The next time you talk to a stockbroker, or if you ever talk to one, ask how long it takes to execute a $20,000 order. Then ask how long it takes to execute a $2,000 order. The amount of time, you'll find, is the same. Still, the $20,000 order will cost you several times as much as the $2,000 order. Numbers like these have pushed a a lot of people into the arms of discount brokers in the last decade or so. While discounters also charge more for larger orders than for small ones, the discounters still charge a lot less than full-commission brokers.
Even so, there are plenty of reasons for using full-commission brokers - or, as they prefer, ``full service'' brokers - at least part of the time. Many investors like getting research reports; they may appreciate being called occasionally about truly good investment opportunities; and they may like having someone with whom they can discuss their overall investment picture.
Still, there are ways you can spend at least a little less for a full-commission broker's services, and perhaps get a better relationship in the bargain.
The first step is to call several brokers and ask for quotes on different dollar amounts you're likely to be trading. Some brokers also give quotes for a specific number of shares at so much per share.
Don't be surprised to hear a wide range of prices. In fact, some callers conducting a recent survey found two different quotes from two brokers in the same office of the same firm.
``That doesn't really surprise me,'' says David Drucker, a financial planner in Bethesda, Md. ``Brokers have a little leeway in discounting commissions.''
``I don't know how that happened,'' says Paul Burch, a broker with Prudential-Bache Securities in Washington. ``They should have gotten a printed quote.'' If the broker does have a schedule of fees, ask for a copy.
There is, as Mr. Drucker says, some flexibility. After you've been one broker's customer for a while and have used the brokerage's services on a fairly regular basis, you should expect some breaks. At some, better customers can get savings of up to 30 percent. Though your savings may not be that great, you should eventually get something. These discounts are not part of a schedule; it's up to the discretion of the broker.
Even if you do a lot of business with the firm, however, there is a way you can be cut out of discounts altogether. Some brokers call this the ``hassle factor,'' and it's applied to customers who call almost every day for price quotes, who frequently buy and sell small amounts of stock, or who often lose records that have to be replaced by the brokerage. Again, it's at the broker's discretion, but these people may get no discount at all.
When you're gathering quotes, remember that orders of different sizes often have different rates. If you buy 200 shares at $50 a share, it might cost $190, while 500 shares of the same stock could cost $250.
In his office, Burch says, brokers just charge dollar amounts. A $1,500 order costs $50.75; a $10,000 order, $173.25; and a $25,000 order, $356.75.
When you actually place an order, try to make it in ``round lots'' of 100 shares. If you buy in ``odd lots'' of less than 100 shares, your commission costs can go up substantially. Usually, an odd-lot purchase costs you one-eighth of a point, or 12 cents extra a share; that is, you pay 12 cents more per share when you buy, or get 12 cents less when you sell.
If you can't avoid trading in odd lots, there is still a way to save, if your stock is traded on the New York or American Stock Exchanges. If the broker has your order at least 15 minutes before the opening of the market in the morning, he or she will lump it in with other odd lots to create round lots that can be processed at the opening.
But this is for ``market'' orders only, where you trade at the stock's opening price; you cannot place a ``limit'' order to buy or sell the security at a specific price or better. In most cases, however, this isn't enough risk to offset the savings from not having to trade in odd lots.