Is Industry Coming Around to Robo-Advisor Concept?
Some financial experts see robo-advisors as a competing force.
At the NAPA 401(k) Summit, you might expect some hostility to the concept. After all, the market for algorithm-based, non-human decision-making robo-advisors is expected to grow.
Business Insider’s research service, BI Intelligence, forecasts that by 2020, robo-advisors will manage $8 trillion in assets.
But the questions for two executives at two robo-advisor firms during a technology panel demonstrated more curiosity than hostility. Betterment for Business's Cynthia Loh and blooom’s (yes, three Os) Chris Costello fielded them and got in some marketing in the process.
The questions ranged from whether advisors can get data and metrics about results (yes), how good is the security and encryption of participant information (as good as a bank’s), whether rebalancing is participant-driven (no), whether there was a process to update employee risk tolerance and other information over time, as it changes (yes), to whether these robo-advisors partner with advisors to offer compensation (Betterment: yes, we have a separate arm of the business for that; blooom: ten dollars per participant doesn’t make a partnership conducive, though advisors can offer this service to differentiate themselves to plan sponsors).
The common wisdom is that robo-advisors, at least in the retirement industry, are aimed at people with fewer assets.
However, in the wider investment industry, the BI Intelligence research report noted: “Consumers across all asset classes are receptive to robo-advisors — including the wealthy. 49% of this group would consider investing some of their assets using a robo-advisor.”
For blooom, its market is not intended to be the wealthy, CEO and cofounder, Chris Costello, said, but rather “the people who don’t understand stuff.”
“All the way up the food chain, people are messing up their 401k plans,” Costello said. “We are targeting a segment of market most advisors aren’t targeting, most are well below 250,000 dollars.”
The stereotypical user of a robo-advisor is, of course, a millennial. But now, said Betterment’ for Business GM Cynthia Loh, “Everyone expects technology.” Even the clients have changed, she said. Where in the past it might be a tech company, within the last year companies of other kinds have come on board -- medical, legal, and financial services firms.
Taking aim at the traditional, minimalist way many employers offer information on retirement plans, Costello noted that there are always going to be employees who like to study their options and do their homework. “But that is not most Americans. Most Americans need this to be done for them. When I had wealthy clients, I didn’t tell them to go home and study up. We did the work for them. This brings the services that wealthy people have been getting for decades.”
Still, Loh added, Betterment embraces both the technology and the human side. “We recognize there’s always going to be a place for human advice.”
Because ultimately it comes back to the human side, not the technology side. Of course, the technology behind the algorithms is important. But something as warm and fuzzy as the participant questionnaire is also crucial.
In fact, recent guidance on robo-advisors from the Securities and Exchange Commission concerns itself with a robo-advisor’s questionnaire. Which makes sense, as it’s the information the algorithms use to make their decisions and the basis of their advice. Garbage in, garbage out. And the ability, which both firms offer, to consult with a human advisor, whether it might be by phone or by chat, is also important, at least to what we know about what plan participants want.
And the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule has made many in the retirement industry feel that knowing as much as possible about a participant or client is key to successfully helping them as well as being in compliance.
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