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Articles September 29, 2015

Man vs. Machine

Mike Shockey

A view into what Robo-Advisors are & why Financial Services companies should consider embracing this new investment tool/technology.

The Robo-Advisors reviewed for this paper were WealthFront and Betterment, and as of this writing they are the two largest Robo-Advisors based on AUM.

The growth of creatively named “Robo-Advisors” over the last few years has had many financial service organizations taking notice. Robo-Advisors lend a fresh new outlook on financial advising by emphasizing a more client-oriented do-it-yourself (DIY) approach. The standard formula for most robo-advising platforms consists of a simple and easy to use/understand user interface (UI) that also leverages various computer algorithms for the heavy lifting; hence the term Robo-Advisor. This new approach to financial advising focuses less on face-to-face interactions and more on reducing client investment costs. Robo-Advisors are able to offer lower investment costs due to lower overhead from the use of algorithms instead of human advisors, and by remaining fund agnostic and offering low cost funds, including Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). With this new disruptor in the financial planning and investment space, those in and around the industry are asking the following questions:

• What is appealing about Robo-Advisors?
• Who is using or gravitating toward this new financial concept?
• How should financial services companies react to this industry disruptor?

This paper answers these questions and also provides tools and guidance for how full-service and traditional financial services companies can successfully navigate this changing landscape.

What is Appealing about Robo-Advisors?


Investing can be complicated as many investors constantly wrestle with both rational thoughts and emotional concerns. They question whether or not there will be another recession. They struggle with determining the correct investment allocation mix. They wonder which of the many investment metrics should help them make their next financial decision. An even more troubling statistic proves that over 60% of investors have no financial plan and actually spend more time planning their annual vacations than planning their financial future.The complexity surrounding the market and the requisite time to become knowledgeable can be discouraging, causing many investors to unnecessarily throw in the towel. The Robo-Advisor platform is one avenue to help simplify the investment process and provide guidance, or at least some guardrails, to help keep these investors in the game.

From the initial log on to or, the simple UI is apparent. Both sites have worked to boil down the complex investment process into five questions or less. Wealthfront has a total of five questions ranging from age, income and a few risk-based questions to help arrive at an investor’s risk tolerance. After calculating the risk tolerance, the back-end algorithms crunch this data and provide a recommended investment mix based on this tolerance. An investor then has the ability to adjust this risk tolerance higher or lower and select whether the account will be taxable or for retirement. Any adjustments made by the investor will trigger changes to the final investment mix. 

Betterment provides a similar experience and uses what appears to be two data points, including an investor’s age and investment goals, to help derive the proper investment mix. The detailed asset allocation appears to be drilled down further after answering some additional questions during the account creation phase.

The simplicity is still present even after account creation as both sites allow for fairly easy transfer of money into the account through various financial institutions on either a one-time or reoccurring basis. Both sites allow the investor to adjust their asset allocation for potential upcoming goals such as a home, car, or other large purchase.  Additionally, investors have the flexibility to adjust their asset allocation if they desire to dial back or ratchet up the risk level from the initial asset-allocation derived from each site’s back-end algorithms. Betterment and Wealthfront provide recommended guidance through a few straightforward and simple questions and then each individual investor chooses how closely to follow this guidance by using a few intuitive tools within the UI. This DIY investment approach allows the investment guidance to either be taken at face value or adjusted to meet the unique needs of individual investors and their underlying financial circumstances. Ultimately the friendly UI allows investors to easily make changes and see the potential impacts to their savings and retirement goals, albeit these adjustments might be completed by investors with limited financial knowledge and experience. 

Low Fees

Another appealing feature of Robo-Advisors is that the fees charged by these investment vehicles are quite low by industry standards. The level of fees from these advisors will vary based on the size of an investor’s account and by the features the investor chooses; however, both Betterment and Wealthfront charge no more than 35 basis points (.35%) or $35 annually on a $10,000 investment for any level of service an investor might choose. These lower fees charged by Robo-Advisors represent a savings in excess of 70% when compared to a full-service financial service firm that typically charges between 100 and 150 basis points (1.00% - 1.50%) or $100 to $150 annually on a $10,000 investment. The research around lower fee investment products is well documented, and by leveraging lower fee products, investors’ funds should experience larger growth due to lower fees and the power of compounding. The ability to keep fees low stems from two major differences from traditional advisors: limited overhead and limited or non-existent face-to-face interaction with a specific advisor. As mentioned above, by offering more of DIY investing approach, Robo-Advisors can offer lower fees because there is not an advisor and the requisite building and support staff costs.

While these lower fees are quite attractive on the surface, each investor is unique, and depending on the level of service required or needed, the DIY investment approach and subsequent lower fees may not be appropriate for all investors.

Rebalancing & Taxes

Some other appealing features of Robo-Advisors focus on leveraging automation to help ease the investor burden and enhance portfolio returns. The automation of rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting for a portfolio are critical to managing the volatility and increasing the returns of that portfolio. For those investors that have surpassed a certain asset threshold, Betterment and Wealthfront offer tax-loss harvesting, with both sites describing the benefits of this technique as providing a lift to returns between 77 and 129 basis points (.77% - 1.29%).iv v (For a more detailed discussion on tax-loss harvesting please refer to the white paper from Betterment, which is reference v.) The rebalancing feature is available to all investors regardless of asset level, and with both advisors re-balancing is not tied to a specific date on the calendar; rather, it is based on when the portfolio drifts away from the desired allocation by a certain amount identified in the algorithms within the Betterment and Wealthfront systems.vii viii While these two features are neither new nor groundbreaking, they typically are forgotten or difficult for investors to complete or understand. By creating an account with a Robo-Advisor, investors can untie the reminder ribbon from their finger and utilize the automation to ensure their portfolios remain well balanced and less volatile.

Overall, there are a handful of reasons that make Robo-Advisors an attractive option for an investor’s portfolio; however, there is no such thing as a silver bullet in investing. Robo-advising is a new and growing alternative in a large and seasoned industry. Many questions still remain, and those financial services companies that choose to explore Robo-Advising need to consider which investors may be more likely to gravitate toward this new investment option and where this new alternative might fit into an investor’s holistic portfolio.

Robo-Advisors Target Market

The ubiquity of technology has helped change the way that many customers interact with companies and has revolutionized the methods that companies use to locate, persuade, convert, and track their customers. There have been a plethora of websites and apps created to empower customers, make their lives easier, and give them the ability to roll-up their sleeves and take a more DIY approach to many aspects of their lives. Some of the more recent examples of these apps and websites include Uber, Trip Advisor, Yelp, and in the Financial Services industry, the ability to deposit checks and transfer money using a smart phone. Even more telling is customers’ increasing comfort level with technology. A report in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour found that people were more willing to open up and answer sensitive questions more thoroughly when they were interacting with a computer versus a human.ix Robo-Advisors are well positioned to take advantage of this increased comfort with technology and the growth of the DIY market by offering a simplistic product that customers can access easily at their fingertips. A large segment of this DIY market is the generational group called Generation Y or “Millennials.” According to a 2014 report from Nielsen, Millenials are made up of individuals that were born between 1977 and 1995, making this group 77 million strong and 24% of the U.S. population.x The generational group of Millennials openly embraces technology as it has been a part of their daily lives since a young age. This group experienced the birth of the personal computer and the Internet, and many were teenagers or in early adulthood when smartphones became popular. In a recent survey from Nielsen, Millennials felt so strongly about technology that they ranked “Technology Use” as the number one characteristic of what makes their generation unique. A 2013 study found three in four Millennials own smartphones, making this a primary avenue to reach this group.xi The ability for Robo-Advisors to offer DIY investing with guardrails energizes many investors, and while Millennials might be the most vocal group in regards to the DIY desire, many other generational groups are becoming more self-sufficient with the explosion of technology and mobile internet access.

In addition to targeting the existing market of investors that may already use a financial advisor or invest on their own, Robo-Advisors have the ability to generate organic growth in this market by attracting new investors through the removal of asset thresholds, transparency of fees, and the combination of the simplistic UI and easy to understand DIY approach.

Asset Thresholds

In a typical relationship with a financial advisor it is a common requirement that investors have a minimum amount of assets/investments in order to receive financial and investment advice. The threshold of assets varies from advisor to advisor, but a common minimum threshold falls somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, typically favoring the higher end of this range for an investor to receive a certain level of service. This number can be quite daunting, and based on some recent surveys, roughly 60% of baby boomers, who are either at or closely approaching retirement age, had less than $100,000 in retirement savings,xiii and more than 60% of investors between the ages of 25-54 had less than $100,000 in retirement savings.xiv These statistics show how difficult it is for a majority of investors to obtain this asset requirement. As the survey data indicates, there is a significant void for investors who hold less than $100,000 in assets, providing a potentially significant growth opportunity for the Robo-Advisor concept. There is currently no minimum investment for Betterment and a more moderate minimum of $5,000 at Wealthfront.

Transparency of Fees

Investment fees and expenses can sometimes be shrouded in darkness due to various components such as load fees, redemption fees, and management fees. As an investor, it can be difficult to track down an accurate number for how much one pays in fees each year. Robo-Advisors make an effort to target these investors who may be confused or frustrated with the nebulous fee structure by offering one simple fee for managing assets. This fee is transparent and prominent on both Betterment’s and Wealthfront’s websites and both sites also provide adequate information regarding what makes up those fees. These companies also offer investors different options to lower those fees or receive additional benefits. As mentioned above, this transparency and overall low fee is an advantage of robo-advising, and with recent commercials by E-Trade highlighting high investment fees and the growth of ETFs, low fees are becoming more of a focal point for investors.

The graphic above shows the relevancy of some of the fees that have been discussed in this paper. The chart on top shows a common fee structure from a full-service or traditional financial advisor (≈1.0%), while the chart on the bottom shows the fee structure associated with Robo-Advisors (≈.25%). These charts show the amount of returns lost to fees over different time horizons considering an 8% annual return. As fees increase and the time horizon gets longer, the amount of returns lost to fees grows significantly due to compounding. The charts highlighted above focus on the returns lost to fees over a 25 year horizon and show that the full-service and traditional advisor fees will consume 26% of returns versus a more modest 7.4% of returns lost when using Robo-Advisors. Put more simply, over 25 years an investor who chooses to utilize the traditional or full-service financial advisor would pay three and half times more for their money to be managed

While many people subscribe to the old adage “you get what you pay for”, there are many studies that suggest otherwise when it comes to investment fees. One such study conducted by Vanguard and Morningstar highlighted that expense ratios are a key driver of performance and that in “every asset class over every time period, the cheapest quintile produced higher total returns than the most expensive quintile.” As the DIY investment push continues to evolve, it will be important for financial advisors to lift the veil on fees, ensuring that the financial products being offered are competitive on fee structure or provide a unique value-add. Otherwise these advisors may find current or potential investors navigating towards the more fee transparent camp of Robo-Advisors.

Simple UI & Understandable DIY Approach

Charles Schwab recently reported that 52% of investors find the explanations of their 401k investments more confusing than the explanation of their health-care benefits.xvii This leads many investors to guess what might be appropriate investments for them, or worse, invest an equal amount in all funds that are available in their employer’s 401k plan. Earlier in this paper the UI of both Betterment and Wealthfront was discussed in greater detail. The Charles Schwab survey speaks to the need to provide investors with guidance, which could come in the form of face-to-face advisors or through a carefully designed UI and thoroughly researched investor assessment questions. The ability for current and future Robo-Advisors to cut through the confusion and present an easy to understand investment plan will be important in the quest to gain new investors and grow market share.

As new investment avenues, including Robo-Advisors, help remove barriers that are currently deterring or frustrating investors, the financial services industry will need to consider evolving to adapt to these contemporary investment opportunities. This potential change may thrust current financial services companies into a state of unpreparedness and discomfort. By embracing, or at the very least, understanding this new investment option, these companies can be better prepared for potential changes to the industry. Financial services companies may want to consider the reasons detailed below for embracing this new technology. These companies will need to determine if any changes to their current offerings are required and how these changes should be executed to best align with their cultures and strategic plans.

Embracing a New Tool/Product Offering

Expanding the Footprint

As previously mentioned, Robo-Advisors help companies lower the costs and reduce the amount of face-to-face time required with clients when compared to the traditional financial advisor model. This savings, both in dollars and minutes, will help companies keep the overall overhead associated with financial advising low, opening the possibility for financial services companies to expand their product offerings to a more diverse group of investors. Robo-advising is similar to products that preceded it such as Online Billpay & Mobile Deposit, which leverage technology to help financial services companies lower costs and provide greater flexibility, convenience, and an additional product/service to customers. The ability to convert current customers into using additional products or services, also known as cross-selling, is a large focus for financial service companies as this conversion helps to increase the profitability of both existing customers as well as the company overall. Recent research by Forrester showed that by increasing the average number of financial products or services a customer is utilizing from three to five will double the profitability of the financial company.xviii An additional benefit from cross-selling is a strategic one; companies have the ability to increase switching costs with each additional product or service that a customer uses. When customers begin to use additional products and services from the same company it becomes increasingly difficult to separate from that company. Direct Deposit and BillPay are two recent product offerings from financial services firms that have become more ubiquitous and helped increase switching costs and stickiness for these organizations over the past decade. Barring poor customer service or an inability to meet customer needs, these higher switching costs will provide a competitive advantage as many customers prefer to take the path of least resistance. Financial services companies that are willing to offer a robo-advising service will be taking a step to help improve profitability and increase switching-costs, while at the same time tapping a large segment of the market that had previously been neglected. A recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that of those workers without a work savings plan, (401k, 403b, IRA), 73% of those individuals have less than $1,000 in savings and investments. Additionally 78% of all individuals surveyed, including those with work savings plans, had less than $100,000 in savings and investments, not including defined benefit pension plans.xix These numbers are not appetizing in the traditional financial advisor model, as the minimum asset threshold discussed earlier has not been reached. The amount of time spent with these investment clients in the traditional model would not be worth the limited amount of revenue that would be generated from their assets. The Robo-Advisor model aims to solve this cost-benefit conundrum that financial institutions may currently be struggling with, due to the vast reduction in overhead that this financial instrument offers. Financial services companies can leverage Robo-Advisors to offer a helpful and profitable product to the middle-class segment of the market that may be struggling for investment advice or just not have a proper vehicle for their savings and retirement funds. A few large organizations have signaled they are not content sitting on the sidelines with their traditional offerings and have started to dip their toes into the robo-advising waters. Fidelity announced a partnership with Betterment in the Fall of 2014, and Vanguard and Charles Schwab have been piloting respective offerings that they are seeking to roll-out to all investors in 2015. This previously untapped market will provide a few different benefits in both the short and long-term. First it will help to grow a company’s total assets under management (AUM) and provide an additional revenue source. Second, this product offering will also help increase switching costs and make financial services companies’ products and services stickier. Finally, and one of the most critical longer-term benefits, is the opportunity to graduate many of these investment clients to more sophisticated investment products as their assets grow and their needs evolve over time.

The Changing Investor

Generation X and Generation Y currently make up approximately 54% of the adult population and this percentage is expected to grow significantly as the population ages over the next 10-20 years. This evolution of population make-up is important, because these groups look at the investment industry and the role of financial advisors in a much different light than previous generations. Due to the fact that many of the individuals in Generation X and Y have grown up immersed in the technological revolution of the past 25 years, they are much more likely to embrace technology and enjoy the benefits it provides. One benefit is customer empowerment and the ability to take more of a DIY approach because of the ubiquity of technology and the knowledge and convenience that this ubiquity provides. A recent study by Nielsen points to this growing DIY trend, with Milliennials (Generation Y) being 28% more likely than the average to buy mutual funds online and 32% more likely to engage in online trading than the average.xxi Two other important differences that distinguish the Millenial generation from their older peers is who they trust or look to for financial advice as well as their desire to take a more passive approach to investing. In regards to financial advice, a recent UBS survey of Milliennials found that they are most likely to seek advice from a spouse, partner, or their parents. This survey also found that compared to other generational groups, Milliennials only listed financial advisor as a source of advice 14% of the time compared to 40% by the other generational groups.xxii In addition to financial advice, Millennials appear to be fairly skeptical of investing overall and tend to hold a much higher allocation of cash compared to other groups. Generation Y also prefers to take a more passive approach to investing, with 36% of investors in the UBS survey happy with investment performance that tracks the market and another 24% just concerned with their performance compared to personal goals as opposed to performance compared to the market.xxiii These aforementioned statistics and surveys point to a changing of the guard in investment approach for this generation. An approach that is focused more on providing a DIY method, with the ability to leverage ETFs and index funds to provide a passive investment strategy will likely drive greater interest among Millenial investors. The preferred investing approach by Millennials is more aligned with the Robo-Advisor model and is in contrast with many of the models offered by traditional financial services firms today. The chart below illustrates the fact that Milliennials need investment guidance as their current asset allocation conflicts with the preferred asset allocation of an investor in their 20’s and 30’s. Today, Milliennials have limited assets due to the fact that many members of this generation are in the early stages of their careers and earning years. The next 20-30 years will change this fact as this group will continue to advance in their careers and start to flex their earning power. The investing preferences and improper asset allocation described above combined with this generation’s sheer size and impending earning power is another large and potentially lucrative reason to consider embracing the use of Robo-Advisors.

Wealth Transfer

For most financial services companies, the generational dynamics and differences of Generation X & Y and the ability to appeal to a larger investor base is probably enough justification for at least considering Robo-Advisors. While companies may have short-term concerns about working with investors with limited assets, as this might require them to alter their investment approach, they must consider the longer-term gains, as Generation X & Y increase their earning potential through both career advancement and transference of wealth. In a recent article published by Forbes, Millennials are currently pegged with having about $2 trillion in liquid assets, and this number is expected to grow by approximately 250% to $7 trillion by the end of the decade. xxv This growth will not subside anytime soon as Millennials will start to hit peak earning years during the next two decades. In addition to the organic wealth that Milliennials will generate through earnings, it is also important to consider the wealth that will be transferred from older generations. Barron’s estimates that over the next five years approximately 20 trillion dollars could transfer to Gen’s X&Y.xxvi A more conservative source suggests that the eventual transfer of wealth from Baby Boomers to Gen X&Y will happen over the next 30 years, and will be closer to 30 trillion dollars, far surpassing the transfer from the Greatest Generation to the Boomers, estimated at 12 trillion. xxvii

The future earnings and eventual transfer of wealth makes Gen X&Y key growth targets for financial services companies. The companies that are best able to deliver on the investment experience that Gen X&Y are seeking will have the greatest opportunity to grow their client base and offset the loss of aging clients. Robo-Advising is one way to provide the desired DIY approach and is a low-cost and pragmatic way to help attract these current lower net-worth clients during a time of limited competition. Capturing these clients in the next few years allows financial service companies to connect with these investors prior to them experiencing significant asset growth. By offering a variety of targeted products and services, these companies will help increase switching costs or “stickiness”, and improve client retention during the period of asset growth. Ultimately this will lead financial services firms to the profitability promised-land of being able to provide a wider array of products and services as their client’s needs grow and evolve. 

The Changing Horizon

Cumulatively the current Robo-Advisor offerings have approximately $14 billion in AUM with those assets expected to reach $255 billion in five years. While this dynamic growth is impressive, it is still quite small when compared to the $5 trillion AUM currently held with traditional investment managers in the U.S.xxix  Based on these numbers, financial services firms should view Robo-Advisors as a new tool for their toolbox, rather than an industry disruptor or full replacement for the current model. Vanguard’s recently created Personal Advisor Services, Charles Schwab’s Online Advisor Service launching in the 1st quarter of 2015, and the recent partnership between Fidelity and Betterment xxx demonstrate financial services firms’ desire to embrace this new technology due to many of the reasons outlined above and their desire to leverage a fundamental investment concept: the core and satellite approach.

Evolving Investment Approach

The core and satellite approach places a large portion of a client’s investment portfolio into a low-cost passive fund, such as the S&P 500 index fund and the remaining, smaller percentage of the portfolio in actively managed funds. This core holding also becomes the benchmark of the investor’s portfolio for performance comparison purposes. The percentage of money allocated to this core holding will vary depending on the investor’s approach and risk tolerance. All money not allocated to the core holding will be placed in actively managed satellite funds in an attempt to generate additional return in excess of the market return, or as it is known in the industry, alpha.  Robo-Advisors fit nicely into the core and satellite approach by offering low cost ETFs and index fund options that are able to create this core holding. For investors interested in beating the market return they will look to work with their investment advisor to add various satellite funds in hopes of adding alpha. Those investors content with matching the market will heavily utilize the Robo-Advisor offering and primarily invest in this core holding. Based on the evolution of generational dynamics, the core and satellite investment approach appears to be gaining in popularity as investors are more interested in a passive investing approach. Fidelity recently signaled its devotion to this concept by striking a deal with Betterment. Fidelity’s team of 3,000 Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) will now have the ability to leverage Betterment’s offerings in combination with their one-on-one advice when working with clients.  David Canter, Executive Vice President of Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services stated “we share an interest in helping advisors realize that digital advice should not be perceived as a threat, but rather an opportunity to evolve.” xxxi Core and satellite presents a helpful approach to appeal to a diverse set of investors while simultaneously embracing this new DIY technology. Canter, speaking about Robo-Advisors and the Betterment partnership, put it more bluntly, “we view this as a significant practice management solution for advisers…Betterment is a very elegant and easy platform that can help advisers serve the emerging and mass affluent parts of their business. More advisers are opening up their minimums for the investors of tomorrow.” xxxii

For over 17 years, CapTech has helped some of the nation's largest financial services companies define and map their digital presence. During this time, both online financial investing and banking have evolved quite significantly. What hasn’t changed is our focus on understanding the evolving needs and wants of our clients and their customers and which new trends have staying power. Our Customer Engagement, Application Development, and Data & Analytics Services are positioned to support an end-to-end review and go-to-market response to the changing landscape of investing. 


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