Money at 30: Public Stock Trading App Review
If you’re in the market for an affordable and easy-to-use brokerage account, you’re certainly not alone. Thanks in part to unique market conditions as well as the recent “Gamestonk” phenomenon (including the Robinhood fallout from the event), there seems to be a new level of excitement surrounding FinTech trading apps. This gave me the perfect excuse to revisit Public; a free trading app I’ve had installed on my phone for months but hadn’t had the chance to actually try.
Now that I’ve taken Public for a spin, would I recommend the app to new users or those seeking to move their money? Let’s take a closer look at the offerings, its features, and what makes it unique in its field.
What is Public and How Does it Work?
Signing up for Public
In order to open a brokerage account with Public, you’ll need to enter your personal information, including your name, age, address, phone number, and Social Security number. On that note, you may also be required to confirm your Social by uploading images of your SSN card. Be aware that, to open an account, you must be 18 years of age or older, have a valid SSN, have a legal U.S. residential address, and be a U.S. citizen, U.S. permanent resident or have a valid visa.
What makes Public different
Recently, Public made a major change to their business model that’s worth pointing out. In February 2021, they announced that they’d no longer be utilizing Payment for Order Flow to monetize. PFOF, which is used by several commission-free trading apps, is a practice where brokerages route customer trades through larger firms in order to receive a commission — something Public sees as a conflict of interest. Now, Public in partnership with their clearing firm (Apex) are routing trades directly to their respective exchanges.
As a result of this change, Public now offers in-app tipping for trades. While this is not required, tips will help the app replace the lost revenue. Tips are also limited to 5% of the trade amount. Again, these tips are completely optional but represent a key way in which Public is differentiating itself from the pack.
Transferring your portfolio
Something else I want to note before we jump into the Public platform itself is that the service is currently aiming to make it easier for customers to move their portfolios over. To do this, not only is Public not charging any fees on their end but will also cover any fees you incur from your previous brokerage account. I have yet to actually go through this process so I can’t speak to how this all works, but you can find more info in the app or on their Transfer Wizard site. However, one good-to-know item I did notice was that, if the brokerage you currently have does not use the Apex clearing firm, any fractional shares you hold may need to liquidated and turned to cash as they arrive in your Public account. Also, at this time, only taxable (non-retirement) accounts are supported by Public.
After opening your account, you can make you initial deposit to Public. To do this, you can link a bank account via the secure API Plaid. The process of transferring funding for the first time can take a few days. By the way, oddly, Public currently only allows users to link one bank account at a time to the app.
Like with some other brokerage accounts I’ve tried, when depositing new funds, Public may provide you with “Instant Cash.” True to its name, this will allow you to buy stocks with your funds right away instead of waiting for them to clear. Looking on Public’s site, I was unable to find a stated limit for Instant Cash, but I’d imagine there is one. Also, keep in mind that Instant Cash will likely not be available for your initial deposit and will only be unlocked once your linked account is confirmed.
Buying and selling stocks (and order types)
When you’re ready to buy a stock, you can navigate to the ticker’s page by searching for it or tapping it from a watchlist. Then, tap the Invest button to begin exploring your buying options. When you hit Invest, you’ll be able to view your current buying power and then be given the choice to invest a set amount or enter a custom amount. Alternatively, you can tap the three-dot button in the lower left to choose an order type.
Public currently supports Market Orders, Limit Orders, and Stop Orders. In short, a Market Order will place a trade at the current asking price while Limit or Stop orders are set to execute trades at specific prices. When you select one of these options, you’ll then enter the number of shares you want to buy and submit your order.
Similarly, when viewing a stock you already own, you’ll see the option to Invest or Sell. Selecting Sell will give you the option to exit your entire position in a stock or enter a different amount. Once again, you can also tap the three-dot button to select different types of orders.
As a side note, when placing a trade, Public will invite you to share your thoughts on why you’re making the transaction. We’ll discuss this aspect of the app a bit more in just a bit.
In recent years, the concept of fractional shares has grown increasingly mainstream. That’s great news for traders who want to invest in certain companies but may not want to buy a full share. Sure enough, Public is in on the fractional shares bandwagon, allowing users to buy as little as $1’s worth of select stocks and ETFs.
To purchase fractional shares, just select the stock you want to purchase and enter the amount of money (as opposed to the number of shares) you want. One thing to note is that only market orders are available for fractional shares, so you won’t be able to set target prices as you would if you were buying whole shares. Of course, selling fractional shares works the same way but in reverse, allowing you to offload a certain dollar amount when you’re really to sell.
A sometimes underappreciated aspect of stock trading is earning dividends. If you’re unfamiliar, you can think of dividends as tiny bonuses companies occasionally pay to stockholders as a means of profit sharing. As a Public user, when a company you own issues a dividend, you’ll be notified of this and the payment will be added to your cash balance by default. However, you can select to have these dividends reinvested — or, in other words, have those funds used to purchases additional shares of the stock.
To turn on dividend reinvestment, visit the Setting section and select “Dividend Reinvestment.” From there, you’ll be able to choose to auto-reinvest or to “save my dividends,” meaning that funds will merely be added to your account balance.
Portfolio and Long-Term
One of the newer features of Public is the ability to separate your planned long-term holdings from the rest of your portfolio. To do this, just head to the far-right tab and scroll down to your portfolio. From there, you can drag and drop stocks in your Long-Term section. Once you do that, you’ll see your portfolio displayed in two separate categories on the home page and elsewhere. Although your categorization won’t make a difference in terms of actually trading the stock, this feature does offer an easy way to better organize your portfolio.
Follows and contacts
Another intriguing aspect of Public is the emphasis it puts on making investing a social event. As part of this, users can view a feed of recently-made trades along with notes from investors. Moreover, users can choose to follow other users — including some high-profile celebrities that are now using the app. Meanwhile, when customers make trades of their own, they’re also invited to share the reason for their purchase and post their sentiments publically or privately.
In addition to the public feed, users can also connect with contacts they have who are also using Public. By giving Public access to your phone’s contacts, it will show you which of your friends are on the app and allow you to follow them. Plus, if they’re already using Public, you can also use this interface to send them an invitation.
Cash account violations
While exploring Public, I came across one section in Account Details that caught my attention: Cash Account Violations. In the app, you can see how close you’re getting to a violation as it displays 1,2,3, and then “Restriction.” So what is a Cash Account Violation? Apparently, this comes when you’re buying and selling stocks too quickly.
As Public’s FAQ explains, there are three main types of violations. These are Good Faith Violations, Cash Liquidation Violations, and Free Riding Violations. In each case, after three strikes in a 12 month period, your account will be restricted for 90 days.
Keep in mind that, if you’re trading at a normal pace, you’re unlikely to run afoul of these restrictions. However, if you do tend to trade with more vigor, I’d suggest take a closer look at Public’s rules.
My Experience with Public So Far
Trading and navigating the app
On the whole, I really like Public’s trading interface. Although it took me a minute to figure out how to select a Limit Order my first time up, the solution was fairly simple. I also like how it makes recommendations when you hit Invest — though I’m curious to discover if these can be changed or if they evolve with the trader.
I’ll add that I’m also a fan of the color schemes and the look of Public’s stock charts. Plus, the use of company logos in many parts of the app is a nice touch. Most importantly, with only a few tabs to manage through (plus a couple of sub-menus), I found the app to be pretty easy to navigate. Thus, in terms of usability, I give it pretty high marks — except for one aspect…
The social network
Here’s the thing about Public: I really don’t care what other people have to say about their stock trades. Sure there are a couple of people I might like to follow just because, but I don’t see the social aspect of the app to be a selling point. I’m likely in the minority here and navigating around these features isn’t hard, still I can’t help but mention that I don’t really care for it.
On a similar note, the most annoying part of Public I’ve encountered so far involves contacts and invitations. Since my phonebook includes numbers I’ve added purely as a means of blocking them, I now have an endless number of cards saying “Blocked knows 144 people on Public,” accompanied by an invite. I tried making my way through this stack but eventually gave up. Luckily, it’s easy enough to ignore the section of the app but it’s a bit maddening nonetheless.
Thinking of features that Public is currently missing, the most obvious to me is support for cryptocurrency trading. That said, it seems that they’re aware of this as their FAQ makes reference to this being a future offering. Given the recent boom of Bitcoin and other assets, I hope that such functionality does arrive sooner rather than later. Additionally, when it does, I’d also appreciate the ability to transfer purchased coins out of the app — something Robinhood is apparently still working on years after launching their crypto platform.
Public vs. Robinhood
Speaking of Robinhood, given the recent uproar over the app, I feel I need to at least give a brief summary of how I’d compare it to Public. Personally, just in terms of app design and functionality, I still prefer Robinhood’s interface. This is mostly because I don’t find a lot of use in the social aspect of Public, meaning that all of that content is just clutter to me. However, overlooking that, Public is still a very easy-to-use and sleek UI, which I appreciate. I also admire how Public is attempting to “disrupt the disruptor” with their new non-PFOF model. For that reason, while I haven’t moved over my portfolio and will continue to use Robinhood in the short-term, I could see myself eventually migrating to Public — especially as they continue to add services and features.
Final Thoughts on Public
Of all the up-and-coming stock trading apps that have emerged in recent years, Public is perhaps the most interesting. While their social media aspect felt gimmicky (and has been copied nonetheless), their moves to reshape the commission-free trading model are both noble and notable. Thus, I could see this app really taking off as it continues to evolve.
What’s more, that goodwill is backed up by a sleek and intuitive interface that includes most of the features modern retail investors are looking for — from fractional shares to dividend reinvestment and beyond. Because of this, I’ve really enjoyed exploring Public and making my first few trades on the platform. So, if you’re looking to get started with investing or want to move your current portfolio, I think Public is a good place to land.
Also published on Medium.