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Direct Market Access

Small Business Accounts. Robinhood, and the rest of the online brokerage industry, rely on what's known as payment for order flow as their profit engine in lieu of commissions. The pioneer of "free trading," Robinhood's business model hinges on the back end payments, since the other brokers have established other revenue streams and only recently slashed commissions. Thanks to a recent change in SEC rules, these brokers are now required to give more disclosures on how trades are executed, and how much money they bring in for firms.

Payment for order flow is a common practice but it's often criticized for its lack of transparency.

Pricing And Trading Fees | Commission-Free | TradeStation

It has become especially vital to companies' bottom line after commissions went to zero. Market makers, such as Citadel Securities or Virtu, pay e-brokers like Robinhood for the right to execute customer trades. The broker is then paid a small fee for the shares that are routed, which can add up to millions when customers trade as actively as they have this year. We have relationships with a number of market makers in an effort to optimize speed and execution quality," a Robinhood spokesperson told CNBC. This year's regulatory reports showed a significant rise in payment for order flow in the second quarter, according to company disclosures and analysis by Piper Sandler.

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Robinhood attracts the highest rate for equity trades, according to the documents, at 17 cents per hundred shares. Charles Schwab, by comparison, makes 11 cents per hundred shares. For options trading, the disparity is even bigger. TD Ameritrade and Robinhood make by far the most off of options at 58 cents.

Schwab and E-Trade make 37 cents and 46 cents, respectively. According to the disclosures, Robinhood saw the biggest increase quarter over quarter of any brokerage firm, with order flow nearly doubling. Payment for order flow is typically paid on a per share basis. Robinhood, however, receives a fixed rate per spread which is higher than the average rate the other major brokers receive.

Order Execution

The boom in order flow coincided with record retail trading activity and new customer accounts across the industry. Robinhood surged in popularity, adding 3 million customers this year alone, according to the company. Because options are traded less frequently, there's a larger spread between the bid, or the price buyers are willing to pay, and the ask, or the price sellers want, said Tim Welsh, founder and CEO of wealth management consulting firm Nexus Strategy.

Welsh said retail brokers "without a doubt" steer customers to options trades since those provide the bigger payday.

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These complicated trades give clients the option to buy or sell securities at predetermined prices. The process is typically used by professional traders, such as hedge funds. The technique tends to be more speculative — it gives clients more ability to use leverage, and therefore more upside.

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