Power to Robo-Advisors

The word is that Robo-Advisors are good for your financial health. Why? Because they offer similar services as the human kind of financial advisor at lower cost. If you’re paying less in management fees, your returns are higher, your portfolio fatter. That’s the dominant sales pitch. And with the nascent industry growing from $16 billion (USD) under management in 2014 to more than $160 billion today, there’s reason to stop and look at what a Robo-Advisor may do for you.

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Financial Giants Muscling Into The Game

As retail investors flock to Robo-Advisors (i.e., software programs using mathematical algorithms to generate investment advice and manage your portfolio), pioneers like Wealthfront and Betterment must now compete against big boys such as Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, Vanguard Group, and Fidelity Investments.

And the bandwagon keeps growing. Bank of America activated Merrill Edge Guided Investing earlier this year, Morgan Stanley announced that they’ll be launching Morgan Stanley Access Investing in the fall, 2017, and Goldman Sachs is gearing up to introduce its own Robo-Advisory services.

In Canada, several independent firms (i.e., WealthSimple, QuestTrade Portfolio IQ) offer Robo-advisory services with Bank of Montreal being the only bank having a firm foothold. With momentum and money on the side of robots, it would be surprising if Canada’s other big banks didn’t roll out their own Robo-Advisor in the next year to secure their slice of this particular money pie.

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How Does It Work, This Robo-Advisor Thing?

Robo-advisors are a third option for investing; doing it your self and full service financial advisory services being the other two options.

Robo-advisors are convenient (24/7 online access) and more accessible and affordable than hiring a financial advisor (you often need a minimum of $100,000-$250,000 to retain the services of a financial advisor; as for Robo-advisors, some do not require a minimum balance to open an account, others are as low as $500).

Depending on the specific Robo-advisor, they offer different degrees of automation: fully automated or a hybrid set up offering access to old fashioned humans for an additional fee.

Either way, getting started involves you answering some questions about your age, assets, financial goals, risk tolerance, investing time horizon, etc. Moments later, computer algorithms propose a cookie cutter portfolio most suitable to you.

Available investments typically include a range of exchange traded index funds. The software continually monitors your portfolio and periodically buys and sells to maintain your stated risk tolerance and financial goals.

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Hype or Substance?

Despite impressive growth of Robo-Advisors in a relatively short period of time, $160 billion is no more than a few drops in a financial industry bucket worth somewhere around $20 Trillion. Still, this niche is expected to continue growing thus more players entering the market.

So … should you bite?

That depends.

  • If you have less than, say, $100,000 for investing, and you want some guidance, then definitely give it a go.
  • If you prefer interfacing with computers rather than humans, again, Robo-Advisors are for you.
  • If you’re currently working with a financial advisor and are not entirely satisfied with the value they bring to the table, then consider opening a Robo-Advisor account to see if it better suits your needs (this may include intangibles other than fees such as guiding you on debt reduction issues, divorce, house purchase, loans, estate planning, and any other financial issues not directly related to investing).

Well, what if your advisor places you in passive funds? They’re still charging you 1 or 2 points. Why pay high fees when an effective Robo-advisor portfolio may be built for less than half the cost?

  • Back to value, let’s give a little more space to fees.

Depending on your robot of choice, we’re talking management fees in the neighborhood of 0.25 – 0.50% for a Robo-Advisor.

Compare this to financial advisors of the human variety who typically charge between 1.0 – 2.0%.

Seems like a small difference in fees? It’s not. Fees matter.

Consider a simple example: your portfolio is worth $500,000. Fees are 2%. Total fees for the year equals $10,000. For simple illustration purposes, if your portfolio remains at $500,000 for 30 years, that’s $300,000 in fees paid. Compare that to 0.5% fees that results in annual fees of $2,500. After 30 years, the final tally is $75,000. Either way, that’s a whole lot of dough toward fees but the 75k is much more palatable than 300k.

Of course, you could slash fees even more by avoiding both humans and robots. Instead, open a discount brokerage account, buy exchange traded index funds, and pay the $5-$10 transaction cost for each buy and sell.

But … what if you’re not the do-it-yourself type when it comes to investments? What if you don’t have the time, knowledge or inclination to manage your investments solo?

Well, then a Robo-advisor would be your next best choice.