Robo-advisers are for people who want a sound, smart investing solution, not home runs.
So stop asking me if I'm tracking the performance of the portfolios that robo-advisers use for clients. I'm not. What I follow is the methodology and building materials they use for constructing portfolios. If a robo gets this right, solid returns will follow.
I have just started the job of gathering data for the second annual Globe and Mail Guide to Online Advisers using a questionnaire with quite a few questions on portfolio building. For a couple of reasons, there are no questions about returns.
One is that robos have been around for one to two years at most – any returns posted over that short a timeframe would be borderline meaningless. Five years is a serious slice of time for judging investment returns, although three years might suffice for a superficial take.
The second reason for ignoring returns flows out of the fact that robo-advisers are about process, not about picking winning investments. Robos create a personal profile of you as an investor, including your tolerance for losing money. Then, for the most part, they build you an appropriately risky portfolio using exchange-traded funds that track the most followed stock and bond indexes. Your ETFs will fluctuate in price, but your asset mix will remain steady thanks to the rebalancing your robo will do.
This is the essence of sound, smart investing – find the right mix of investments and then use it as a blue-print for assembling a portfolio with low-cost building blocks. ETFs fill this need well, but let's be realistic about return expectations. You will never crush the market and lead the performance charts if you track the major indexes. You'll make what the markets make, minus fees charged by your ETFs and by your robo-adviser. In the end, you will do better than may other investors, but never be a leader.
So what distinguishes one robo from another? Here are some things I look at:
- Fees: They range a fair bit; some firms include trading commissions in their advice fee, others do not.
- Rebalancing: Quarterly or even once or twice a year is fine; more frequently might be counterproductive.
- ETFs: You want cheap, liquid funds following the most widely recognized indexes
- Asset classes: Bonds plus Canadian, U.S. and international stocks are a good foundation – you don't need much more.
- Number of portfolio options: You want to see several different options reflecting various risk tolerances; a surfeit of choices suggests a lack of conviction that basic asset allocation techniques work.
These are the kinds of things you should be considering if you're evaluating robo-advisers. A score card of short-term returns would be trivia – fun to look at, but generally useless.