The rise of the robo-adviser is one of the most important developments of the past decade in personal investing, but let’s not overdramatize.
Robos fill a hugely important retail investing niche and should have a lot more customers than they have attracted so far. But they have also shown us that there are limits on how technology will replace humans in the world of investment advice.
The influence of robo-advisers certainly exceeds their market presence.
Investor Economics, a unit of ISS Market Intelligence, reports that robo-advisers had $5.9-billion in assets as of mid-year, which is substantial but not market-changing. And yet, a reader thought enough of robo-advice to ask this question recently: “My son, who is 14, is starting early in investing and watches the market. He wants to pursue a career in finance. While difficult to predict the future, do you think in 10 years’ time investing will all be done by robo-advisors?”
I do not. I see a small but thriving robo sector, and a large contingent of human advisers who are more focused than they currently are on actually providing financial planning advice.
The rise of the robo is an important development because these firms offer professional portfolio management at a fair cost to investors at all income levels. If you don’t know where to start in building a portfolio, a robo is an excellent starting point.
But portfolio-building is just a component of financial advice. Some robos offer a degree of financial planning, but robo-advisers in general are not set up to answer questions such as how much people need to save for retirement and whether they can afford to help their adult children buy a house. The more human advisers help their clients with matters such as these, the more valuable they become.
Robos do have the investing side of things nailed, though. They build fundamentally sound portfolios and then manage at a very fair cost of 0.5 per cent or less for the most part. This is where the threat to human advisers lies. The ones who make their services all about investing and ignore financial planning are headed for obsolescence.