Welcome to the August 2021 issue of the Latest News in Financial #AdvisorTech – where we look at the big news, announcements, and underlying trends and developments that are emerging in the world of technology solutions for financial advisors!
This month's edition kicks off with the big news that Vanguard has apparently decided that direct indexing is the future, making its first-ever external acquisition of direct indexing platform JustInvest after an initial pilot program with RIAs quickly brought in more than $1B of AUM. Of course, the reality is that if Vanguard is going to put its full scale of resources behind JustInvest and distribute the direct indexing offering to its $3T of assets with financial intermediaries, then it may cause direct indexing to become the future, even if it wasn’t going to be already. Yet on the other hand, with Vanguard deciding to break the mold and acquire externally in an apparent move to quickly “catch up”, it appears that even Vanguard sees both momentum in direct indexing… and an apparent threat to its own core business of index mutual funds and ETFs that it wishes to head off at the pass?
From there, the latest highlights also feature a number of other interesting advisor technology announcements, including:
- Vestwell raises $70M of capital as their 401(k) technology platform for advisors gains momentum
- SIMON Markets raises $100M of capital to fund their rapidly growing marketplace of risk-hedged investment solutions for advisors
- Harness Wealth raises $15M to fund a new advisor lead generation service focused specifically on consumers with significant equity compensation
- Orion launches a new “3-Dimensional” risk tolerance assessment tool that aims to cover tolerance, capacity, and a client’s ability to keep their composure (or not) when markets turn volatile
- Morningstar launches its own new Risk Score ecosystem to help translate ‘abstract’ risk tolerance scores into concrete portfolios that advisors can implement
Read the analysis of these announcements in this month's column, and a discussion of more trends in advisor technology, including:
- RIA In A Box launches a new social media archiving platform to complement its growing suite of compliance tools
- The T3 Advisor Technology conference launches a new “WealthTech DevCon” in partnership with INVENT.us to expand the AdvisorTech dev community
- Fidelity launches a new “Sherlock” data tool for cryptocurrency, but it’s not clear if advisors will trade it
- Carson Wealth gets a ‘tech multiple’ for its RIA business by building its own client portal as large advisory firms increasingly look to add their own layer of proprietary technology value
And be certain to read to the end, where we have provided an update to our popular “Financial AdvisorTech Solutions Map” as well!
*And for #AdvisorTech companies who want to submit their tech announcements for consideration in future issues, please submit to TechNews@kitces.com!
While direct indexing has ‘been around’ for more than 20 years since early pioneers like Parametric originated the strategy as a way to gain tax efficiency for ultra-high-net-worth clients, and gained additional visibility nearly 7 years ago when robo-advisor upstart Wealthfront made the case for ‘democratizing’ direct indexing for mass affluent investors, in practice, adoption of direct indexing strategies has been relatively limited… a niche separately managed account offering for HNW clients through players like Parametric and Aperio, that failed to gain much traction with consumers given the complexity of the sale.
Notably, though, while direct indexing largely originated as a tax alpha strategy – where owning the individual stocks of a major index makes it possible to do tax-loss harvesting at the individual lot level, such that even if “the index” is up, at least some stocks in the index will likely be down and can be harvested – in recent years a number of new technology upstarts have entered the game, making the case that once an index can be disaggregated into the component stocks and managed through technology, it can be adapted in any manner the advisor or client want. For instance, advisors can build their own SRI models by filtering an index at the individual stock level, clients can express their ESG preferences by requesting an overweight to green energy and underweight to vice stocks, advisors can build their own proprietary strategies implemented at the stock level (e.g., a factor-based investing approach where the advisor directly overweights small-cap and value), or entirely client-customized portfolios can be constructed (e.g., building a core S&P 500 index holding by using the existing low-basis stocks the client already had previously and using the direct indexing tools to build the completion portfolio around them).
The growing buzz around direct indexing culminated last fall in big companies starting to make big bets that direct indexing’s time had come, starting with Morgan Stanley acquiring Parametric (via a purchase of Eaton Vance) for $7B, followed shortly thereafter by Blackrock buying Aperio for $1B. Which, in turn, spawned a wave of major investments into newer direct indexing players, from Fidelity staking Ethic Investing with $29M, JPMorgan acquiring OpenInvest, and storied Silicon-Valley VC firm Sequoia staking Vise at a whopping $1B valuation on just $250M of total AUM. Which begins to create a self-fulfilling prophecy: when existing direct indexing players are bought for billions, and new startups receive nearly $100M of venture capital to become the next billion-dollar direct indexing players themselves, the hyper-funding of the direct indexing thesis makes it a reality. Especially when it is coupled with growing pressure on financial advisors themselves to differentiate in an increasingly commoditized world of investment management… for which direct indexing allows for the ultimate in advisor-level customization and client-level personalization.
In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that even indexing pioneer Vanguard is suddenly feeling the competitive threat… leading Vanguard to make its first-ever external acquisition by buying JustInvest to become Vanguard’s own direct indexing solution on the tail of a 2020 ‘pilot’ program that had quickly garnered $1B of AUM. And notably, Vanguard emphasized that JustInvest will specifically augment Vanguard’s “financial intermediary business”… in other words, not to replace the popular index mutual funds and ETFs that Vanguard sells to consumers, but specifically to ameliorate the risk that financial advisors stop using Vanguard’s popular index funds in an effort to use direct indexing tools to differentiate themselves with more customized client portfolios. As in practice, while it was Parametric’s ‘tax alpha’ approach to direct indexing that garnered original interest in the approach, it is creating more customized portfolios – “custom indexing” as opposed to “direct indexing” – that appears to be gaining more momentum, especially at the intersection of rising consumer interest in ESG and advisor pressure to differentiate, which JustInvest solves for with its “Kaleidoscope” offering.
At this point, direct indexing still hasn’t fully proven it can expand into a mainstream solution beyond its niche roots. Though Vanguard’s decision to acquire JustInvest suggests that the firm sees (or fears?) real direct indexing momentum is coming – so much that it couldn’t even wait to build its own solution, and had to try to leapfrog ahead with an acquisition instead. Which, again, may soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as when Blackrock and Vanguard decided a decade ago to make ETFs the future, ETFs over mutual funds became the dominant investment story of the 2010s. So now that Blackrock has Aperio and Vanguard has JustInvest and both are making their bets that advisors using direct indexing tools to create their own customized indexing solutions will be the next big thing of the 2020s… it seems increasingly inevitable that it will be?
The traditional allure of active portfolio management has long been the opportunity to outperform “the markets”, either by doing a better job of selecting the winners (investments that go up) or avoiding the losers (investments that go down). Yet the unfortunate reality is that study after study shows that the majority of managers fail to beat their benchmarks (at least, net of fees), such that in the end, often the “best” pathway to growth is simply to minimize fees and stay the course through the volatility, rather than trying to avoid it. And for those who don’t want to have such a bumpy ride, to simply “own less risky stuff” in the first place (i.e., by owning more bonds and less in stocks), and/or to spend more conservatively to be able to better wait out the volatility when it comes (e.g., the ‘safe withdrawal rate’ approach).
The irony, though, is that because of the compounding effects of “good” stock returns over time, those who do manage to own substantial holdings in equities, stay the course, and keep their withdrawals conservative, often end out compounding far more in their portfolios than they actually needed in the first place – such that those who invest in a balanced portfolio and take a conservative withdrawal rate have an equal likelihood of either spending down all of their principal or accumulating more than 9X(!) their original nest egg over the same multi-decade time horizon. In other words, the long-term compounding growth rate on stocks requires some conservatism or risk management to avoid early depletion, but doing so also increases the likelihood of accumulating far more than what we wanted or needed in the first place. Which raises the question of whether a better approach might be to more ‘surgically’ manage risk by choosing to carve off the extreme upside of return outcomes, in exchange for being able to hedge at least a portion of the downside – an options strategy known as a Collar, where the investor sells an out-of-the-money call option (giving up the upside beyond that point) and uses the proceeds to buy an out-of-the-money put option (eliminating any losses below that point).
The problem, though, is that most advisory firms are not built to manage ‘complex’ options strategies like collars, especially when doing so would require implementation across a wide range of clients, with a wide range of holdings that need to be collared, with varying strike prices and time horizons depending on when they came on board, which can’t always be purchased in certain types of accounts (e.g., IRAs), and then have to be re-upped when the options expire (and/or implemented with longer-dated options that may not be accessible/tradeable on most advisor platforms). Which has led in recent years to a wide range of “packaged products” to achieve the same Collared outcomes, from structured notes to defined-outcome ETFs to registered index-linked annuities (RILAs), that achieve substantively similar outcomes but in a standalone product format that is far easier to purchase and implement systematically for clients.
And now, SIMON Markets – which in 2018 spun off from Goldman Sachs to create a structured note marketplace, and has since expanded into the RILA marketplace as well – has quickly grown to $25B of flows from financial advisors in 2020 alone, and is now announcing a whopping $100M capital round to accelerate the growth of its marketplace of risk-hedged investment vehicles. The appeal of a platform like SIMON, in particular, is that historically, the structured notes marketplace has been relatively inefficient (with a number of sub-optimal products with high internal costs that are difficult to glean because the ‘packaged’ nature of the product makes it impossible to see how much interest spread or other internal markups have been priced in), and the annuity marketplace has similarly been plagued with inefficiencies that result in the products with the most marketing and highest commissions (even if they have higher costs, which often they must have to recover those higher distribution costs) dominating investor flows over the annuities that are objectively ‘the best’ in a fair comparison… while a marketplace like SIMON makes it possible to more easily compare products on equal footing, making it easier to actually figure out which ones are good for clients to implement.
Notably, the industry has spent nearly 20 years debating and trying to figure out the best way to package risk-hedged investment offerings – from indexed annuities and RILAs to structured notes, defined-outcome ETFs to the ‘good old-fashioned hedge fund'. Ultimately, though, SIMON is simply positioning itself to participate in whatever vehicle turns out to be dominant – offering all of the above as choices – and is betting that in the long run, as long as advisors still don’t have a scalable way to manage options Collars across their entire client base directly, but more and more clients are willing to give up “excess upside” in exchange for eliminating at least some of their downside, there will be growing demand from advisors looking for a marketplace to shop for the best version of that risk-hedged solution… implemented via whatever vehicle it may be.
Over the past decade, there has been an immense focus on the technology that can automate investing for consumers – so-called 'robo-advisors' – and the subsequent shift of applying that same ‘robo’ technology for advisors to make their back-offices efficient as well. But the reality is that brokerage accounts are not the only way that consumers save. In fact, for the average American, the bulk of their savings isn’t even in an “investment account”; it’s the equity in their home and the balance in their 401(k) plan.
The caveat when it comes to financial advisors, though, is that for many understandable reasons, most advisor-facing technology is designed to help people with hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars in net worth. There is nothing wrong with that, and for a long time, it was borderline impossible to build a successful advisory practice without serving those types of clients.
In addition, there has sadly been very little progress or innovation in the workplace savings channel because, frankly, it has been a low-profit and low-margin channel and fraught with regulatory risk. Which has left many with a 401(k) user experience that looks like it is stuck in the 1990s, or early 2000s at best, because the ones who have the distribution achieved it by offering technology for free, so long as the workplace used their asset management products. In other words, the 401(k) technology platforms were loss leaders for the asset managers… who not surprisingly woefully underinvested in those user experiences because it wasn’t their core business.
But now, as ‘robo’ technology to automate the advisor’s back office expands, there is not only a growing focus on going ‘down-market’ to serve more average Americans… there is also a shift across channels to help bring advice to the average American via employer retirement plans (and not just the taxable investment account or IRA). And upstart technology providers see the opportunity to transform the 401(k) business by building technology that is focused first and foremost on the end client experience, and using that adoption to drive interest up the distribution chain.
In that vein, Vestwell launched back in 2016 with a vision of bringing the robo-tools that were emerging at the time to support advisors serving the 401(k) channel in particular. Over the years, Vestwell has quickly added infrastructure to power several other payroll-deducted savings programs as well, including HSAs, IRAs, 529s, emergency savings accounts, and more. All built around not trying to compete with advisors for this business, but empowering them to serve more of this type of business.
And now, Vestwell has announced that it is raising a fresh $70M round of capital to continue its mission to help transform workplace savings for small- and medium-sized businesses. Notably, a key participant in Vestwell’s latest round is Morgan Stanley, which along with the funding itself, announced that it is rolling Vestwell out to its 15,000 advisors, which will be a huge boost for Vestwell’s 401(k) distribution. Which is key at its current stage of scaling, where the more distribution it has, the more economies of scale it will get, which will allow it to more profitably serve the rest of the marketplace.
In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Vestwell use some of this capital to “buy assets”, entering the fray of acquiring retirement plan recordkeeping businesses from those looking to offload those plans in the even-more-regulatorily-challenging Department of Labor and Reg BI environment (and increasingly Vestwell’s distribution and scale in the process). Or alternatively, Vestwell may also begin to acquire smaller technology businesses that allow it to expand its own vertical integration; for instance, today Vestwell has great payroll integrations, but acquiring its own payroll provider would provide even more scale and revenue. As frankly, there’s just only ‘so much’ to be built in technology itself – on top of what Vestwell already has – or spent on marketing to advisors, from a $70M war chest, without deploying some of that capital for acquisitions as well.
The key point, though, is simply that it’s ‘game-on’ for a technology renaissance in the 401(k) channel, as the combination of shifting regulatory winds (DoL fiduciary and Reg BI), plus a change in the business and distribution model (as regulators force a separation of behind-the-scenes cross-subsidies that make it more difficult to use technology and record-keeping as a loss leader), is opening the door for new entrants. Especially amongst financial advisors who increasingly are looking at the employer channel as a pathway to serve more clients (but don’t want to get bogged down in the administrative tasks that technology can automate).
In the meantime, with Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and Morgan Stanley all now on Vestwell’s cap table, one has to wonder how long it will be until one of them makes Vestwell an offer it can’t refuse? Only time will tell, but any sizable exit for Vestwell – especially in ‘just’ 5 years since its founding – highlights that despite the buzz of the 2010s that technology would replace human financial advisors, in reality, it’s the technology that supports human financial advisors that is driving the most growth. There has never been a better time to be building advisor-facing software!?
The traditional approach to risk tolerance is a very one-dimensional evaluation of a client’s ability to take risk, typically scored from a range of questions that cover everything from time horizon to investing experience to the infamous question of whether you’d sell, hold, or buy more stocks in the event of a market downturn.
In recent years, this one-dimensional risk tolerance framework has begun to give way to a more two-dimensional view of risk, where risk tolerance (willingness to take risk) is measured separately from risk capacity (financial capability to take risk), recognizing that even if someone can afford to take risk (e.g., significant assets and a long time horizon), if they don’t want to take risk and don’t need to take risk (i.e., low risk tolerance), then they probably shouldn’t.
But the reality is that even when a portfolio aligns to a client’s tolerance and capacity for risk, some clients are simply more behaviorally inclined to keep their composure when the volatile markets come, while others are highly prone to misperceive the risks they’re taking and overreact. Which means even for two clients of identical risk tolerance and capacity, differences in this third dimension – composure - can also result in drastic differences in client behavior that must be managed.
In practice, though, few risk tolerance tools delve so deeply into these second and third dimensions of risk. Through its 2020 acquisition of Brinker Capital, though, Orion brought Dr. Daniel Crosby on staff. Crosby, who has a PhD in Psychology (with a focus on Behavioral Finance), was building a behavioral finance tool prior to the acquisition called Tulip. And now, Orion appears to have harnessed Crosby’s knowledge and experience in behavioral finance and building Tulip to launch their new “3D Risk Profile” tool.
At its core, Orion’s new “3D” risk profiling tool aims to capture all three dimensions of risk – tolerance, capacity, and risk composure by assessing the client’s tendency to be anxious about volatility, to help advisors identify which clients are most likely to be overly elated in bull markets or overly stressed in market declines. In essence, the goal of this new Orion risk tool is to try and predict how a client will respond to expected volatility, and allow the advisor to be a better coach for their clients when the market returns are inexplicably good or stressful.
Notably, using risk tolerance assessment tools to facilitate better client conversations isn’t entirely new. Riskalyze’s tools similarly help to quantify how much volatility a client’s portfolio might experience (e.g., within a 95% confidence interval), to facilitate the advisor-client conversation “while these are big swings, they are expected for a portfolio like this and none of your goals are in jeopardy at the moment. If we begin to get outside of this portfolio’s expected ranges of volatility, we will have a conversation together and take action from there.”
Still, though, Orion’s solution remains unique, because it doesn’t just aid in the conversation at the time of volatility (based on expectations that were set in the risk assessment process), it is the first tool that aims to allow advisors to pre-empt those conversations with their clients via psychological profiling. “Hello, Mr./Mrs. client, you have a tendency to act or think a certain way when the market performs like this. Here is our recommendation, and what we have been doing for you during these times of volatility.”
Or, as Orion CEO Eric Clarke stated: “Using technology to augment human compassion and insight is the new frontier of fiduciary service.”
Within the next decade, will measurable risk composure scores and psychological profiles become part of KYC (Know Your Client) requirements for fiduciary advisors? Only time will tell, but this development is only positive. The more that risk becomes core to client conversations, rather than a box to be checked for suitability requirements, the better off we will be.
While Riskalyze has been the ‘risk tolerance software provider to beat’ in the competitive landscape for nearly a decade, the reality is that they’re not the longest-standing provider of risk tolerance software for financial advisors. That honor goes to Finametrica, which was developed in the late 1990s to be the most academically rigorous assessment of risk tolerance, in an era where virtually all firms simply used “homegrown” risk tolerance questionnaires designed by compliance departments that may have been deemed sufficient for compliance purposes but did a poor job actually assessing a client’s tolerance for risk. As simply put, writing good risk tolerance questions is actually a very hard thing to do.
The caveat, though, is that the “best” questions for assessing risk tolerance are free from industry jargon, and may not overly focus on market volatility at all, instead drilling down to the more abstract trait that is our psychological tolerance for engaging in risky tradeoffs. The good news is that there’s an entire branch of psychology – called psychometrics – that exists to provide a process for creating valid and reliable assessments of such abstract psychological traits. The bad news is that it means, almost by definition, that the best risk tolerance assessment questions will have no clear connection to actual client portfolios. Which makes it very hard for the advisor to know what to implement once the client completes the process!
Accordingly, it’s notable that this month, Morningstar announced the launch of a new ‘Morningstar Risk Ecosystem’, which builds upon the Finametrica risk tolerance assessment tool they acquired via PlanPlus early last year, with a specific focus to solve for the ‘gap’ between abstract risk tolerance assessment and concrete portfolio implementation.
Unsurprisingly, Morningstar is taking a more academic approach to the problem, and is building on its Risk Profiler tool with two new additions: a Morningstar “Portfolio Risk Score” (that allows advisors to ‘score’ their own portfolios for riskiness), and a “Risk Comfort Range” that provides the missing link by mapping a client’s Risk Profiler score to the range of Portfolio Risk Scores that would be appropriate for them. In other words, Morningstar created a framework to score any advisor’s model (or more client-customized) portfolios, and map which of those advisor models fits the client’s (abstract) risk tolerance score.
Ultimately, it’s worth noting that Morningstar’s approach still remains relatively “one-dimensional” – at least relative to the 3-dimensional approach with tolerance, capacity, and composure, being taken in Orion’s recent launch. In the end, the primary goal of its new offering appears to be a desire to definitively resolve Finametrica’s longest-standing challenge – the gap in how to map abstract risk tolerance scores to a concrete portfolio the advisor can recommend and implement for the client. Though given Morningstar’s sheer reach – and the fact that its new Risk Ecosystem will be embedded into Advisor Workstation and Morningstar’s enterprise components – its new risk framework is likely to see rapid adoption (at least amongst its existing base of advisors).
With both Morningstar and Orion launching ‘free’ risk tools embedded in their platforms, one has to wonder whether this is an existential threat to other players like Riskalyze, Totum Risk, Tolerisk, Risk Pro, or Pocket Risk, or if it is a “rising tides lift all boats” situation? Though, in the end, when the T3 Advisor Technology survey still shows that the overwhelming majority of advisors don’t use any risk tolerance software at all – instead ostensibly just relying on client conversations and compliance-created assessments – it appears that risk tolerance software solutions still have ample room to grow?
When the robo-advisors first arrived, their vision was to put human financial advisors out of business, under the auspices that it shouldn’t take hours of work and thousands of dollars to open an investment account and implement it into a diversified asset-allocation portfolio. The reality, though, is that “account opening” is not the core value proposition of the human financial advisor, either; in fact, when the robo-advisors arrived, most human advisors said they wished they had such efficient technology tools as well, to free up more of their time to provide their real value-adds to clients. Or stated more simply, robo-advisors were never actually an alternative to the human financial advisor; they were a replacement to the financial advisor’s back office.
In fact, one of the most ‘surprising’ aspects of advisory firms over the past decade is that the explosion of technology has brought virtually no measurable increase in advisor productivity as measured by revenue/professional or clients/professional. In has, though, brought about significant improvements in back-office productivity, as advisory firms today drive nearly 26% more revenue/staff as compared to the early 2010s, with the rise of everything from better digital onboarding tools to more CRM-driven processes and workflow engines.
The end result of this trend is that a growing number of AdvisorTech firms are trying to get into the business of back-office automation for advisory firms. In some cases, the shift comes from platforms that showed up as digital onboarding “robo” tools – e.g., AdvisorEngine – that have expanded further into the back office (e.g., AdvisorEngine acquiring Junxure CRM). In other cases, though, the pivot comes from AdvisorTech solutions that started even further in the back office – e.g., Docupace and its cloud-based document management solution – that is expanding further into all of the back-office workflows associated with those documents.
In that context, it’s notable that Docupace recently announced the acquisition of Jaccomo. Nominally, Jaccomo was in the business of helping broker-dealers handle advisor compensation – in particular, the calculation of commissions from a wide range of sources, and ensuring the right commissions with the right splits received the right payout rights and were deposited in the right advisor’s bank accounts, with its jCore solution. Which over the years has expanded further into facilitating data integrations (given the amount of data that Jaccomo had to parse through in order to determine compensation), and compliance oversight (given the amount of data on which Jaccomo could do real-time surveillance). All of which can complement (and be integrated with) Docupace’s own document management (and the onboarding and workflow systems they’ve built with it) to expand into (and automate) even more of the broker-dealer’s back office.
From the broader industry perspective, the significance of the Docupace acquisition is that while so much of the focus of “robo” tools has been on client portals, onboarding, and the “front end” client experience, there is a quiet war underway to take over, consolidate, and automate the advisor’s back office, creating the potential that in the future advisor platforms themselves may seek to differentiate themselves not by the amount of service support they provide in the home office, but how little service support their advisors will need in the first place (thanks to back-office automation)?
Historically, the “compliance business” was a business of consultants that provided advice on compliance systems and processes, which initially were paperwork-driven processes but more recently have increasingly enshrined into technology, from CRM workflows to social media archiving to cybersecurity.
In 2018, though, private equity firm Aquiline Capital took a stake in RIA In A Box, turning what was historically a compliance consulting solution into a technology-based SaaS business that provides a ‘compliance platform’ for advisory firms to manage their own compliance obligations… along with the consultants necessary to provide advice for more customized needs.
In the years since, RIA In A Box has increasingly expanded its technology capabilities around various compliance functions, from vendor due diligence to employee trade monitoring, in addition to the upfront RIA registration and ongoing RIA compliance.
And now, RIA In A Box has announced the rollout of a new digital archiving solution for websites, email, and social media accounts, along with the associated communications review workflows to monitor for keywords.
While compliance isn’t always the most fun topic to bring up at a dinner party, it is a necessary part of running any practice. And RIA In A Box is on the path to helping advisors consolidate many compliance-related functions into one solution. This seems to be a trend across the industry, as the pendulum swings back from completely open architecture and trying to integrate best of breed platforms, into the appeal of having one vendor that ‘does it all’ (at least in a single category) and makes it all just work together. In other words, why have a stack of 15 vendors, when you can have 5 that cover the key areas? After all, reducing the advisor technology stack of vendors by 10 also reduces integration points of failure, contract renewals, cybersecurity risk, and the number of tech support conversations by 10. It also likely eliminates a lot of redundant functionality that multiple vendors have as more and more try to expand into increasingly overlapping domains. (How many times does the typical advisory firm pay for redundant client portals!?)
RIA In A Box appears particularly well positioned in the compliance domain, as while advisors often form deep attachments to financial planning tools (e.g., MoneyGuidePro or eMoney or RightCapital), or to portfolio management tools (e.g., Orion or Black Diamond or Tamarac), because they’re at the center of client conversations that repeat over and over (and advisors thus get very comfortable and don’t want to change their conversations)… but it’s rare to ever meet anyone who was particularly loyal to their social media archiving vendor. Which makes the opportunity for consolidation in compliance technology – or RIA In A Box simply building each component for themselves and offering it as part of an ever-growing all-in-one compliance platform – even more appealing when executed well.
Owning equity in a (fast-growing) company has long been one of the best ways to build significant wealth, and with the explosion of tech over the past few decades, many are getting access to equity and creating wealth in ways they never have before. However, few things are as confusing or as complex as the tax aspects of equity compensation from an early-stage growth company. For which the stakes are high, as typically people only get one shot at a major liquidity event such as a company being sold or going public, and poor advice can be extremely costly when it comes to stock options and other equity vehicles.
Enter Harness Wealth, which provides a matchmaker platform to pair (prospective) clients facing complex equity decisions with specialized service providers such as advisors, attorneys, and tax professionals (along with its own in-house Harness Tax offering).
Like other players in the increasingly popular category of ‘lead generation services for advisors’, Harness generates its revenue by being paid referral fees from the firms it connects clients to. For which it is will likely be able to generate ‘above-average’ fees from each referred client, simply given the concentration of wealth associated with equity compensation and private company liquidity events. In other words, lead generation services targeted at a niche of above-average-wealth consumers have the potential for above-average referral fees for Harness.
In that vein, it’s not entirely surprising to see that Harness Wealth has now raised a $15M round of financing, funded in part by the very venture capital firms that are also funding other technology startups whose future IPO, SPAC, acquisition, and other liquidity events may fuel future Harness clients!
Ultimately, though, Harness will still have to live or die by the same challenge that faces any lead generation platform – how to scalably generate the volume of leads necessary to refer affluent (equity compensation) clients to advisors to earn their referral fees. For which it is notable that, even as lead generation platforms are only just now really getting underway with the recent funding rounds of SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor and Zoe Financial and the like, the shift from “generalist to specialist” is already underway as Harness aims to distinguish itself from the others with its particular equity-compensation focus.
Time will tell, but Harness is tapping into a very real need for many people. Timely this week, as Robinhood announced it was going public. They have over 1,000 employees, most of which are the exact demographic for what Harness is offering. And Robinhood’s growth story is just one of many.
One of the greatest challenges of the financial advice business is simply getting clients who will pay for financial advice. Not that there isn’t a willingness and interest to pay for advice amongst a growing number of consumers. But given the low trust levels of the financial services industry, and the reality that it’s very difficult for a prospective client to figure out whether or not that advisor is actually any good at what they do (not to mention whether the advisor is a fit for that client in particular), getting clients is difficult. Thus why a recent Kitces Research study found that the average Client Acquisition Cost for financial advisors is a whopping $3,119 per client.
Today, the increasingly popular approach to solve this matchmaking challenge is for financial advisors to specialize in a niche, such as Chick-Fil-A operators or even bass fisherman. It narrows the universe of clients who will work with a particular advisor, gives the advisor an opportunity to build a reputation and become ‘known’ amongst at least a particular segment of (ideal) clients, and if they find each other, it’s likely that it will be a mutual fit.
For most businesses and industries, though, the process of finding the ‘right fit’ has become simpler, thanks to the rise of the internet and an ever-growing number of platforms that provide reviews of service providers, from Angie’s List to Yelp. As from the consumer’s end, the process can be simplified down to: which providers have the capability to solve my problems and have good reviews from other people who are able to affirm the provider did a good job?
For financial advisors, this wasn’t a feasible path, because industry regulations for decades have barred advisors from soliciting and using client testimonials in their marketing. But with the recent SEC rule change now permitting testimonials in full effect, new platforms are emerging to fill the void.
The latest example is Finance Friends, which has launched as something akin to a “Yelp for Advisors” approach to crowdsource consumer reviews and identify the best financial advisors. Clients can confidentially submit information about themselves and their desires, search advisory firms that seem to be a good fit, match with an advisor on the spot, or even perform live chat, as a means of providing a lower-commitment way of engaging with an advisory firm. And once matched, consumers can return to leave a review for the advisor’s services that will help guide others in the future.
Conceptually, this approach is clearly appealing. But Yelp works great for finding a restaurant or a coffee shop because the consequences are limited if it doesn’t work out. Whereas the consequences for a poor decision are tremendously high, and the switching costs when an advisor relationship doesn’t work out are painful. (Thus why so many clients stay with relatively mediocre advisors year after year!?) Which raises the question of whether consumers will really trust finding a financial advisor through third-party reviews the way they do when looking for dinner on a Thursday night?
On the other hand, given that the financial advice business is so confusing for consumers, a case can be made that a Yelp-for-Advisors platform may be especially appealing, because the average consumer doesn’t know how to vet whether an advisor is really “expert enough”, which makes reviews from other clients of the advisor especially appealing as a guide. Still, though, Yelp works because the average business has thousands of patrons over time, such that even if just 1% to 2% of them leave reviews, it’s possible to get to a critical mass of feedback that guides the decisions of others. Whereas if the average advisor has fewer than 100 individual clients, there may only be 1-2 reviews per advisor, which isn’t very compelling. Ironically, it would only be the “mega” advisory firms, with multiple advisors all collecting reviews for the firms, that would likely achieve the necessary volume of reviews to convey trust. Which doesn’t exactly solve the matchmaking problem, as the largest advisory firms already have the most scale to market themselves (it’s the solo advisors who struggle the most).
Of course, even if the Yelp-for-Advisors model can work, it’s still necessary to solve the infamous chicken-and-egg problem of review sites – consumers won’t use it until there are enough reviews to be useful, but it’s hard to get enough reviews until consumers start using it. Will Finance Friends be able to get the flywheel going? We’ll see.
Building a prospective investment portfolio for a client to achieve their goals involves first and foremost doing analysis on the available investment universe to determine what the “good” investments are for a particular investment objective. As while the particular investment building blocks may change over time – from stocks and bonds in the early days, to mutual funds, ETFs, and a growing number of alternative investments – the need to analyze the data to make the investment selection is ever-present. Which over the years has spawned an entire category of tools to provide the requisite investment research and analytics, from the old stalwarts like Morningstar and Bloomberg to more recent ‘up-and-comers’ like YCharts and Kwanti.
When it comes to the recent boom in cryptocurrencies, though – from Bitcoin to Ethereum to the infamous Dogecoin – the reality is that the data itself is still limited and not so readily available… at least at the depth and level to which advisors constructing client portfolios would typically expect. In fact, the dearth of crypto data has spawned a number of startups that aim to fill the void by collecting and (re-)selling the data… a form of “Morningstar for crypto” solution.
And now the latest newcomer in the space is Fidelity, via its Fidelity Center for Applied Technology (FCAT) innovation team developed “Sherlock”. For $500/month, advisors can use Sherlock to leverage a Bloomberg-style dashboard of data on a wide range of cryptocurrencies’ price and volume data, back-test investment models based on that historical data, track news coverage, and social media trends, and soon be able to track derivatives on cryptocurrencies as well. In essence, “everything” that a cryptocurrency trader might want.
Except the caveat is that it’s not clear that advisors are looking to trade cryptocurrencies for their clients anyone soon… in a world where advisors are less and less likely to trade any kind of individual security, instead preferring pooled investment vehicles like mutual funds or where a more active strategy is desired utilizing ETFs as the ‘trading unit’ of choice. Especially given that an advisor can get the analytics on everything else they might choose to invest in for less than the fee that Fidelity’s Sherlock would charge for just the data and analytics on cryptocurrencies alone.
In fact, the reality is that a number of other startups trying to build businesses around cryptocurrency data have already been struggling or shut down entirely, as the companies struggle to find a critical mass of traders who are willing to pay for data, given that ‘retail’ investors typically don’t buy professional platforms, the SEC’s limitations on pooled cryptocurrency vehicles (i.e., no crypto mutual funds or ETFs, at least thus far) eliminates most asset managers as a potential… and advisory firms typically aren’t day trading anything (whether stocks, bonds, or crypto).
In the long run, if cryptocurrencies do continue to gain momentum, it seems likely that at some point, they will be incorporated into other investment vehicles – e.g., an eventual SEC approval of cryptocurrency ETFs – which may both expand the market of firms that would buy crypto data solutions like Sherlock, and also provide a more likely pathway for advisors themselves to begin to make at least small allocations of client portfolios into cryptocurrency. But for the time being, it doesn’t seem likely that an advisory firm would pay Fidelity’s Sherlock as much or more for ‘just’ crypto data than it might be paying for each advisor to have research tools for everything else they invest in for their clients?
Despite the forecasts a decade ago that robo-advisors and commoditization would decimate the human advisor business, in practice robo-advisors have struggled to grow while the human advice business is flourishing… to the point that strong growth and healthy margins have led to one record-breaking year after another for advisory firm mergers and acquisitions, a reported “50-75 buyers for every seller”, and so many dollars chasing so few advisory firms for sale that advisory firm valuations are also setting new records year after year, from what was historically an average of 2X revenue (or a valuation of about 1.5% of AUM given an average revenue yield of 0.75%) to deals that are rumored to be happening at 2.5X to 3X revenue (or a valuation of ~2% of the firm’s AUM). Accordingly, even back in 2016, a number of heads turned when Ron Carson’s advisory firm sold a 29% stake to Long Ridge Equity Partners for $35M, valuing what at the time was $6B of Carson AUM at $120M (or about 2% of the firm’s AUM).
But this month, Carson Wealth announced that Long Ridge was exiting, Bain Capital was taking over their stake (coupled with a fresh infusion of cash for additional growth), and Carson’s now-$17B of AUM was being valued at a stunning $1B+ of enterprise value… which means after growing AUM by ‘just’ about 3X in the past 5 years, Carson was being priced 8X higher in enterprise value, expanding its price tag to nearly 6% of its AUM! And raising questions about whether Carson has set a new high-water mark in the incredibly buoyant valuation of RIAs. Notably, though, in its announcement Bain did not state that it was acquiring an RIA or a wealth management firm, but a “financial technology and services” leader… suggesting that Carson Wealth may not have been valued “as an RIA” at all, but first and foremost as a tech company (that ‘also’ does wealth management!?)?
Notably, from a revenue perspective, Carson is in the ‘traditional’ wealth management business, with both its employee-RIA model (Carson Wealth), and its TAMP platform for affiliated advisors (Carson Partners), alongside a practice management platform called Carson Coaching. But unlike most advisory firms, it has built its own proprietary layer as well – in particular, Carson CX, a client portal that clients can use for their own personal financial management (akin to Mint.com, eMoney, or Personal Capital). Which Carson has indicated will in the future not only be available for Carson clients, but also to the broader public whose lives are less complex and don’t need an advisor… or at least, not yet.
In other words, Carson CX appears to be getting positioned as a lead generation portal for prospects, who can aggregate assets and keep track of their finances… and provide a direct conduit for Carson to reach out to them when they have accumulated enough wealth to become a client, just as Personal Capital did over the past decade to power its own growth. (Where the key to Personal Capital’s success was using its PFM portal not just for business efficiency in serving clients, but as a prospecting tool.) In an environment where powering advisor lead generation has actually become one of the hottest AdvisorTech categories (from Zoe Financial raising $10M, to Harness Wealth raising $15M, and SmartAsset reaching ‘unicorn’ $1B+ valuation status with a $110M capital round driven by the growth of its financial advisor lead-generation solution.
In the AdvisorTech context, though, a growing hunger for larger advisory firms to build their own ‘middleware’ layer of technology, and their own advisor dashboards and client portals – as witnessed other recent announcements like Mercer Advisors adding a new Chief Technology Officer role on its Executive Team – signals a more fundamental shift in the AdvisorTech landscape itself, where independent advisory firms historically bought software ‘off the shelf’, while mega-firms built it themselves, but in the future, the expectation may become that AdvisorTech tools are expected to be the engine that powers behind the scenes, but must re-architect for an even-more-API-based microservices structure to make it easier for independent advisory firms to build their own interfaces and value layer on top?
The T3 conference is the longest-standing and largest trade show event for advisor technology, organized by AdvisorTech guru Joel Bruckenstein to showcase the entire landscape of technology solutions for financial advisors. Nominally, the T3 conference is an opportunity for advisors to walk the exhibit hall, shop for their needs, and see the latest and greatest. But in practice, the T3 conference has also become a gathering place for leaders of AdvisorTech firms themselves, spawning new integrations, partnerships, and even the occasional merger or acquisition that initiated from a chance meeting at T3.
The caveat, though, is that AdvisorTech firms have tended to send their business leaders – CEOs, Chief Revenue or Growth Officers, and perhaps the CTO – but not the actual developers, even though they too can benefit from networking and deeper relationships with other developers (with whom they will someday be building integrations anyway!?). And so, in an attempt to deepen the AdvisorTech developer community, T3 has announced a partnership with INVENT.us (which provides consulting and custom development work for FinServ enterprises transitioning to the cloud) to launch a new “WealthTech DevCon”… a 2-day developer conference that will run concurrently with the broader T3 Advisor Conference.
In practice, the primary focus of the new INVENT WealthTech DevCon is to help developers come together to build in the INVENT.us ecosystem – which uses a cloud-native approach to its development work – with content focusing on microservices architecture, building on Kubernetes, leveraging big data and data lakes, and creating workflows across microservices applications. Accordingly, in addition to an agenda of developer sessions themselves, the event will also feature an “INVENT Developers Challenge”, where developers have a hackathon-style opportunity to build new applications on-site, which are then pitched to ‘industry celebrity’ judges, and the winner is announced and presented to the entire T3 audience in a subsequent general session at the conference.
From a broader perspective, though, the significance of the new WealthTech DevCon is that – akin to the Orion Fuse event, which first brought this approach of bringing together AdvisorTech developers for a hackathon to the WealthTech industry several years ago – it creates real opportunities for the developer community to deepen its own relationships, which helps to attract and keep developer talent in the industry, and the potential to help improve overall consistency in everything from development approaches to API and data standards, as developers who spend time together connecting with and learning from one another maintain better communication channels across companies in the months and years that follow.
For AdvisorTech firms that are interested in sending their senior developers and architects, registration for the WealthTech DevCon is available directly on the INVENT website, with a nominal cost of just $500 for the 2-day event.
In the meantime, we’ve updated the latest version of our Financial AdvisorTech Solutions Map with several new companies, including highlights of the “Category Newcomers” in each area to highlight new FinTech innovation!
So what do you think? Is direct indexing the future, and/or will Vanguard putting its heft behind it make it so? How much appetite will there be amongst financial advisors for more ‘risk-hedged’ investment vehicles on the SIMON marketplace? Will Advisor Review Sites gain traction with solutions like Finance Friends, or will consumers prefer more direct “we figure it out for you” matchmaking solutions like Harness Wealth? And what would it take for cryptocurrency to actually start gaining real traction with financial advisors?