Robo-advisors are a small part of the wealth management industry, but their recent growth has been impressive.
A survey by consulting firm Corporate Insight of 11 leading robo-advisors finds that total assets managed by the firms rose 65 percent over the past eight months, hitting $19 billion in December. The survey includes assets under management (AUM) that are controlled directly by the advisory services on behalf of clients (“discretionary control in the adjacent chart), as well as assets where firms provide guidance, but clients execute trades (“paid investment advice” in the chart”).
Are robo-advisors taking business from their human counterparts? Not necessarily,
says Grant Easterbrook, an analyst with the firm who did the research.
“Some of these firms get dubbed ‘robo” but they’re providing one-on-one advice - they are using technology to get their costs down and be more efficient,” he says. “The other group doesn’t really do holistic planning - they’re really commoditizing investment selection and portfolio management.”
Instead, the competitive threat to legacy firms has two components, he thinks.
One is the competitive pressure robo-advisors put on legacy players to reduce fees, add more transparency to their services and improve their use of mobile applications and website user experiences. Longer term, the model utilized by big national firms will face challenges.
“The big full service firms that emphasize large national branches, quarterly in-person meetings and don’t have good websites are going to have problems,” Easterbrook says. “That works now, but as the target client market shifts from boomers to more tech-savvy GenX and GenY households, these are potential clients who don’t see as much value in all that human contact. They will have to reinvent themselves.”
Major retail investment firms including Schwab, Fidelity and TD Ameritrade announced plans to add or expand automated investment advice solutions this year. Vanguard and Merrill Edge both announced plans to expand human advisor-driven services catering to relatively less affluent individuals.
Meanwhile Vanguard is considering a wide array of new ways to help clients with their personal finances that go well beyond their retirement portfolios—from debt management to health insurance and an array of competing objectives within household balance sheets.
The 11 firms surveyed by Corporate Insight provided the AUM data, but it’s not broken out or ranked due to confidentiality agreements. The firms covered in the study are: AssetBuilder, Betterment, Covestor, Financial Guard, FutureAdvisor, Jemstep, MarketRiders, Personal Capital, RebalanceIRA, SigFig and Wealthfront.