Posts tagged ‘Financial Engines’

Rise of the Robo-Advisors: Paying to Do-It-Yourself

Battery Operated Toy Robot

Robots and computers are taking over our lives. We see it in areas of our daily living, including the use of digitally driven cars, cell phones, automated vacuums, and electronic self-serve kiosks at the grocery store. And now robots have come into our investing and financial lives in the form of robo-advisors. With a few clicks of a computer mouse or taps on a smartphone, investors are hoping to find their way to financial nirvana.

What sites am I talking about? Here is a brief, albeit rapidly growing, list of popular robo-advisor sites:

Not all of these robo-sites invest individuals’ money, but nevertheless, there are several factors contributing to the upsurge in in these financial advice websites. For starters, there is a whole new, younger demographic pool of savers who have grown up with their iPhone and shop exclusively online for their goods and services. Many of these financial sites are trying to fill a void for this tech-savvy group looking for a new app to bring wealth and riches.

Another factor contributing to the rise of the robo-advisors is a function of the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the explosive growth of the multi-trillion dollar exchange traded fund (ETF) industry. Many baby boomers who were planning to retire were hit brutally hard by the financial crisis and subsequently asked themselves why they were paying such high fees to their advisors for losing money. With the stock market now increasing for five consecutive years, some investors are gaining confidence in pursuing other lower-cost solutions to their investments outside of the traditional human advisor channel.

Too Good to Be True? The Shortcomings

On the surface, the proposition of clicking a few buttons to create financial prosperity seems quite appealing, but if you look a little more closely under the hood, what you quickly realize is that most of these robo-advisor sites are glorifying the practice of doing-it-yourself (DIY). After conducting some due diligence on the various investment bells-and-whistles of these robo-sites, one quickly realizes individuals can replicate most of the kindergartener-esque ETF portfolios by merely calling 1-800-VANGUARD  – without having to pay robo-advisor fees ranging from 0.15% – 0.95%. More specifically, Wealthfront and Betterment use 6-12 ETF security portfolios, integrating many Vanguard funds and other ETFs that can be purchased with a click of a mouse or phone call (without having to pay the robo-advisor middleman). A cynic may also point out these robo-investment sites are nothing more than expensive life-cycle funds that could be replicated at a fraction of the cost.

Despite the sites’ transparency preaching, filtering through robo fee and performance disclosure can be frustratingly tedious too – good luck to the novices. For example, Betterment claims to have created a superior performance track record, despite a hidden disclosure stating the results are manufactured from a computer back-test. The transparency pitch seems a little disingenuous, and I wonder how many of the new robo-site users are also aware of the extra underlying ETF fees? But when marketing a new high-cost start-up, I guess you need to fabricate a fancy chart and track record when you don’t have one. Underlying the robo investment sites is a disparate, hodge-podge of studies anointing Modern Portfolio Theory as the holy grail, but readers of this blog know there are many failings to pure quantitative strategies implemented by academics (see LTCM in Black Swans & Butter in Bangladesh).

The concept of DIY is nothing new. One can look no further than the impact Home Depot (HD) has had on the home improvement industry. In addition, there are plenty of individuals who choose to do their own income taxes with the help of software technology (i.e., Intuit), or those who forego hiring an estate planning attorney by using off-the-shelf legal documents (i.e., Legal Zoom). Many industries in our economy inherently have penny pinching DIY-ers, but despite current and future inroads made by the robo-advisors, there will always be individuals who do not have the capacity, patience, or interest to search out a DIY investment solution.

After watching the stock market rise for five consecutive years, taming investment portfolios may seem like a simple problem for internet software to solve, but experienced investors (not academics) understand successful long-term investing is never easy…with or without technology. The reality of the situation is that when volatility eventually spikes and we hit an inevitable bear market, these robo-sites will fail miserably in supplying the necessary human element to facilitate more prudent investment decisions.

While the rising robo-advisors may have many investment advisory shortcomings, I will acknowledge some appealing aggregating features that provide a helpful holistic view of an individual’s finances (see Mint). Also, these sites are forcing investors to ask their advisors the important and appropriate tough questions regarding fees, compensation, and conflicts of interest. However, in spite of the short-term, blossoming success of the robo-sites, investing has never been more difficult. Investors continue to get overwhelmed with the 24-7, 365 news cycles that proliferates an endless avalanche of global crises via TV, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere.

While a younger, less-affluent DIY demographic may flock to some of these robo-advisors, the millions of aging and retiring baby boomers ensures there will be plenty of demand for traditional advisors. Experienced independent RIA advisors and financial planners, like Sidoxia, who integrate low-cost ETFs into their investment management practices stand to benefit handsomely. Those advisors/sites offering simplistic, commoditized ETF offerings with no wealth planning services will be challenged. While I may not lose sleep over the rise of the robo-advisors, I will continue to dream of a robot that will lower my taxes and win me the lottery.

www.Sidoxia.com

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold long positions in certain exchange traded funds (including Vanguard ETFs), AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HD, TWTR, FB, Legal Zoom, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

May 18, 2014 at 12:55 pm 5 comments

You and Your 401K are Not Alone

You have choices in how you manage your 401k.

You have choices when it comes to managing your 401k.

A large majority of individual investors watched their 401k retirement accounts crater throughout 2008 and the beginning of 2009. For some, prudently managing these accounts, while attempting to decipher historic, unimaginable events, proved to be a difficult challenge. Fortunately for investors there are alternatives beyond managing a narrow 401k menu of options by yourself.

One option to consider is the establishment of a Self Directed 401k account, sometimes called a Self Directed Brokerage Account (SDBA). This is an option offered by a minority of plan sponsors (employers) to their employees, so make sure to ask your human resources department if you are interested in exploring this selection. By opening a separate Self Directed 401k account at a third party brokerage firm the investor should have access to a broader set of investment options relative to traditional 401k offerings. The retirement plan documents may however limit investment choices to certain investment products, in part due to litigation concerns created by potentially poor plan participant decisions.  Increased trading and administrative charges are other potential costs to mull over.

Opening up one of these self directed accounts also avails a 401k investor to work with an outside advisor who can assist with managing the external brokerage account. Of course, nothing in life comes for free, so the individual will be paying the advisor for these services rather than managing the account solo.

Instead of creating a whole new external Self Directed account, 401k investors can also hire companies for personal 401k management advice in their existing accounts. One such firm, Financial Engines, made famous by its academic all-star founder Bill Sharpe, provides advice to investing participants for a fee, based on the dollar value of the account.

Financial Engines claims to work with more than 750 large employers (including 112 of the FORTUNE 500 and 8 of the FORTUNE 20) and 8 of the largest retirement plan providers serving the retirement market. The problem with services like these (including Guided Choice, also a brainchild of a finance guru – Harry Markowitz)  is that no matter how great the advice may be, the investor is stuck with the limited investment options provided by the employer on the 401k company menu.

Other players in the financial industry are swirling around to advise participants on a piece of this $3 trillion 401k U.S. retirement asset market (ICI 2007 estimate), including some brokerage and mutual fund companies, and even independent financial planners. Also, don’t forget if you ever leave an employer, you have the ability to roll over your 401k account into a personal IRA (Individual Retirement Account) – an account you fully control with a buffet of options.

Regardless of the money you may have lost or the amount of confusion you feel, realize that you are not alone (if you choose not to be). Make sure to contact the appropriate human resource professional in charge of retirement benefits, and discover your 401k options.

July 8, 2009 at 4:00 am 2 comments


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