Motif Investing Review 2017

Brokers, Investing

Motif Investing is a unique offering: Part broker, part portfolio manager and part idea-generation tool, the company lets investors trade stocks and exchange-traded funds — including fractional shares — for just $4.95. It also allows users to build and trade “motifs” — themed collections of up to 30 stocks or ETFs — for just $9.95.

In addition, the company offers Motif Blue, an automated investing and rebalancing service that starts at $4.95 per month.


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Quick Facts

  • Commission: $4.95 per share; $9.95 per motif. Automated investing starts at $4.95 per month.
  • Account minimum: $0
  • Promotion: Try Motif Blue for one month free.

Motif Investing is best for:

  • Those who want to buy fractional shares of stocks or ETFs.
  • Thematic or impact investors.
  • Those who want to invest in IPOs.
  • ETF investors.

Motif Investing at a glance

CategoryRatingDescription
Overall

Stock trading costs$4.95 per share; $9.95 per motif
Subscription feeFor investors who enroll in Motif Blue:
• Blue Starter: $4.95 per month
• Blue Standard: $9.95 per month
• Blue Unlimited: $19.95 per month
Options tradesNot ratedNot available.
Account minimumNo minimum, but a $300 balance is required to invest in a motif.
Account fees (annual, transfer, closing, inactivity)No inactivity or annual fees; $95 IRA closure fee; $65 full account securities transfer out fee
Trading platformBasic web trading, including alerts and watch lists. Investors can buy and sell stocks using market and limit orders, but stop and stop-limit orders are supported only when selling.
Mobile appFeature-rich: Investors can track and benchmark motifs, browse new ones and view a tailored news feed.
Mutual fundsNot ratedNot available
Commission-free ETFsHorizon motifs are commission free. Other ETFs are commission-free with Motif Blue subscription.
Research and data• Standard quote pages with key financial information, news and a stream of tweets referencing that ticker. Quotes are real time on trade pages and delayed 15 minutes on all other pages.
• Motif Blue Standard and Unlimited subscribers get Motif Capital market reports.
• Motif Blue Unlimited subscribers get real-time quotes on all pages.
Tradable securities• Stocks and ETFs available as fractional shares, individual shares and in motifs.
• IPOs.
• ADRs (American depository receipts; foreign stocks listed on U.S. exchanges).
Customer support/branchesPhone support Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern. Email and text support.
Promotion 1 month free trial of Motif Blue

Where Motif Investing shines

Flexibility: Motif Investing meets the needs of many different types of investors. Those who want to trade individual stocks and ETFs can do so, and have access to all U.S.-listed securities. Users also trade stocks in dollar amounts — say, $5,000 of Apple — rather than by the share, which means fractional shares are available and the service is suitable for small-dollar investors.

Then there are the motifs, which allow investors to build their own small-scale funds out of up to 30 stocks or ETFs. Account holders can access a catalog of pre-built options — some created by Motif Investing, some by other investors who have opted to publicly share — create one from scratch, or customize an existing motif.

Motif also offers American depository receipts, which trade on U.S. markets but represent shares in foreign companies. They’re issued by a U.S. bank or brokerage, and investors use them to get around the difficulties of buying foreign stocks.

Motifs: These are the foundation of Motif Investing and the feature that really makes the company stand out. The motifs fall into two overarching categories: professional motifs and community motifs. The professional motifs are built by Motif Investing, and the community motifs are built by investors on the platform who choose to share their motifs.

The depth here is impressive: Those who want to purchase a pre-built model can use tools to explore the options, including filters that search by professional or community, by category — such as green investing, financial services, social causes, health care, energy and natural resources — and by custom search terms.

A search of “technologies,” for instance, turns up 45 professional motifs, nearly 5,000 community motifs and a list of individual stocks. The platform lists key information right in the search result, including a one-month trend, a quick description and a trade button.

The catalog maintains lists of motifs sorted by performance, most purchased and highest dividend yield, alongside a ranking of 30-day winners and 30-day losers.

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And then there are the Horizon Model motifs, which function like target-date funds, investing with a specific date in mind and reducing risk as that date approaches. The professionally built Horizon Model motifs are commission-free, but if you customize them or opt to rebalance outside of the set schedule, commissions do apply.

To build your own motif, search stocks and ETFs, add the ones you want and adjust their weighting by either customizing each selection or allocating weighting evenly or by market capitalization. The tool automatically shows how your motif would’ve performed over the last year, benchmarking against the S&P 500, and that performance measure adjusts as you add and remove investments or change the weighting.

Low costs: When compared with buying individual stocks or ETFs, a motif is a bargain at just $9.95. (Remember, motifs comprise up to 30 ETFs or individual stocks.) Investors also pay $9.95 to sell motifs, make an additional investment into a motif or rebalance a motif. And at just $4.95, commissions on individual stocks and ETFs are in line with those charged by some of the deepest discount brokers, such as TradeKing and OptionsHouse.

Theme-based guidance: If you’re a mission-driven investor, meaning you want to know that your investments align with your values or support specific industries you believe in, Motif might be attractive. As noted above, the company makes it easy to sort motifs by categories, and you can easily build your own with stocks and ETFs that align with your values. In this way, the service is similar to Stash, which also helps investors identify ETFs that align with their values, but Motif offers a much wider selection at arguably lower costs than Stash, which has a subscription-fee model.

IPOs: Motif provides access to select initial public offerings with no trading commission or fee. Account holders can browse upcoming IPOs on the site and indicate their interest or sign up to be notified about upcoming IPOs via email. The company offers fractional shares, but investors must commit a minimum of $250 to participate in an IPO. Like stock orders, IPO orders are placed in dollar amounts rather than by share.

Where Motif Investing falls short

Motif Blue: We’re on the fence about this newer offering from the company, which is a subscription model launched toward the end of 2016. The service brings automated investing to Motif Investing’s lineup, allowing account holders to buy into their chosen motifs at a set frequency — biweekly, monthly, quarterly or annually — without paying a commission each time.

Instead, investors pay a flat monthly fee depending on the service level:

  • Blue Starter: $4.95 per month to auto-invest in and auto-rebalance one motif.
  • Blue Standard: $9.95 per month to auto-invest in three motifs and auto-rebalance any professional motif. Also includes Motif Capital market reports and one commission-free trade (stock or motif) per month.
  • Blue Unlimited: $19.95 to auto-invest in three motifs and auto-rebalance any professional motif. Includes Motif Capital market reports, three commission-free trades (stock or motif) per month and real-time stock quotes on all pages. Motif Standard customers can make unlimited next market open trades — which are scheduled to be executed at market open the next trading day — commission-free.

There’s a decent amount of fine print here: Motif Blue automatically rebalances portfolios every Monday at 9:30 a.m. Eastern, and only professional motifs are eligible. The service currently allows only reinvestment in motifs you’ve built or the company’s professional motifs; motifs from other investors and individual stocks aren’t eligible.

If you’re an investor who dollar-cost averages into the market, putting money into the same investment on a regular basis, you could save on commissions with Motif Blue. But it’s important to compare costs.

First, that savings assumes you’re investing in commissioned funds or individual stocks. You could easily build a portfolio of commission-free ETFs or no-transaction-fee mutual funds at another broker and pay nothing for each subsequent contribution. Outside of the Horizon Model motifs and this Motif Blue service, Motif doesn’t offer any ETFs commission-free. Frequent ETF traders might save money at a broker that does.

The other comparison investors should make is to a robo-advisor, which would offer commission-free access to ETFs and auto-rebalancing for a management fee of around 0.25%. On $10,000, that works out to $25 per year; investors in Motif Blue would pay $60 on the same balance. But on larger account balances — basically anything above $24,000 — Motif Blue investors could save money over typical robo-advisor management fees.

Of course, Motif Investing differentiates itself with all the qualities highlighted above: the ability to build or find a motif that aligns with a particular mission or value system, auto-rebalancing combined with the hands-on investing of building your own motifs, and the flexibility of fractional shares.

No dividend reinvestment: If a stock in one of your motifs pays a dividend, those additional shares are credited to the motif. But cash dividends are credited back to your account balance, and you’ll need to reinvest them manually — and potentially at a commission).

Minimal trading tools: Motif Investing seems in part to target active traders, but the service lacks some of the features these traders typically want, including diverse research, analysis tools and a variety of order options. For example, traders can use stop and stop-limit orders only on sell orders. (For more on what those terms mean, see our post on how to buy stocks.)

Is Motif Investing right for you?

There are plenty of investors who will love this kind of service: You can get your hands dirty and customize a portfolio at a low cost. The ability to trade up to 30 stocks or ETFs for one low commission is truly noteworthy, as is the support in finding investments that align with your values. Motif is also one of the best services for diversifying a small investment, either by investing in motifs or buying stocks and ETFs in fractional shares.

On the other hand, Motif might not be the right choice for investors who prefer a hands-off approach — a robo-advisor might make more sense in those cases. And someone who wants to build a portfolio of commission-free ETFs or no-transaction-fee mutual funds, or trade other strategies like options, might also prefer another brokerage.

Arielle O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: aoshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @arioshea.

Updated Feb. 2, 2017.