As the world moves increasingly into the digital age, technology-driven solutions continue to threaten the traditional way things are done, and the world of investment management is no exception, as numerous "robo-advisors" have cropped up in recent years with an aim to threaten and disrupt financial advisors. Yet the reality, at least so far, is that virtually all of the offerings are narrowly constrained to just portfolio solutions - where the world of mathematics and algorithms work well - with little capability of addressing the rest of an individual's financial picture.
But perhaps the biggest caveat of robo-advisor-driven solutions is that for many consumers, the real issue is not a cost-efficient portfolio solution, but managing the self-inflicted "behavior gap" where many investors, as a result of their own greed and fear, achieve inferior results. And it's not clear that robo-advisors will have any solution to these behaviorally-driven problems; just as a website that says "eat less and exercise more" doesn't solve the country's obesity problem (because it's a behavioral problem, not an information problem), it's not clear that robo-advisors and their portfolio construction recommendations will fare much better by providing information solutions for what are ultimately investors' behavioral challenges. Furthermore, at this point it's only the human advisors that address the entire set of comprehensive financial planning goals for clients.
Nonetheless, the reality is that a purely human solution isn't always better, either; many of the things advisors do can in fact be implemented far more efficiently with technology, and overall it's important to acknowledge that there are some things that humans do better but some things that really are done better by computers. Which means in the end, the real winner may not be the robo-advisors, nor the human advisors, but the technology-augmented humans - the cyborg advisors - who blend human and technology together into an optimal financial advice solution for consumers.
The Rise Of The Robo-Advisor
One major theme of recent years has been the rise of the so-called "robo-advisor" - online computer platforms that provides financial advice directly to consumers, mathematically analyzing the client situation to come up with portfolio recommendations. These companies, like Betterment and Wealthfront, claim the promise of less expensive and more accessible financial advice for the mass of consumers by cutting out the cost of the advisor.
Using the tools of modern portfolio theory, the robo-advisors have built algorithms to construct optimized efficient-frontier portfolios for their investors (assuming, of course, that you still trust purely quant-algorithm-based portfolio construction in the aftermath of the financial crisis!). Added on top of this portfolio construction advice are some additional value-adds that are conducive to technology scaling (and algorithmic analysis), such as effective asset location (at least if you have multiple types of accounts with the platform), automated rebalancing, and ongoing tax loss harvesting. Each of these features has been shown in separate industry research to potentially bring significant value to the table (although in many client situations, blindly implementing tax loss harvesting without an awareness of client circumstances can actually result in wealth destruction, not wealth enhancement!).
On the other hand, while they do leverage technology for some significant value-adds, at this point the algorithm-driven platforms are generally constrained to only analyzing investment portfolios. To date, no robo-advisors have implemented any algorithms to analyze a client's estate plan and help them understand how to best protect, manage, and distribute money to their heirs. Nor do any robo-advisors evaluate a tax return, or show clients what risks they are exposed to that need to be insured (and how much to insure them for), or coordinate retirement withdrawals with prudent tax planning and when to begin Social Security benefits, etc. In other words, robo-advisors at this point are little more than robo-investment-advisors; they do not compete with comprehensive financial planning, which remains a significant differentiator from commoditized passive strategic portfolio management.
Human Advisors Serving Human Clients
Notwithstanding the lack of comprehensive financial advice, the most significant fundamental problem with a robo-advisor-driven solution is that it assumes our problems are problems of information; if only we had more knowledge, and better tools, we could all achieve financial success. Therefore, as the business pitch goes, the robo-advisors will use technology to scale the solutions for this information problem, bringing quality portfolio solutions to the middle class.
The caveat, though, is that most of our problems are not really problems of information. Having a website that constructs for all Americans a well-balanced portfolio and tells them to save more and spend less won't solve our country's financial woes, any more than having a website that constructs for them a well-balanced diet and tells them to eat less and exercise more would solve our country's obesity crisis. The problem is not one of information, knowledge, and technology-scaled execution. The problem is behavioral.
And behavioral problems are one thing uniquely suited to human-to-human interaction, as we seem to be hard-wired to feel more accountable to other human beings than we do to a computer. It's easy to just stop opening the statements showing your account balance or to stop logging into the website that shows you how badly your investments are doing; it's a lot harder to blow off an established personal relationship with a human advisor serving as your accountability partner. In fact, for years many advisors have suggested that their primary benefit is not designing quality portfolios, but helping clients stick with their portfolios and deal with the so-called "behavior gap" - the difference between the returns the investment markets deliver, and the returns investors actually earn after accounting for their potentially-poorly-timed decisions.
While it's not clear how large the behavior gap is for all investors in the aggregate - although DALBAR has tried to measure the phenomenon for years, its results are highly sensitive to the point of comparison - it's nonetheless clear that there is certainly at least some subset of investors who experience the problem. And for those investors - arguably the ones who need the most help, and are most likely to seek out a human or robo-advisor for assistance - it's just not clear whether a robo-advisor alone can talk them off the ledge while they're in the midst of panicking from a market decline, when there are no human beings to talk to at all (although to their credit, several of the robo-advisors have now hired behaviorists to at least try to tackle the problem). Similarly, it's not clear whether robo-advisors will be able to keep investors from just chasing returns in a bull market (nor is it clear whether the entire growth of robo-advisors in the first place is just investors chasing appealing short-term returns in the first place, as all of the robo-advisors have been established since the financial crisis and none have ever navigated a single bear market!).
The Advisor Of The Future - Not Just Robot Nor Human, But Cyborg
Notwithstanding the importance of having human beings to engage other human beings in their behaviorally-driven financial problems - in addition to the other wide range of tax, estate, insurance, retirement, and additional topics that comprehensive financial planners address - the reality is that while purely robot-driven solutions may not drive enough behavior change, purely human-driven solutions can be remarkably inefficient, which leads to higher costs for consumers and makes financial advice unaffordable for many. While there are some things that humans do far better than computers, there are also many things that computers do far more efficiently than humans.
This is one of the reasons why technology has been on the rise with advisors in their own firms as well. In fact, the aforementioned list of robo-advisor investment value-adds are not unique; most rebalancing software packages used by advisors, from iRebal to Tamarac to TRX, are capable of implementing some or all of this, from good asset location decisions, to timely rebalancing, to tax loss harvesting. Good advisors have actually been leveraging dedicated software and technology to provide all of these features for nearly a decade already since the first rebalancing tools came out, and long before the robo-advisors appeared on the scene! At best, the robo-advisors have simply repackaged (and perhaps done a better job at marketing and communicating) what the best human advisor firms already do (but without the rest of the financial planning advice)!
On the other hand, this kind of technology adoption thus far has been a best practice, not a standard practice. Not all advisors have embraced and implemented technology, as the latest technology survey from Financial Planning magazine revelead that nearly 70% of advisors still have not adopted rebalancing software in their practices. And the distinction is starting to matter, as a recent Fidelity industry study found that the practices of younger Gen X and Gen Y advisors are starting to outperform more established baby boomer advisory firms, larger as a result of their better, smarter tech use.
As time passes, it's becoming increasingly clear that the threat to human advisors is not technology and robots, but technology-augmented humans, bringing together the crucial relationship aspects of working with a human being with the scaled benefits of leveraging technology. This represents both the cutting edge of what many technology-focused advisors are doing now (as supposed by the Fidelity study), as well as recent venture-capital-funded start-ups like Personal Capital and LearnVest that pair technology and an online platform with real human financial planners to connect with (and thus aren't really "robo" at all). In fact, as I've written in the past, heavily-technology-augmented human advisors in a model like LearnVest may be a glimpse of how financial planning to the masses will be delivered in the future.
The bottom line, though, is simply this: in a competition between human advisors and robo-advisors, the real winner may be the technology-augmented human, which I am hereby dubbing the "cyborg" advisor - part human, part technology, integrated together to allow each part to do what it does best for the most efficient, most comprehensive, and most behaviorally accountable client solution!