank transfer using my Starling Bank account, and voila, the funds were ready to be invested. Beware, if you attempt using a non-bank current account (e.g. Wise, ex TransferWise), this might pose a problem. (If you do try, let me know in the comments whether it works; I’m curious myself).
When I tried withdrawing from the app, this was equally simple: the funds (a whole £6) arrived in my bank account within 3 days. If you’ve read reviews on the Google Play Store, you might see a number of grumpy posts decrying the inefficiency of the account funding and de-funding process: but I made sure to input my banking details correctly, used an actual registered bank, and experienced no problems whatsoever.
1.3. Accounts, Available Shares & Fees
Across all accounts, Freetrade charges a 0.45% FX fee (when buying non-UK shares). UK stamp duty applies to UK shares. Otherwise, trades are commission-free. There are 3 main account types: a GIA, ISA and SIPP. You can optionally subscribe to Freetrade Plus, which extends the universe of holdings that you can purchase and gives a number of other benefits.
1.3.1. General Investment Account (GIA)
The GIA is free – there are no monthly fees whatsoever. It is, however, constrained in terms of what you can purchase unless you are subscribed to Freetrade Plus (see below). At present, the free GIA allows you to invest in the following: most FTSE 350 companies (large + mid cap), MSCI US Prime Market companies (large + mid cap, around the largest 750 US companies), all Vanguard, iShares (BlackRock) and Invesco ETFs, the FTSE AIM 100, as well as IPOs & SPACs. Small cap stocks from the UK and US aren’t available (you need Plus for that, see below), and, at present, you cannot invest in any other international markets.
1.3.2. Stocks and Shares ISA
The ISA costs £3 per month, giving an annual total of £36. I haven’t opened one yet, so I’m not 100% certain what value is added beyond access to the tax-wrapper itself (if I do, I will update this section). Beyond its tax-efficient properties, it’s likely the same as a GIA except that there are a few stocks here and there which cannot be held, probably due to arcane tax-wrapper regulations.
1.3.3. SIPP (Self-Invested Personal Pension)
This costs £9.99 a month, or £7 a month if you’re a Freetrade Plus member (see below). It was recently launched after a trial period, though truth be told, I haven’t looked into this and don’t plan to just yet. But it’s another tax-wrapper account, and worth looking into if you have a monthly salary/real job and not a strange stipendiary PhD existence like my own.
1.3.4. Freetrade Plus
Freetrade Plus, aka ‘Freemium’, went live on August 6, 2020 (7 months from time of writing), and unless you’re a lucky early investor in Freetrade, it’ll cost you £9.99 per month. Plus gives access to everything in the default, free plan, but also includes the Stocks and Shares ISA (thus an effective £6.99 if you already have this), a £3 discount on the SIPP, and importantly… it allows you to purchase shares in FTSE Small Cap companies (i.e. the FTSE All-Share minus the FTSE 350), FTSE AIM All-Share ex AIM 100, and the S&P SmallCap 600 (more or less extending the range of US stocks to the top 1500 US companies, measured by market cap).
Beyond the increase in the stock universe and the discounts for ISA and SIPP accounts, Plus also gets you 3% interest on cash (up to a maximum of £4000) held in your account, with the interest dished out on the 11th working day of each month (to be even more specific, this is “for interest accrued on the previous month’s holdings. The interest is paid directly into your balance monthly, for every day that month you’re holding cash”). That’s not bad at all, especially if you’re making use of the ISA and have a spare £4000 lying around: the effective interest rate would be 0.9% (after accounting for Freetrade Plus fees), which is far better than most banks’ savings accounts.
Finally, Plus also provides premium features including: limit orders / stop losses / priority customer service / curated stock collections. The first two are extremely helpful for automating the process of buying and selling according to set prices – and better customer service is also helpful, especially if you plan on needing it. As to the fourth? It’s a nice gesture, and I’m curious whether premium subscribers have found it useful.
Now, you may be wondering whether its possible to subscribe to Plus temporarily, only when you want to make use of its premium features (especially to buy the shares behind the paywall). You can do this, and you won’t be forced to sell ‘premium’ stocks after returning to the non-Plus version of the app – but be aware that any cancellation is subject to the following conditions found in Freetrade’s T&Cs:
“If you cancel your status as a Plus user, you will ordinarily not be entitled to sign up for Plus membership for a period of 3 months from the date on which you cancelled […] You are entitled to cancel your status as a Plus user by using the cancellation methods in our mobile application, within 14 days from the date on which you first became a Plus user. If you cancel within this 14-day period, you are entitled to contact us for a refund of all Plus fees that you actually paid and we will treat you as someone who has never been a Plus user.”
1.4. Investing in Investment Trusts via Freetrade
You will have noticed that Freetrade, unlike Hargreaves Lansdown and other established retail investment platforms, does not offer the ability to purchase open-ended (or mutual) funds: collections of usually exchange-listed assets that are actively or passively managed. Freetrade does offer the ability to purchase investment trusts (ITs), however – these are investment companies which are in effect funds, but with a board of directors!
For a number of reasons, I believe ITs are a better vehicle for actively-managed investment, e.g. due to board oversight, their ability to invest in private companies, the ability to leverage (borrow), and not needing to sell down holdings proportionately with investment outflows (thus managers can pick and choose rather than being forced to sell their favourites). If for whatever reason you have no interest in investment trusts, skip to the next section.
I’ve gone through Freetrade’s population of investment trusts (ITs) here – only around 150 at present, out of at least 350 from the UK (not to mention all the REITs from the US) – and differentiated them below according to whether you need Plus to buy them or not. The current list on Freetrade’s website isn’t entirely accurate, be warned – I bought some BGFD (Baillie Gifford Japan Trust) recently and this wasn’t on the list, so I’ve manually added it below. (This illustrates how Freetrade are adding new holdings all the time, and if the stock/IT/ETF you’re looking for isn’t there yet, chances are someone else has already requested it in the forums and it’s soon to be rolled out as part of Freetrade’s roadmap to expansion.)
1.4.1. Baillie Gifford’s ITs
But first, given that a major focus of the blog is investing with Baillie Gifford, it makes sense to include a BG-specific review of what Freetrade has on offer. At the time of writing, with a basic Freetrade account, the majority of Baillie Gifford’s ITs are available for purchase (SMT, MNKS, BGEU, USA, SAIN, BGFD, BGS and EWI). Four of them are unfortunately behind the Plus paywall and require a subscription (PHI, KPC, BGCG, BGUK).
Only one trust isn’t available at all, though this is not an anomaly: MNTN aka Schiehallion, the growth capital IT run by BG. It isn’t aimed at retail investors, but perhaps in the near future it will be added (as of writing, AJ Bell YouInvest seems to be the only retail platform that offers it). I have rather tastefully emphasised Baillie Gifford’s ITs in the lists that follow. Again, if lists of strangely-named investment vehicles churn your stomach, feel free to skip to the next section.
1.4.2. ITs accessible in the free account (A-Z, 46+ trusts)
- Aberforth Smaller Companies Trust (ASL)
- Allianz Technology Trust (ATT)
- Apax Global Alpha Ltd (APAX)
- Baillie Gifford European Growth Trust (BGEU)
- Baillie Gifford Japan Trust (BGFD)
- Baillie Gifford Shin Nippon (BGS)
- Baillie Gifford US Growth Trust (USA)
- Bankers Investment Trust (BNKR)
- BB Healthcare Trust (BBH)
- Blackrock World Mining Trust (BRWM)
- Caledonia Investments (CLDN)
- City of London Investment Trust (CTY)
- Edinburgh Investment Trust (EDIN)
- Edinburgh Worldwide Investment Trust (EWI)
- European Opportunities Trust (JEO)
- Foreign and Colonial Investment Trust (FCIT)
- Foresight Solar Fund Ltd (FSFL)
- GCP Infrastructure Investments Ltd (GCP)
- Henderson Smaller Companies Investment Trust (HSL)
- Herald Investment Trust (HRI)
- ICG Enterprise Trust (ICGT)
- Impax Environmental Markets (IEM)
- JLEN Environmental Assets Group Ltd (JLEN)
- JPMorgan American Investment Trust (JAM)
- JPMorgan Emerging Markets Investment Trust (JMG)
- JPMorgan Japanese Investment Trust (JFJ)
- Law Debenture Corporation (LWDB)
- Monks Investment Trust (MNKS)
- Murray International Trust (MYI)
- NB Global Monthly Income Fund Ltd (NBMI)
- Pantheon International (PIN)
- Pershing Square Holdings Ltd (PSH)
- Personal Assets Trust (PNL)
- Realty Income Corp (O)
- Schroder Oriental Income Fund (SOI)
- Scottish American Investment Company (SAIN)
- Scottish Investment Trust (SCIN)
- Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust (SMT)
- Sequoia Economic Infrastructure Income Fund Ltd (SEQI)
- Smithson Investment Trust (SSON)
- Syncona Ltd (SYNC)
- Temple Bar Investment Trust (TMPL)
- Templeton Emerging Markets Investment Trust (TEM)
- The Mercantile Investment Trust (MRC)
- TR Property Investment Trust (TRY)
- Witan Investment Trust (WTAN)
1.4.3. ITs accessible with Freetrade Plus (A-Z, 107+ trusts)
- Aberdeen Asia Focus Investment Trust (AAS)
- Aberdeen Asian Income Fund Ltd (AAIF)
- Aberdeen Diversified Income And Growth Trust (ADIG)
- Aberdeen New Dawn Investment Trust (ABD)
- Aberdeen New India Investment Trust (ANII)
- Aberdeen Standard Equity Income Trust (ASEI)
- Aberdeen Standard European Logistics Income (ASLI)
- Aberforth Split Level Income Trust (ASIT)
- Artemis Alpha Trust (ATS)
- Asia Dragon Trust (DGN)
- Aurora Investment Trust (ARR)
- AVI Japan Opportunity Trust (AJOT
- Baillie Gifford China Growth (BGCG)
- Baillie Gifford UK Growth Fund (BGUK)
- BH Global Ltd (BHGG)
- BH Macro Ltd (GBP) (BHMG)
- BlackRock Frontiers Investment Trust (BRFI)
- BlackRock Greater Europe Investment Trust (BRGE)
- BlackRock Latin American Investment Trust (BRLA)
- Blackrock North American Income Trust (BRNA)
- BlackRock Throgmorton Trust (THRG)
- BMO Capital and Income Inv Trust (BCI)
- BMO Private Equity Trust (BPET)
- Brunner Investment Trust (BUT)
- Capital Gearing Trust (CGT)
- CC Japan Income & Growth Trust (CCJI)
- Chrysalis Investment Ltd (CHRY)
- CIP Merchant (CIP)
- City Merchants High Yield Trust Ltd (CMHY)
- Dunedin Income Growth Investment Trust (DIG)
- Ecofin Global Utilities & Infrastructure Trust (EGL)
- Electra Private Equity (ELTA)
- EP Global Opportunities Trust (EPG)
- European Assets Trust (EAT)
- Fidelity Asian Values (FAS)
- Fidelity Japan Trust (FJV)
- Fundsmith Emerging Equities Trust (FEET)
- Gabelli Value Plus + Trust (GVP)
- GCP Asset Backed Income Fund Ltd (GABI)
- Henderson Diversified Income (HDIV)
- Henderson European Focus Trust (HEFT)
- Henderson Eurotrust (HNE)
- Henderson Far East Income Ltd (HFEL)
- Henderson High Income Trust (HHI)
- Henderson International Income Trust (HINT)
- ICG-Longbow Senior Secured UK Property Debt Invest (LBOW)
- Independent Investment Trust (IIT)
- International Biotechnology Trust (IBT)
- Invesco Asia Trust (IAT)
- Invesco Income Growth Trust (IVI)
- Invesco Perpetual UK Smaller Cos Inv Tst (IPU)
- JP Morgan Indian Investment Trust (JII)
- JPMorgan Asia Growth and Income (JAGI)
- JPMorgan China Growth & Income (JCGI)
- JPMorgan Claverhouse Investment Trust (JCH)
- JPMorgan European Investment Trust (JETI)
- JPMorgan European Smaller Companies Trust (JESC)
- JPMorgan Global Core (JARA)
- JPMorgan Global Emerging Markets Income Trust (JEMI)
- JPMorgan Global Growth & Income (JGGI)
- JPMorgan Japan Small Cap Growth & Income (JSGI)
- JPMorgan Mid Cap Investment Trust (JMF)
- JPMorgan Russian Securities (JRS)
- JPMorgan Smaller Companies Investment Trust (JMI)
- JPMorgan US Smaller Companies Investment Trust (JUSC)
- Jupiter US Smaller Companies (JUS)
- Keystone Positive Change Investment Trust (KPC)
- Lindsell Train (LTI)
- Lowland Investment Company (LWI)
- M&G Credit Income Investment Trust (MGCI)
- Majedie Investments (MAJE)
- Manchester & London (MNL)
- Martin Currie Global Portfolio Trust (MNP)
- Merchants Trust (MRCH)
- Mid Wynd International Investment Trust (MWY)
- Middlefield Canadian Income (MCT)
- Montanaro European Smaller Companies Trust (MTE)
- Montanaro Uk Smaller Cos Investm Tr (MTU)
- Murray Income Trust (MUT)
- North American Income Trust (NAIT)
- North Atlantic Smaller Companies Inv Trust (NAS)
- Octopus Renewables (ORIT)
- Pacific Assets Trust (PAC)
- Pacific Horizon (PHI)
- Polar Capital Global Financials Trust (PCFT)
- Polar Capital Global Healthcare Trust (PCGH)
- Real Estate Credit Investments Ltd (RECI)
- Riverstone Energy Ltd (RSE)
- Ruffer Investment Co Ltd (RICA)
- Schroder Asian Total Return Investment Company (ATR)
- Schroder Income Growth Fund (SCF)
- Schroder Japan Growth Fund (SJG)
- Schroder Real Estate Investment Trust Ltd (SREI)
- Schroder UK Mid Cap Fund (SCP)
- Scottish Oriental Smaller Cos Trust (SST)
- SDCL Energy Efficiency Income Trust (SEIT)
- Securities Trust of Scotland (STS)
- Standard Life Private Equity Trust (SLPE)
- Standard Life UK Smaller Companies Trust (SLS)
- Strategic Equity Capital (SEC)
- The Biotech Growth Trust (BIOG)
- The Diverse Income Trust (DIVI)
- TR European Growth Trust (TRG)
- Troy Income & Growth Trust (TIGT)
- TwentyFour Income Fund Ltd (TFIF)
- Utilico Emerging Markets Trust (UEM)
- Value and Indexed Property Income Trust (VIP)
1.5. The Freetrade App
The app in its current incarnation has five different tabs: Portfolio, Insights, Discover, Activity and Account. On my Samsung Android phone, I found that the user interface wasn’t remarkably smooth, but neither was it too slow; moving between tabs in the app ‘flowed’ well enough and I have no complaints. I have dark-mode enabled in Android, and it seemed like the app automatically replicated this. In order for you to get a better sense of the UI and each tab, I’ll speak about the first three individually and then the final two together.
The ‘Portfolio’ tab initially contains a graph representing the overall status of your investments, with the ‘My Profile’ shortcut in the top right-hand corner, as per the image. Below this, you can scroll down to view your individual holdings, each of which provide further information on graphed gain/loss over 1 day, 7 days, 1 month, 1 year or “MAX” (which seems to be about 5 years). It also shows the number of shares you hold, price paid, and so on.
Below your investments, you will see any holdings that you have starred and thus added to your Watchlist. Each item has a percentage on the right which represents the monthly gain/loss (there doesn’t seem to be a way to change the time period to daily or weekly). If you’d like to see the daily change, then you’ll have to select the item individually and
The ‘Insights’ tab provides a number of useful graphs and metrics to measure your portfolio. The first is the ‘Portfolio Performance’ section (see image), which shows the money-weighted and time-weighted rates of return respectively. This isn’t perfectly up-to-date (I get the sense that it updates every few hours), but offers a useful way of measuring how well (or badly) your overall investment portfolio is doing. It can be adjusted according to the last week, month or the maximum period (i.e., ever since you started investing using a Freetrade account).
The second section of the Insights tab is ‘Portfolio Breakdown’: this shows a pie chart with the relative proportions of your holdings, according to type (stocks/cash/commodities/bonds) and sector (e.g. finance, tech, other). Given that all my current holdings are investment trusts, I expected that they would be part of the same ‘sector’, but it seems that some are classified as ‘Other’ and some as ‘Finance’. I assume that this section is likely to be more useful if you are a stock-picker, rather than an IT investor like myself.
Discover allows you to search, either by the ticker symbol, or keywords that correspond to the name of the share/ETF you are looking for. Once you have selected something, you will be showed a graph of the recent share price (which can be adjusted according to the desired period of time), as well as ‘stats’ (see the Temple Bar example), including basic pricing data, dividend yield, P/E ration and market capitalisation.
The Key Information Document is pretty boring but necessary (it contains little ‘Key’ information beyond regulatory statements about risk). ‘Costs and charges’ is helpful, although I question its accuracy. I looked at the charges for SMT (Scottish Mortgage IT) and it stated that the ongoing charges are 0.69%, which is objectively false (see here).
Beyond the basic stats/data, perhaps the most useful element of Freetrade’s share-specific info is the “Join the discussion” link, which takes you directly to the community forums where you can read previous discussion about the share or pose questions you may have about it. Some popular shares/ETFs/ITs have been discussed to a greater or lesser degree (e.g. SMT), but many others are still lacking meaningful discussion.
1.5.4. Activity & Account
The ‘Activity’ tab is straightforward: it provides a log of all transactions associated with your account, whether purchases of shares, sales, top-ups or withdrawals. You can see contract notes here and cancelled orders, and Monthly Statements can be downloaded or shared (in PDF format) here (these contain a summary of your portfolio and the positions you currently hold).
The ‘Account’ tab shows how much cash you have available to invest, how much may be withdrawn, how much is ‘unsettled’ (i.e. money from recent sell orders that hasn’t yet been settled: this can be re-invested before settlement, but not withdrawn), and how much cash is reserved for buy orders. This is also where you can both top-up and withdraw funds using a linked bank account.
1.6. Buying and Selling
Buying and selling shares on Freetrade is easy enough assuming your intention is long-term investment. As per the image, for each transaction the fees and number of expected shares (whether whole or fractional) are transparent, although only estimates. You cannot buy according to a specified number of shares, but only a specific amount of £. Fractional shares, e.g. of Tesla, are available for certain stocks in the US (but they haven’t rolled out for UK & beyond just yet). Monthly direct debits and automated share purchases appears on the Freetrade roadmap, but as of yet is still unavailable.
1.6.1. Share blocks
When you buy or sell, Freetrade aggregates together blocks of shares from multiple users; this is likely to cause some delay compared to more traditional brokers (though when I bought my ITs, I barely noticed anything). Nevertheless, this does probably mean smaller spreads and fewer transaction costs for Freetrade, who would otherwise need to pay transaction costs for multiple tiny trades (the minimum purchase is £2, from what I can tell). A free trading service needs to cut costs somewhere! There are obviously benefits here for investors who have minimal capital, but it does mean that those interested in timing the market or buying volatile shares can end up disappointed.
Related to this is the fact that all price data shown in-app has a 15 minute delay; you cannot be 100% certain what price you will pay or receive when making a share transaction. It seems that many newbies to the financial market (particularly during the GameStop debacle) did not understand this, and were sorely disappointed with the executed prices when buying highly volatile shares. The lesson here is not to rely on Freetrade for your pricing data if you are planning to (attempt to) time the market. It’s probably better to use something like this instead, alongside Freetrade’s platform. They may well implement real-time share prices in the future, but given their focus on investment (and not trading), one can understand why this has been on the backburner.
2. The Good
2.1. It’s personal
Firstly, one thing that stands out is that Freetrade seems to have a good corporate culture that is distinctly humane. It offers a product that seeks to be attentive to the realities of the attention economy and the depersonalisation that can occur with financial & digital-only services. I certainly appreciated receiving emails during the onboarding process from actual people who I could address by name: not a generic ‘[email protected]’ or something similar.
I dislike dealing with The Machine on my smartphone machine, preferring the semblance of humanity. Even if Freetrade does take a long time to respond back (as some disgruntled users report), at least communications are signed off by human beings to whom you can reply!
2.2. Boring for addicts
Expanding on my mention of the ‘attention economy’, if anyone has experienced the daily addiction that I call “just checking on my investments”, you will be pleased to know that Freetrade largely thwarts this bad habit. When you look at your holdings and the watchlist, the app only displays the monthly price change percentages.
For information addicts like myself, pining to see the daily fluctuations (despite knowing how irrational this is), I certainly appreciate the app’s reticence. It helps prevent investors from developing (regressing?) into a trader or speculator mindset, and it makes the app pretty boring. That’s a huge positive – who needs to spend any more time unnecessarily checking out apps on their phones!?
It’s possible that in the future, Freetrade will allow users to change the default time period for reporting price-changes, but my sincere hope is that the monthly display was intentional on their part (given the stated investment focus) and that they will leave it as is.
Freetrade has enabled its users and other interested retail investors to buy equity in the company through Crowdcube. This arguably increases mutual respect and responsibility between Freetrade’s management, staff and the investor-user base. A hasty survey of the forums reveals that when users invest in the company, they also become invested emotionally and intellectually in its sustainable growth and wellbeing — willing to stick with it in tough times, keen to engage in the community forums, respectful of the staff, and eager to provide constructive feedback about Freetrade’s shortcomings and roadmap for expansion.
In short, by opening up investment beyond the private equity sphere to average Joe’s like you or me, Freetrade are fostering a multiple-stakeholder business ecosystem, and all that goodwill is likely to have objectively positive consequences in the long-run.
2.4. IPO & SPAC focus
In keeping with the above, another element that I’d like to highlight is the emphasis on IPOs (and SPACs). Part of Freetrade’s mission is to democritise access to the financial markets (this sounds clichéd now, admittedly), and many platforms have done so but nevertheless shied away from prioritising reporting on, and access to, emerging investment opportunities — assuming, perhaps, that this was too complex for retail investors. But given that educational resources about investment and the financial markets (for example, those offered by Freetrade itself) are everywhere, it certainly isn’t improper to assume that investors, on an investment platform, might actually want to participate in IPOs and get on the SPAC train, while being aware of the danger.
The various email newsletters that Freetrade offer illustrate well their commitment to providing genuine informative, qualitative value for investors – particularly those who are learning – rather than engaging in quantitative spam-culture about ‘all-the-latest-hot-shares-but-this-isn’t-investment-advice’.
I have been particularly impressed with the quality of the weekly emails, which drop on Saturdays, and are typically deep dives into both perennial and contemporary investment-related topics (I haven’t tried out ‘Honey’ yet, the daily market update; I’m ambivalent about the fact it exists, but nevertheless appreciate the fact that it’s marketed as being “short and sweet”).
2.6. Free Shares
Finally, the Free Share offer is a smart, domain-specific incentive for both current and prospective users to further expand Freetrade’s user base. It is probability-weighted towards cheaper shares, so a £200 share is very unlikely. It also takes a while for the free shares to be allocated, which has caused some consternation among expectant freeloaders (see the Freetrade forums or Play store reviews for ample evidence).
In the interests of full disclosure, I partially wanted to test out the app because I liked the idea of receiving free shares, particularly of Baillie Gifford investment trusts. Although, as I always discover, obtaining ‘free’ things costs a non-negligible amount of time and energy. For example, trying my best to write a genuine, considered review of Freetrade (which is now irritatingly over 7000 words).
3. The Bad
3.1. Fundamental metrics lacking
I’m not impressed by the fundamental data Freetrade provides for the stocks in its universe. Want to know the top 10 holdings of a certain investment trust or ETF? You’ll have to check elsewhere, because Freetrade doesn’t report on this. Although there may be licensing (and thus £ involved), one simple fix would be to link to Morningstar’s daily factsheets (as the AIC has here, in the final column).
Moreover, the lack of data regarding cash flow, accounts of the company, dividend data (including ex-dividend dates, previous dividends values) and so on… these reduce the efficiency and experience of Freetrade as an app, because one has to use other tools. In and of itself, this isn’t a problem: Google and Yahoo and a host of other free services can provide this data. But ideally one would find it built in to the app, or at minimum a link to free market data services while an in-house solution is being implemented. As of April 2021, Freetrade claim that they are exploring this, but its not yet something they’re working on (see third section here).
3.2. Market price delay
While on the one hand I understand why rectifying this hasn’t been a priority, current market data isn’t only useful if you’re a technical analyst. In fact, it’s possibly less useful for you in that case, because enduring trends (based on previous data, usually of more than 15 minutes in duration) is what would guide your buy/sell movements. But, for an average investor like myself, it’s helpful to know what the actual price is when I submit my order.
For instance, if you wanted to buy something as soon as the market opens, the price may have temporarily skyrocketed or tanked — and you wouldn’t know! You could argue that no investor worth their salt ought to be buying during volatile, peak trading times, but sometimes it’s entirely rational to buy/sell as early (or late) as you possibly can during market hours, especially if the market is soon to, or in the process of, pricing in new information about the stock. Current pricing data enables you to do this well. This is a similar critique to the lack of fundamental metrics, and at this stage in their roadmap, Freetrade requires you to go elsewhere to get good market data. As a certain ‘Lemon Daddy’ loudly lamented in a Play store review on 26 March 2021 (he/she clearly got burned):
“AVOID AT ALL COST!! The instant order selling price doesn’t match what you would get. You can potentially make a loss when you think you can make a profit.”
3.3. National Declaration stocks
The cost-saving method by which Freetrade blocks shares together has a downside: some stocks are unavailable because they require additional reporting about the nationality of the person purchasing the shares, and for whatever reason, Freetrade have yet to find a way around this issue.
Rolls Royce (RR), International Consolidated Airlines Group (IAG, owner of British Airways), and BAE Systems (among others) are unavailable for purchase despite being within the FTSE 350 stock universe. As one forum member put it, “National Declaration stocks have been an issue for [Freetrade] since 2018.” Nevertheless, the vast majority of FTSE stocks are available to purchase, so if you’re not interested in RR, IAG, BAE et al, this is a non-issue.
3.4. Where are the pies?
The idea of a pie – with a number of slices (i.e. holdings), divided according to desired proportions – is in my opinion a fascinating and brilliant innovation. In a sentence, it allows retail traders to create their own mutual funds/investment trusts. I have encountered this function on Trading212, and I hear that eToro has something similar. It seems to work only in the context of commission-free trading services, because otherwise the transaction costs would be prohibitive.
Ignoring the social trading element of this (that one person’s pie can be viewed and copied by another), investing in pies can save a great deal of time, because you don’t need to think about proportions, and there is no need to give individual buy/sell instructions. Typically, the pie functionality enables a form of dividend re-investment at a pie-level rather than individual share level. This entails that dividend income itself can be diversified, and reinvested according to the desired pie proportions rather than directly back into the stock whence it came (very useful if you have so-called ‘sin stocks’ that you want only to provide income, not to grow significantly in share count).
Moreover, an automatic “rebalance” function drastically simplifies the portfolio rebalancing process, as all the sales and purchases are automated and you can avoid the psychological distress of selling your beloved winners (or buying more of those red stocks). Where, therefore, are the pies in Freetrade? They don’t need to call it a pie, of course. But they don’t have any pies yet, and this is a great pity.
3.5. The price of freemium
Freetrade Plus is, IMHO, slightly on the expensive side, unless you make use of the ISA, SIPP and/or hold a large sum of cash in your account for the nominal 3% interest (then it’s definitely worth it). A lower pricing point (e.g. £5 or £6 per month) would bring it down into a competitive annual fee range for more established retail brokerage platforms. As its user base scales, I can only hope that the fee will be lowered. However, for long-term investors, becoming a Freetrade Plus member periodically, whenever you plan to buy or top up certain pay-walled stocks, is a decent option; the £9.99 fee, every few months, is negligible compared to what trading commissions are elsewhere.
3.6. Moving abroad is a deal-breaker
Finally, unlike a number of more established investment platforms, if you are planning to move abroad and cease being a UK tax resident, you’ll have to close or transfer all your Freetrade accounts (including ISA or SIPP) unless you are moving to the EU, or potentially Australia (where the app is apparently launching this year). This is a real pity, because strictly speaking it isn’t a legal requirement: investment platforms are allowed to keep accounts of former residents open, but simply cannot allow new funds to be added. It’s a decision Freetrade have taken to avoid the complexities of international tax regulations and compliance. See their article here.
4. The Ugly
There may be a heading for this, but there’s no content beyond this disclaimer. Freetrade looks just fine.
Alright, with the exception of The Ugly, that’s the long of it. Now for the short.
5.1. All in favour…
I would say Freetrade is likely a good investment platform if:
1) you have a legit bank account and are appropriately domiciled in the UK or wherever next the company expands to;
2) you can mostly find the shares/ETFs/ITs that you want to buy on their platform;
3) you have no serious intentions of timing or gambling in the financial markets;
4) your capital to invest is minimal enough that commissions would truly hurt (usually £5+ per transaction on established platforms);
5) you want to become part of a growing and (at this point) respectable retail investor community;
6) you don’t mind using other, more comprehensive market data services until Freetrade sorts out their data game;
7) you don’t mind waiting a while for human responses from their costumer service staff, and lastly;
8) you don’t want to be addicted to checking your investments through the app, but have better things to do.
5.2. And all against…
On the flip side, it’s probably not a good idea if:
1) you’re planning to move abroad outside of Freetrade’s sphere of operations (you’ll likely be forced to close your accounts at this stage);
2) you want to buy (mutual) funds as well as shares, or Freetrade simply doesn’t have shares you want (and are unlikely to add them for technical reasons, e.g. Rolls Royce);
3) you want to trade frequently (intra-day, day, swing or otherwise) and time the markets using technical; analysis;
4) you’re investing extremely large amounts of money;
5) you have little interest in selecting your own investments, but would prefer a ready-made portfolio;
6) you want prompt/immediate costumer service; and lastly,
7) you’re a full-time investor and need quick access to accurate fundamental & market data in-app.
5.3. Keen to sign up?
After all that, Freetrade might sound like it’s worth a try. If so, you can sign up to Freetrade here (using my referral link) and we’ll both receive a free share worth up to £200, and I sincerely hope (although doubt) that it will be a Baillie Gifford investment trust. Still, the chances aren’t too bad, given that they’re generally priced at less than £15 and there’s a bunch of them in the FTSE 350.
Also, if you’re considering Hargreaves Lansdown and/or Trading212 as potential alternatives to Freetrade, I’ve written about them (briefly, not systematically) in the Appendix, as I have experience using both.
6. Appendix: Freetrade versus…
6.1. Hargreaves Lansdown (HL)
6.1.1. Decent for buying and holding shares
As the UK’s largest retail investor platform/second-largest wealth management platform in the UK (after Aviva), Hargreaves Lansdown has scale and market share to its advantage: it is well established, profit-making, and not subject to the dangers to which start-ups like Freetrade can be exposed.
Assuming you only invest in shares (i.e. companies, ETFs and investment trusts), at the time of writing, HL only charges a maximum of £45 per year on its GIA or various ISA options: just under £4 per month. Thus if you plan to buy and hold, trade very seldomly, and/or buy shares via scheduled monthly debit (at only £1.5 per trade), then HL is decently priced and an extremely safe option for retail investors, with excellent costumer service. The fact that they offer a Lifetime ISA is also firmly in HL’s favour (though I’m certain this is something Freetrade wants to implement in the future, all things being equal). Unlike Freetrade, if you move abroad at any point, you aren’t required to close your HL accounts (whether GIA or ISAs), though as per regulations cannot add any more funds to them.
6.1.2. But perhaps still too expensive
Nevertheless, HL’s base trading charge of £11.95 is painful when compared to Freetrade and other similar commission-free retail trading platforms. With HL, buying or selling a holding has inherent pecuniary and psychological barriers. Even if you achieve ‘Frequent Trader’ status on HL (more than 20 trades in the previous month), there is still a £5.95 fee per purchase/sale. This is not a problem if you have a large portfolio where costs from ~£6 to £12 are a drop in a bucket (or the ocean), or if you are prone to speculative trading. Sometimes constraints are good, and significant costs can incentivise responsible decisions. But, if you are a resident of the UK (or soon, the EU+), have sufficient discipline not to trade whenever the fancy strikes, plan to make occasional trades, and have a portfolio in which ~£12 is not a negligible sum, then Freetrade is almost certainly a better option in my opinion.
6.2. Trading212 (T212)
Trading212 and Freetrade are the two main competitors in the UK’s app-based, commission-free trading realm (see the related Google Trend queries here). As someone wrote in a Freetrade community forum post, comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. In other words, they’re both fruit – but each has a different flavour, texture and nutritional value. My initial conclusion is that I think both platforms are worth a try. But despite Freetrade’s shortcomings relative to T212, I think it is the better long-term platform for investment.
6.2.1. Financially-derivative culture
In terms of market audience, Trading212 is more aimed at trading and traders: it makes a profit primarily from those who use its CFD (derivative) account offering. One might (unsympathetically) assume that its GIA and ISA accounts are ‘gateway drugs’ to engaging in CFD and other forms of speculative trading. In any case, upon inspection of its app and web platform, its clear that the focus is less on long-term investing (although this focus does exist elsewhere) and more on trading in the financial markets: the extensive technical analysis features offered by T212 are testament to this fact. During the GameStop saga in late January, it became apparent that T212 was the UK/European ‘Robinhood’, as it was the “stonking” platform of choice for many retail traders/speculators. Nevertheless, few real traders use it for this purpose: sometimes fees are worth it (see this discussion for example). For a number of months, T212 has not been onboarding any new clients, due to the aftermath of the GameStop saga and stampede of new (soon to be irate) clients to their platform. Many expected that T212 would re-open registrations for the new financial year (i.e. early April 2021), but that was a false hope.
6.2.2. Many praiseworthy traits
As I went into some detail in the review above, T212’s Autoinvest/Pie function is praiseworthy, and enables diversified, automated, compounding investment (assuming you don’t make silly pies full of speculative stocks). At present T212 offers better ‘fundamental’ information on shares compared to Freetrade (cash flow, income, etc), though it’s by no means perfect: it doesn’t yet provide ‘X-ray’ vision into the underlying holdings of investment trusts and ETFs, which are crucial data.
With regard to costs, T212’s pricing is certainly cheaper than Freetrade’s. It only has 0.15% FX costs (compared to 0.5% with Freetrade). It has no charges/commissions for buying/selling, beyond the unavoidable ones (e.g. stamp duty for UK stocks). There are no monthly fees whatsoever for the GIA or ISA (or CFD) accounts. Unlike Freetrade, there is no premium version of the app offering special privileges: what you see is what you can get; there is no paywall. Indeed, T212’s stock universe is far more diverse and expansive compared to Freetrade’s, and you can also get hold of the so-called “National Declaration” stocks like IAG, RR and BAE in T212.
From my brief sniffing around T212 forums/FAQs, it appears they will not shut down your account if you happen to move abroad to the EU or where they are already present, although if you move beyond these trading-friendly climes, they will likely want to close your accounts. In this respect, they are similar to Freetrade. Oh, and they also do the Free Share thing to incentivise the expansion of their user-base.
6.2.3. Different models, divergent prospects?
I’m somewhat divided as to which is better. T212 is an older, more mature business than Freetrade, and is overall cheaper, with a much larger range of securities (stocks) available for non-paywalled purchase. The miserly penny-pincher in me likes T212 for this reason. Yet their business model’s source of profitability (based on derivative trading) exposes T212 to the systemic risks inherent in the financial market to a far greater degree than Freetrade: if things go pear-shaped (to keep with the fruit metaphor) and the financial markets crash, revenue will be hard to come by when all the small-time speculators see red and are declared insolvent. To foster a trading/speculative culture, although lucrative when things are booming, makes for bad business when things are busting.
On the flipside, Freetrade – which makes its money through subscriptions for ISAs, SIPPs & Plus – has a user-base that is likely to be financially more conservative (relatively) in their trading/investment decisions, and will sit tight (if somewhat glumly) as the markets tank. Because of its culture and user base, I suspect Freetrade is the more sustainable, long-term platform: it has far more scalability & thus ability to cut costs. Their addressable market is arguably much larger: “investment” is an easy thing to sell to mature, financially-literate and illiterate people. Moreover, investment is relatively easy to teach. But derivative trading with contracts for difference (CFDs)? Only fools (~75%) and savants (~25%) are tempted to make this profitable. While the financially (and psychologically) literate savants might succeed, the poor fools get burned, possibly indebted, and – if they re-emerge – become acolytes of passive index fund investing. In terms of commission-free trading platforms, Freetrade edges out T212 based on its funding model and long-term relevance to market participants.
Questions and comments are appreciated below, particularly if I’ve written something incorrect, unfair, or the content is out of date. And if you’re too lazy to scroll up again, you can find my Freetrade referral link here and we’ll both receive that oft-cited free share worth between £3 and £200.