In the last two weeks, both Charles Schwab Corp and Fidelity Investments unveiled so-called “robo” advice programs that offer free or very cheap algorithm-driven portfolio management to investors. That strikes fear into the hearts of many financial advisers who typically charge 1 percent or more of assets under management to offer personalized advice to investors.
Some, such as Ritholtz Wealth Management, are responding in kind. Earlier this month the firm launched Liftoff, a digital portfolio management tool aimed at young would-be clients with under $100,000 to invest who want account oversight but don’t need complete wealth management. The new offering aims to give investors easy and inexpensive (0.4 percent of assets per year) access to the firm’s investing strategies and to keep those clients in the fold as their wealth grows, said CEO Josh Brown. Upside, the San Francisco-based startup that provides the technology behind Liftoff, is also working with other registered investment advisers to offer a way to compete with the direct-to-consumer “robo” offerings from such firms as Betterment LLC and Wealthfront Inc., which offer consumers digital-only access to low-cost ETFs and automatic portfolio design and rebalancing through algorithms.
Advisers who fear their business will be undercut by products like these should remember that the current competitive threat is tiny, accounting for less than $5 billion in assets, said Sophie Schmitt, senior analyst at Aite Group, a research firm. So, panic isn’t necessary, though it’s probably a good time to make some moves. “The traditional financial services world is waking up to the reality that clients want to consume financial information digitally and 2014 is a pivotal year,” Schmitt said. Advisers can start to compete with these automated products by offering clients online access and beefing up the technology tools they use themselves when working with clients, she said.