Welcome to the November 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 Schwab is working on its own internal “Personalized [Direct] Indexing” solution, that is expected to become available to both its retail investors and the RIAs on its platform, in what Schwab itself describes as a “freight train” coming for mutual funds and ETFs in what it is calling a new era of “personalization”… from the advice that advisors provide, to the (direct-indexing-based) personalized portfolios that Schwab will bring to the table. And in the process, attempt to win away a potential of trillions in market share from the existing mutual fund and ETF complex?
From there, the latest highlights also feature a number of other interesting advisor technology announcements, including:
- Fidelity launches real-time fractional share trading, in what is widely viewed as a signal that it, too, is working on a direct indexing offering
- Addepar acquires AdvisorPeak rebalancing software to expand from performance reporting to full-scale portfolio management
- White Glove acquires Gainfully as service companies to help financial advisors increasingly acquire their own (proprietary) tech to better scale themselves
- Panoramix rolls out a new Pro edition that provides both GIPS-compliant composite tracking and its own rebalancing software tool that is aggressively priced for smaller/newer RIAs
Read the analysis about these announcements in this month's column, and a discussion of more trends in advisor technology, including:
- Envestnet partners with Healthpilot to help advisors facilitate better Medicare enrollment choices for their clients
- Flourish Crypto launches a solution that will allow advisors to trade their clients’ direct-held Bitcoin and other cryptoassets in discretionary portfolios
- Microsoft launches a new Financial Services Cloud to compete against Salesforce FSC for the largest advisor enterprises
- Riskalyze overhauls its Portfolios engine for major speed enhancements (and a signal that it’s investing in itself for the long run!)
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 [email protected]!
For most of its history over the past 20 years, “Direct Indexing” was a relatively narrow niche offering for a small subset of ultra-high-net-worth investors. In part, the reach of direct indexing was narrow because the transaction costs of holding hundreds of individual stocks comprising an index – instead of just a single index mutual fund or ETF – meant that a sizable amount of capital was needed to ensure that each per-stock trading commission was not a material drag on total returns (i.e., $9.99 trades on hundreds of stocks in a $250k account would be quite problematic, whereas the same trades on a $25M account would be a rounding error). And, in practice, direct indexing was also narrowly applied to HNW investors simply because the primary driver of direct indexing was the ‘tax alpha’ generated by being able to do tax-loss harvesting on the individual shares, which is inherently more valuable for those in higher tax brackets (who generate greater marginal tax savings from the losses that are harvested).
In recent years, though, the advent of “ZeroCom” – $0 trading commissions on stocks – has fundamentally altered the potential reach and scalability of direct indexing. As ultimately, one of the originating purposes of mutual funds (and later exchange-traded funds) was to aggregate together individual investors on a pooled basis so professional managers could use their institutional economies of scale to implement trades at a lower cost. But when trading costs are eliminated, in theory, anyone with the technology to track and manage their allocations to a wide range of stocks can implement their own strategies cost-effectively. In other words, direct indexing technology plus ZeroCom trading has the potential to make mutual funds and ETFs ‘unnecessary’ and irrelevant.
Over the past year, this realization has spawned a massive wave of traditional asset managers acquiring up-and-coming direct indexing technology providers, in an apparent attempt to either capitalize on the trend, or at least recognize that if direct indexing is going to be a threat, it’s better to have it occur by them (via their own newly acquired subsidiary) than to them. Accordingly, in the span of barely 12 months, Blackrock acquired Aperio, Fidelity funded a capital round into Ethic Investing, Vanguard acquired JustInvest, and Franklin Templeton acquired Canvas.
And now this month, Schwab revealed that it is working on its own internal direct indexing solution. Dubbed “Personalized Indexing”, Schwab’s new offering is somewhat unique in that it appears to be positioned to capitalize on several different direct indexing trends, including using direct indexing for tax-loss harvesting benefits, using direct indexing as a way to craft ESG portfolios (e.g., by screening out undesirable companies or industries like tobacco or fossil fuels, or setting client-specified overweights to desired areas of investment like green energy or women-founded enterprises), and more generally using direct indexing to implement whatever “thematic investing” approach the client wishes. In other words, while tax-loss harvesting benefits remain a highlight of the Schwab offering – in fact, the strategies will reportedly only be available in taxable investment accounts to start – the emphasis is on “personalized” (i.e., customized to client preferences) over just ‘tax-efficient’.
The significance from the Schwab perspective is that the rise of direct indexing represents a much greater revenue opportunity than the current trend of ETF investing. As ETFs are uniquely low revenue for platforms like Schwab, as there are no 12b-1 or sub-TA fees as exist for mutual funds, limited securities lending opportunities (as most ETFs do not have much short-selling opportunity), and a limited number of trades to which Payments For Order Flow (PFOF) can be earned. By contrast, when investors using the Schwab platform implement via direct indexing – and hold hundreds of individual stocks instead of a single ETF comprised of those stocks – Schwab has far more securities lending opportunities, far more trades on the table for PFOF, the opportunity for Schwab to earn index licensing fees by having its own Schwab-designed indices be the ones that Personalized Indexing replicates, and most substantively the potential to charge a ‘wrapper’ fee for implementing the direct indexing trades (and in practice, Schwab’s Personalized Indexing is indeed being filed as a Separately Managed Account offering for which Schwab can/would ostensibly earn a management fee).
Accordingly, the rise of direct indexing not only represents a major threat to mutual funds and especially ETFs in general, but it also represents an opportunity for brokerage platforms to recapture the revenue opportunities that come with investors who trade and hold individual stocks over using mutual funds and especially ETFs. Which makes it no surprise that at its recent Schwab IMPACT conference, it characterized “Personalized Investing” (a not-so-subtle nod to its own Personalized Indexing rollout coming soon) as a coming “freight train” and made the case that “'The idea that I’m going to take my money and simply turn it over to some fund or an ETF and just trust that that manager or maybe trust that that index is going to invest the way I want’ is no longer realistic”. Or stated more simply: Schwab is planning to come like a freight train at mutual funds and ETFs with its new Personalized [Direct] Indexing solution.
Given this opportunity, Schwab has indicated that it expects to make direct indexing available to both investors directly, and to advisors using its platform. Though, as with Schwab’s own Intelligent Portfolios ‘robo’ solution, it remains to be seen whether/how willing RIAs who custody with Schwab will be to use a solution that is also already available directly to investors using Schwab without an advisor. Schwab itself appears to be sensing the concern in advance, and thus is emphasizing the “personalization” dynamic, emphasizing at its recent IMPACT conference that the RIA value proposition “has always been built on creating a personalized experience”.
The key point, though, is simply that when platforms as large as Schwab see direct indexing as the Next Big Thing – if only to bolster their own platform business as a more-profitable alternative to ETFs – and are putting major resources towards making it available to investors and via advisors, the rise of direct indexing may be shifting from an emerging trend to a fait accompli?
Over the past decade, “fractional share trading” has become an increasingly popular way to bring stock trading to the next generation of (still young and small-dollar-amount) investors. Popularized with young-investor-focused new stock trading apps like Robinhood and Stash, the ability to buy fractional shares makes it feasible to invest as little as a few dollars at a time into the stock market, as someone who doesn’t have enough to even buy a single whole share of stock can still become a shareholder.
Of course, the reality is that those with relatively small dollar amounts have long been able to invest ‘fractionally’, through the use of mutual funds, which are divisible into small fractions of shares because they’re small slices of a large pooled investment fund, and trading is facilitated by the fact that mutual fund shares all trade once in the aggregate at the end of the day (which means that the fund itself can do however many whole-share sales are necessary to raise the cash to redeem each fractional-share investor).
However, fractional share trading in individual shares of stock, or ETFs, is more complex, because the trades are not naturally pooled together as they are with mutual funds. In fact, the early solutions to facilitate fractional share trading often did so by implementing it similar to mutual fund trading – where the platform would batch together fractional-share trades across multiple investors, either with limited-time trading windows in the day (or a single batch trade at the end of the day). By doing so, a large number of individual fractional shares would group together into a single (more manageable) fractional share transaction; for instance, 50 investors each trading 0.90 shares end out doing a single aggregated trade for 45.5 shares, which means 45 whole-share units and just one 0.5 share tail that the trading platform has to cover itself. Which means at a ‘cost’ of one partial share that the firm has to round out, it can offer fractional trading for all of its investors.
The popularity of fractional share trading – and the growing market share of upstarts like Robinhood and Stash – has pushed even ‘traditional’ online brokerage platforms in recent years to roll out their own fractional trading options, from Schwab’s Stock Slices to Fidelity’s Stocks By The Slice, as they all try to capture their share of next-generation investors.
The caveat, though, is that the ‘traditional’ approach to fractional share trading can be more problematic for RIAs, as it doesn’t always result in the ideal price execution (due to the delays of trading into specified time windows for batching purposes)… which is especially challenging to firms that have both greater pressure to meet and beat their benchmarks (which can be undermined by less-than-ideal trading execution), and an outright fiduciary obligation to ensure they get Best Execution for their clients.
In this context, it’s notable that this month Fidelity announced that it is now implementing a system for advisors to do real-time fractional share trading. RIAs will be able to implement fractional share purchases of stocks and ETFs down to the 3rd decimal place (i.e., 0.001 units of shares), and the trades will be implemented immediately (though they must be market or limit orders, and the orders are only good for [i.e., must be filled within] one day).
The opportunity to implement fractional share trading as a service unto itself probably won’t be of interest to most financial advisors, who tend to skew towards more affluent clients – “at least” the mass affluent with $100k+ of investable assets – who generally don’t have problems buying whole-share units. Making fractional trading at best a workaround for a small number of unusually-high-price stocks like Berkshire Hathaway Class A shares ($400k+ per share) or Amazon stock ($3.3k+ per share). And perhaps a nice convenience for some ‘accommodation’ clients (e.g., children of existing clients) who have smaller accounts and also have trouble buying even popular ETFs in whole units with smaller dollar amounts like their annual IRA contribution (though advisors can and often do simply use more-divisible mutual funds in such instances).
However, Fidelity’s rollout of real-time fractional share trading is a big deal for the potential implementation of any kind of direct indexing strategy on the Fidelity platform, where clients might split “a few hundred thousand dollars” across hundreds of stocks, which can more readily cause individual holdings to not be easily divisible into whole-share units (e.g., a $300k account split across 500 stocks is only $600 per stock, which is problematic if the stock is trading for $160/share and the investor cannot easily buy 3.75 shares).
Which means at a minimum, real-time fractional trading will make it easier for Fidelity advisors to use third-party direct indexing SMAs on their platform, from Parametric to Aperio to newer offerings like OSAM’s Canvas or Ethic Investing (which Fidelity itself has made a strategic investment into). In fact, Fidelity itself noted with its fractional share trading release that “With our industry offering more personalization for investors, advisors have been looking for a way to more finely tune investor portfolios”, a rather direct nod towards the emerging direct indexing trend.
Although ultimately, the real question is whether Fidelity is simply trying to facilitate the rising demand for direct indexing on its platform – including through its own Ethic Investing partnership – or if the firm is eyeing its own proprietary direct indexing solution to compete with Schwab’s in the year(s) to come as well?
In the early days (e.g., the 1980s and 1990s!) of independent advisors managing client portfolios, all trading – typically of a client’s mutual funds – occurred through the RIA custodian’s platform, and the performance of those mutual funds was evaluated through third-party research tools like Morningstar. As the mutual funds became increasingly accessible to consumers directly, though, advisors shifted from ‘just’ buying mutual funds to creating entire asset-allocated portfolios of funds, where the value proposition was built not just around the selection (and performance) of individual funds, but the performance of the portfolio as a whole. Which meant advisors needed software to track the performance of their asset-allocated diversified portfolios.
To meet this need, early players like PortfolioCenter and Advent Axys filled the void, rounded out with a new wave of players that saw rapid growth in the 2000s, including Orion, Black Diamond, and Tamarac. The common thread across them all was the ability to download security-level transaction data directly from the RIA custodians, and use it to generate client-by-client account- or household-level reports of their portfolios, and how the advisor’s investment performance compared to the appropriate benchmark.
However, as independent advisory firms began to grow and scale – gaining significant momentum in the 2000s – and increasingly began to systematize their investment management process into a series of standardized model portfolios that were offered to all clients, it became increasingly necessary to not just trade client portfolios (e.g., research a new fund and then buy it through the RIA custodian’s platform), but to monitor client portfolios for potential rebalancing trades of existing holdings as well. Which was a unique Use Case, because trading was simply a function of the advisor researching a new investment and then implementing it in client portfolios, while rebalancing required drawing in information about the client’s existing holdings and allocation, relative to some target, in order to determine when, whether, and how much of a rebalancing trade needed to occur in the first place.
The end result was a rapid growth in the availability of “rebalancing software” as a standalone tool by the late 2000s, which would integrate into the performance reporting software to determine the required rebalancing trades, and then formulate a trade file that could be uploaded to the RIA custodian to implement the necessary trades of all the different clients across all their different accounts. Which could then be implemented efficiently across all of the advisor’s clients by tying each portfolio to an associated target model so the rebalancing software could monitor for deviations that would necessitate a rebalancing trade.
Because rebalancing software (to monitor for, calculate, and then queue up the trades) and performance reporting software (which centralized the underlying portfolio data to monitor) fit together so naturally, it is not surprising that throughout the 2010s, there has been an increasing unification between the two, from Orion, Black Diamond, and Tamarac all building and expanding upon their trading and rebalancing tools, to other platforms building their own offerings (e.g., Riskalyze Trading), and the independent rebalancing software tools increasingly gobbled up into larger platforms (e.g., TD Ameritrade acquiring iRebal, Oranj acquiring TradeWarrior, Invesco acquiring RedBlack, and LPL acquiring Blaze Portfolio). In fact, the end result is that, by now, there are virtually no remaining independent rebalancing software tools left, short of newer ‘not-yet-acquired’ upstarts like Rowboat Advisors and AdvisorPeak.
And now as of this month, AdvisorPeak is also ‘off the market’, as high-net-worth performance reporter Addepar announced that it is acquiring AdvisorPeak (for an undisclosed sum), after rapid adoption of a prior Addepar-AdvisorPeak integration first brought the two together.
Strategically, the deal makes a lot of sense, pairing together one of the few remaining rebalancing software platforms that was not yet already acquired, with one of the largest standalone performance reporting tools that didn’t have its own internal rebalancing/trading solution… which continues an ongoing trend of shrinking the “rebalancing-only” and “performance-reporting-only” categories of the Kitces AdvisorTech Solutions Map and expanding the “all-in-one” category of solutions that bring both together. And for the companies in particular, AdvisorPeak gets an immediate opportunity for accelerated growth by offering up their rebalancing tools to Addepar’s sizable base of existing mega-RIAs and multi-family offices, while for Addepar, the acquisition of AdvisorPeak gives it a more holistic offering to compete ‘downmarket’ with the mid-sized RIA where Addepar’s ability to track and report on more ‘esoteric’ investment holdings is less compelling but holistic performance-reporting-plus-rebalancing on ‘traditional’ investments is more commonly needed.
Notably, though, for the AdvisorPeak team – whose owners include the former founder of TradeWarrior rebalancing and the former Chief Product Officer of RedBlack – the stated intention of consummating the acquisition by Addepar is not only growth of AdvisorPeak, but innovation towards the next generation of advisor trading and model management tools, in a space where very few of the remaining systems are built by anyone who has as much history and experience in advisory firms as AdvisorPeak does. Which raises the question not only of how much AdvisorPeak (and Addepar) can grow with mid-to-large-sized RIAs from here… but also whether AdvisorPeak can leverage Addepar’s internal resources to build “what’s next” in advisor rebalancing software?
One of the most dominant themes in financial services over the past decade has been the rise of “FinTech” in general (or “AdvisorTech” in the case of the solutions available to financial services in particular), with the vision that a wave of increasingly automated technology tools will bring a massive wave of productivity enhancements (and the associated culling of jobs, particularly in the middle- and back-office portion of advisory firms).
Yet in practice, while there is at least some data to indicate incremental improvements in back-office efficiency from the past decade of advisor technology, it has, at best, been more of an evolution than a revolution. In part, this is simply due to the complexity of advisory firms, what we do for clients, and the fact that even just one operational mistake can have both significant financial consequences for the firm, and a devastating effect on the advisor-client relationship in a necessitating-high-trust business.
But the slower evolution of technology-driven efficiencies is also due to the fact that even when technology heavily automates tasks, someone must still set up, implement, and manage the technology… and ironically, the use of increasingly specialized technology tools for automation actually requires even more specialized (and expensive, and hard-to-find) talent than when such tasks were done by brute force alone.
The end result is that even as Advisor Technology continues to improve, it is being matched by a concomitant rise of “Done-For-You” style services providers, who provide the technology but then get paid more to be the human service-provider that runs the technology for the advisory firm. Which is particularly conducive to virtual support and ‘fractional’ employment models for such highly-specialized-but-limited-time-and-scope roles.
In this context, it is notable that this month, White Glove – which started out as a firm that provided seminar marketing presentations and training for financial advisors, and has increasingly expanded into a growing range of ‘Done For You’ fractional CMO services – announced the acquisition of Gainfully, a digital marketing technology solution for everything from email marketing to social media management to ‘no-code’ landing pages, that had a particular niche of working in financial services.
From the White Glove perspective, acquiring Gainfully gives them an internal proprietary technology tool that can improve their own efficiencies in providing Done-For-You outsourced marketing services for advisory firms, in addition to an opportunity to go ‘downmarket’ and offer a Do-It-Yourself technology solutions for advisory firms that want to leverage some of White Glove’s capabilities but don’t want to fully outsource services.
In addition, because Gainfully had built extensive capabilities to manage within enterprises – given their roots in working with asset managers and insurance companies as a solution for their wholesalers doing B2B marketing to advisors (which needs a similar level of centralized home office and compliance controls and oversight) – the enterprise capabilities of Gainfully should provide White Glove a technology infrastructure they can scale as they try to move further ‘upmarket’ into mid-to-large-sized broker-dealers and insurance companies to do outsourced marketing for a larger swath of advisors. Which not only opens a new market for White Glove – providing their seminar (and webinar) support capabilities to the wholesalers that already use Gainfully for other marketing capabilities – but also increasingly positions White Glove as a competitor to other advisor-enterprise outsourced marketing providers – most notably, FMG Suite. With the notable caveat that FMG Suite was originally built around website design, a capability that White Glove hasn’t fully developed (at least, not yet – stay tuned for a future White Glove acquisition in this direction soon?).
The key point, though, is simply that even as AdvisorTech becomes more and more sophisticated and capable, it’s actually the service providers built on top of the technology – from White Glove acquiring Gainfully’s digital marketing tools, to FMG Suite acquiring Twenty Over Ten’s Lead Pilot for similar purposes, to RIA In A Box building their compliance services on top of (their own proprietary) ComplianceTech – that is showing the greatest growth opportunity. The ‘bad’ news of this evolution is that “tech-enabled services” are not necessarily as profitable as pure technology alone. The ‘good’ news, though, is that to the extent services still price significantly higher than technology alone, that tech-enabled services for financial advisors are actually proving to be a significantly larger market opportunity to capture?
The ongoing evolution of technology that makes it increasingly feasible for consumers to manage their own investments (from robo-advisor-constructed passive asset-allocated portfolios, to online brokerage platforms offering a growing array of trading tools), combined with the ongoing evolution of the financial advisor business model itself, is creating an emerging schism within the financial advisor community when it comes to their value proposition as it pertains to client portfolios.
At one end of the spectrum are the advisors who are becoming more and more focused on financial planning, making it the core value proposition that clients pay for, which often entails de-emphasizing their investment management services and adopting a more passive investment approach (as there’s nothing wrong with ‘just’ delivering index returns if clients aren’t paying the advisor to add any value beyond that in the first place!). At the other end of the spectrum are advisors who are trying to eschew the commoditization of investment management by building increasingly personalized portfolios, with a heavy focus on emerging solutions like direct indexing as a way to differentiate with a distinctly non-model approach to investment management.
Yet, in practice, the overwhelming majority of financial advisors are still charging an Assets Under Management (AUM) fee, and have portfolio management as at least a major pillar of their value proposition. Which means still researching investment opportunities and crafting portfolios for clients, scaling that offering by adopting a model-based approach to implement the firm’s ‘best’ investment ideas, and then being able to track the results of and report out on their investment performance… and in the ‘ideal’ case, building out a bona fide track record of their investment management results that they can share with prospects (especially given the permitted advertising of investment performance as a part of the new RIA marketing rules issued last year from the SEC).
And when it comes to publishing a track record of investment management performance results for clients, the accepted ‘gold standard’ is the CFA Institute’s GIPS (Global Investment Performance Standards) framework, which has a series of rigorous requirements that must be adhered to in order to claim ‘GIPS-compliant’ results. Most notably, GIPS has strict rules about what constitutes a “composite” – the aggregation of client portfolios that adhere to a similar investment model or strategy, which must be grouped together consistently when reporting results (to avoid firms cherry-picking clients with more favorable results and excluding the rest). And because GIPS compliance is effectively determined at the firm level – as again, all clients following a similar strategy across the firm must be included in the associated composite when calculating results – it’s only feasible to build and report on a GIPS-compliant track record by having centralized portfolio performance reporting tools capable of building the requisite GIPS composites, and reporting on those results using Time-Weighted Returns (as the whole point of composite reporting is not what individual clients earned when dollar-weighted for their own contributions and distributions, but specifically what ‘the model’ earned on a dollar-neutral time-weighted basis).
Accordingly, this month Panoramix – a portfolio performance reporting solution for independent RIAs – announced its latest “Panoramix Pro” offering, which includes the Composite tracking capabilities necessary for firms to report GIPS-compliant results in their marketing. Notably, a GIPS-compliant reporting feature is not unique to Panoramix – a number of others, from Orion to BridgeFT to Tamarac, can support GIPS, along with third-party solutions like Norwood Consulting’s CompositeBuilder (which integrates with a wide range of performance reporting tools, including PortfolioCenter as well). Consistent with Panoramix’s positioning in the marketplace, though, the Composite tools in its new Panoramix Pro are significantly less expensive than many competitors, priced at ‘just’ $1,500 for the capability, as an add-on to what is already one of the least expensive performance reporting tools available to RIAs.
In addition to its new GIPS composites capabilities, Panoramix Pro also includes a new Trading and model Rebalancing module as well, shifting Panoramix from ‘just’ a performance reporting tool that would have to overlay a third-party trading solution (e.g., iRebal, AdvisorPeak, etc.), to a capability that is available within Panoramix. Which, again, is included as part of the ‘just’ $1,500 add-on cost for Panoramix Pro – significantly lower than what competitors charge for trading and rebalancing add-ons, and providing RIAs an ‘entry point’ solution that includes performance reporting and trading/rebalancing all in one place for only $6,500/year.
In a segment of portfolio management tools where there are now more than 50(!) competing solutions, it’s inevitable that not all of them can and will survive, especially as pricing pressure grows from RIAs that are focusing more and more on non-AUM value propositions (which will inevitably pressure the fees that at least some RIAs are willing to pay for performance reporting and trading tools). From this perspective, like Advyzon, Panoramix continues to be well-positioned for small-to-mid-sized RIAs that don’t need and don’t want to pay for more ‘enterprise-level’ capabilities from the larger incumbents, but need the full breadth of core trading and performance reporting (and billing) capabilities it takes to manage client portfolios on a discretionary basis.
While financial advisors primarily work with retirees to ensure that their money lasts for the rest of their life, consumer studies repeatedly show that the #1 worry of retirees is not mismanaging their money in retirement but the risk of having (catastrophically) high medical expenses that derail their retirement.
The good news, though, is that, in practice, Medicare provides a remarkable level of stability in out-of-pocket retiree medical expenses, where median out-of-pocket expenses for a 65-year-old are $3,400/year for those who are healthy and ‘just’ $7,600/year for those who have a high number of chronic conditions. And most of those expenses are simply the cost of Medicare coverage itself, including Medicare Part B and Part D premiums.
Beyond variability in cost due to health conditions, though, the reality is that a number of decisions regarding Medicare itself can further impact the cost in retirement, including choosing a Part D prescription drug plan that (most) effectively aligns with the retiree’s actual prescriptions, enrolling in one of several standardized Medigap supplemental policies (which further increases the premium cost, but subsequently further reduces the variability of health care expenses in retirement by minimizing or fully eliminating most co-pays and deductibles), and evaluating whether it may be more appropriate to enroll in a Medicare Advantage plan based on the retiree’s health care needs and geographic location (which in some areas, entails a significantly lower premium cost than traditional Medicare Part B premiums).
The caveat, though, is that most financial advisors are not licensed to sell Medigap supplemental policies and lack experience in analyzing a retiree’s prescription drugs to identify the optimal Medicare Part D plan.
Which makes it all the more notable that this month, Envestnet announced a partnership with Healthpilot, providing a solution for advisors who want to help clients make good Medicare enrollment decisions but don’t actually want to get too deeply involved in the actual enrollment process and potentially sticky medical trade-offs. With an offering that, not coincidentally, was rolled out just as the 2021 Medicare open enrollment season began (on October 15th, running through December 7th).
At its core, the Healthpilot platform is built to take in detailed health information from the advisor’s client, formulate recommendations regarding Medicare Advantage versus traditional Medicare, Part D prescription drug plans, and Medigap supplemental policies, to help the retiree make a selection, and then facilitate the actual Medicare enrollment process for the retiree. Which through the Envestnet partnership, will then automatically import estimates of the retiree’s out-of-pocket health care expenses in retirement (based on their Medicare choices) directly into their MoneyGuide financial plan as a retiree health care goal.
From the advisor perspective, the appeal of the Envestnet-Healthpilot partnership is that advisors can send co-branded invitations to their retiree clients as they approach Medicare enrollment to go directly to the Healthpilot portal to enter their health information, select a plan, and complete the enrollment process. Allowing advisors to show a value-add and differentiation in their ability to support clients through the Medicare decision-making and enrollment process… without necessarily going deeper than they want in an area that, for most advisors, isn’t a core expertise. (As the whole point of Healthpilot is that its “decision-support algorithms” help guide retirees to a final decision without the advisor needing to give their own advice on Medicare policy choices.)
On the other hand, the reality is that other Medicare-decision-support solutions like i65 have been available to the advisor community for several years, and adoption has been very limited. As in the end, advisory firms often just don’t want to even open a conversation with clients in an area that they’re not proficient in, at the risk of having clients either have a bad experience and blame the advisor, or simply ask deeper questions that the advisor can’t answer (which makes many advisors feel even more self-conscious about their value!). Raising the question of whether Healthpilot can find the ‘right’ balance of making Medicare enrollment easy enough for advisors’ clients that the advisor isn’t put on the spot… while still doing ‘enough’ to show a value-add for the advisor’s client in the first place.
The caveat, of course, is that if the Envestnet-Healthpilot partnership is widely adopted, advisory firms will struggle to differentiate with the value-add of helping clients through the Medicare enrollment process, when so many other firms are offering the same solution through the same partnership – a reminder that in the end, differentiation tends to come from the expertise within the advisory firm, not its third-party technology solutions or service-provider partnerships.
Nonetheless, as more and more advisory firms feel the pressure to show more value beyond ‘just’ managing a retiree’s portfolio alone, being able to address the #1 most common concern of retirees by helping them make the right decision when it comes time for Medicare enrollment is an appealing value-add. Especially since in the end, the solution has no cost to the advisor or the client. (As Healthpilot is ultimately compensated by the commissions they earn through the purchase of the underlying insurance policies, but standardized Medicare pricing means that the retiree would have had the exact same cost either way, as there is no separate category of ‘no-load Medigap’ policies.)
For most of its history, the best advisor technology belonged to the firms that were the largest, with the most advisors, that had the biggest tech budgets to invest and the largest number of advisors over which they could amortize their costs. Whereas technology for independent advisors was small, light-weight, undercapitalized and underdeveloped, and largely siloed and unable to connect with any other (desktop) applications.
It wasn’t until the internet came along – with the rise of cloud-based software and APIs to connect them – that suddenly an independent software company could compete with a large financial services enterprise. As the ability to connect together independent software tools suddenly meant independent advisors could choose their own “best of breed” solutions in each category, leverage available APIs to integrate them together, and the technology companies blossomed… to the point that the largest independent AdvisorTech tools today have far more users than even the largest enterprises.
The caveat, though, is that patching together independent best-of-breed solutions is still a patchwork of systems. Which immediately becomes noticeable when the questions start to arise of which system will be the primary ‘source of truth’ for data, and how to ensure that key data is mirrored appropriately across all the platforms. In the ideal world, a single system would exist to bring all of these together. But in practice, the question for the single unified system has been so impossible to find for decades that it’s been dubbed the unfindable “Holy Grail” of advisor technology.
Arguably, the closest solution in practice has been the rise of Salesforce, which has such a depth of integration capabilities that if firms build their own data warehouses, Salesforce can pull in the data, trigger workflows off the data, integrate to a wide range of other systems (and a growing “AppExchange” of even more) to leverage that data. With the caveat that Salesforce is so complex to implement that it has spawned its own category of “Salesforce Overlay” providers, including Skience, XLR8, Practifi, and more, and eventually led Salesforce to launch its own Financial Services Cloud to be a more readily-usable-out-of-the-box solution for advisor enterprises. Though in practice, Salesforce is still the software solution that most advisors end out buying and then ditching because they can’t figure out how to leverage its (complex) value proposition.
The biggest caveat, though, is simply that Salesforce is still ‘just’ a CRM system. It’s leading the effort for centralization of client data, and functions as the common dashboard and interface – which has made it overwhelmingly the CRM-of-choice for the largest advisory firms. But the firm still needs chat systems for its employees, file storage systems for client files, and leaves employees still pushing and pulling data in and out of Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.
Which makes it all the more notable that this month, Microsoft announced the launch of its own Financial Services Cloud (going live on November 1st). Unlike Salesforce’s Financial Services Cloud, though, Microsoft’s will include not only its Dynamics CRM system (as a Salesforce competitor), but also brings together its Azure cloud computing services to house a firm’s servers and data, Microsoft 365 for not only productivity apps (e.g., Word, Excel, and PowerPoint) but also Teams for communication and OneDrive for file storage, and Microsoft Power Platform for business intelligence reporting. All of which gives Microsoft’s Financial Services Cloud the potential to not just unify data through a CRM, but to host the underlying data warehouse for the advisory firm and then implement a unified system of client data and documents in a centralized ecosystem.
In other words, imagine opening up the client’s CRM record, clicking from that to view a Word document with a recent meeting agenda, which itself has charts embedded from Excel, whose values were calculated from the client’s financial data housed on an Azure server, and discussing that upcoming meeting agenda with the rest of the team in Microsoft Teams, and then capturing the final notes about the meeting which gets recorded directly back into the Dynamics CRM, and populates the firm’s business reporting dashboard that tracks the number of client meetings and the status of meeting prep. Which arguably is the closest we’ve seen yet to a ‘Holy Grail’ unified solution for advisors.
Unfortunately, though, as Salesforce has demonstrated with its own (more limited) Financial Services Cloud, this level of multi-system deployment is very complex… to the point that only the very largest enterprises would likely have the depth of internal technologists to even be able to implement it. And in practice, Microsoft’s own launch of Financial Services Cloud highlights a number of large enterprise banking relationships as its launch partner – which is a long, long way away from the typical independent advisory firm. Nor has Microsoft yet built and attracted the layer of ‘middleware’ builders and consultants that exist in the Salesforce ecosystem (e.g., the XLR8s of the world) to provide more out-of-the-box solutions for small-to-mid-sized firms.
So in the end, while the launch of Microsoft Financial Services Cloud is significant, in practice it won’t likely be useful anytime soon for any but the very largest of financial advisor enterprises (e.g., large broker-dealers and perhaps a handful of mega-RIAs). Nonetheless, when the reality is that an overwhelming percentage of all advisory firms still live within the Microsoft ecosystem of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, and more recently Teams as well, if Microsoft can figure out how to develop (or partner with others to provide) a more feasible out-of-the-box solution that works for small-to-mid-sized independent advisory firms, it arguably is very well positioned to compete in the advisor CRM (and broader advisor-unified-data) marketplace?
In 2006, the category of “Personal Financial Management” (PFM) software went digital with the birth of Mint.com. Up until that point, maintaining one’s personal finances was relegated to largely desktop software (e.g., Quicken at the time), powered by a manual data entry process of entering account balances and personal expenses. But Mint.com used the power of the internet to revolutionize PFM’s usability by automatically pulling in account balances and spending information directly from financial institutions, in what we now know as “account aggregation”.
In the years that followed, there was both a rapid rise in more providers competing to be the “pipes” that powered account aggregation (from Quovo to Yodlee to CashEdge to ByAllAccounts), and growth in more new PFM tools to display that data back to consumers in useful ways that would let them better manage their household finances.
Notably, PFM solutions (and the account aggregation that powered them) also quickly became popular amongst financial advisors as well, as even though there were relatively few good PFM solutions built specifically for advisors, account aggregation was increasingly applied within both financial planning software (e.g., eMoney Advisor’s popular dashboard, and later MoneyGuide and RightCapital as well) and also within performance reporting tools (as a way to track and report on, and even bill on, held-away accounts under advisement). Which also made it possible for advisory firms to get a better understanding of their own client base (and the advisors who were serving them), gaining perspective on everything from how many clients are still accumulating versus decumulating, the amount of held-away assets that might be a future business opportunity, and which advisors are most effective at capturing the entire client relationship.
The caveat to it all, though, was that the client portals and business dashboards were only as good as the data that was fueling them. Which in practice has long been very messy, due to the lack of data standards across the financial services industry (at least when it comes to financial accounts, their balances, and their transactions). Such that in practice, it often became an expectation of the platforms that were displaying the data – the PFM portals and business intelligence tools leveraging account aggregation – to clean and scrub the data themselves, so that it would display properly.
And so it’s not surprising to see that Wealth Access, which was one of the early players in providing PFM tools that advisors could use with their clients, is now pivoting further into the domain of “Data Unification and Enrichment”, taking the skill it developed in pulling in data from various sources and ‘cleaning’ it for display in Wealth Access, and turning it into a service unto itself.
Notably, Wealth Access is not the only platform recently to launch an effort to help advisory firms better unify and standardize their data, from MileMarker’s launch of an “integration as a service” offering to help firms bring together their data and make it more actionable, to Skience’s Data Consolidation module that helps firms draw in data from multiple sources to leverage within Salesforce.
Wealth Access’ solution is somewhat unique, though, in that building on its roots as a PFM and advisor dashboard solution, it is not necessarily trying to replace an enterprise’s other ‘source of truth’ data repositories, but instead is expanding on its ability to clean and massage that data to put it into more usable form as an overlay… and then perhaps also porting some of that cleaned data back to the enterprise’s source for future use as well.
Across large enterprises with multiple divisions (e.g., the siloed retail and business sections of a large bank), this can provide a cross-enterprise look at a client’s consolidated household that most banks simply couldn’t glean before, as each division had its own data systems and standards. Though the solution also clearly has potential applications for individual advisory firms as well, particularly when trying to standardize data about held-away accounts that are outside the traditional broker-dealer and custodial platforms (where for better or worse, existing performance reporting tools tend to already do the scrubbing and cleaning). Which in turn opens the door to better advice monitoring at the household level – for instance, spotting clients who are saving in an outside brokerage account but not maxing out their IRAs and 401(k) plans, or who have mortgages at rates that could be refinanced at current rates.
As with many data systems solutions, though, the challenge for independent advisory firms looking for help is that when every firm has different key systems and different needs – and not much budget or dedicated tech staff themselves to handle a complex deployment – it will be difficult to find solutions until providers create more ‘out-of-the-box’ capabilities, that don’t duplicate the already-expanding breadth of capabilities coming from both portfolio management systems and CRM systems.
Or alternatively, the reality may simply be that most independent advisors will tend to standardize their data through those CRM and portfolio management platforms – that drive their most common workflows and data needs anyway – while companies like Wealth Access and Milemarker end out focused on larger enterprises that have the deeper resources to reinvest into more custom applications and uses of their client and firm data?
The explosive rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in recent years, and the associated wealth that has been created as some have risen 1,000% or more in just a few years, has perhaps not surprisingly led to a rapid rise of interest in investing in cryptocurrencies. Which, given the limited supply of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, has led to a large number of dollars chasing a fixed quantity of supply, further boosting the prices and feeding further on the frenzy.
The caveat, of course, is that “what goes up can come down, too”, and the incredible upside of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has been accompanied by dizzying declines as well, with “pullbacks” of 50% - 70% or more in sometimes no more than a few months or even a few weeks.
The end result is that, in practice, most financial advisors have been very wary about making any recommendations to clients about investing in cryptocurrencies. After all, lawsuits and arbitration claims against advisors typically rise every time a ‘mere’ 20%+ bear market occurs, in some cases because advisors took more risk for clients than they were willing to tolerate (and thus want the advisor to make good when losses occur), and in other cases because the advisor really made the right recommendation but clients who take the risk and have it not work out are often still looking for someone to blame. And so, if traditional equities with 20% - 40% market declines are so ‘risky’ that advisors must be very careful in how much exposure their clients have in their portfolios, then cryptocurrencies can be outright terrifying.
Of course, the reality is that even if advisors wanted to invest their clients into Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, it’s been nearly impossible to do so. As the structure of how cryptocurrencies are held, in ‘digital wallets’, and the attendant cybersecurity issues it entails, has meant that at best most advisors didn’t have a scalable solution to systematically invest and trade clients into cryptocurrencies… and at worst, advisors faced the risk that clients didn’t implement their wallets properly and ended out having their cryptoassets stolen (again putting the advisor at risk for having recommended they make the investment in the first place).
But where there’s demand – at least from a subset of consumers who are enamored by the upside opportunity of cryptocurrencies and the media stories of explosive wealth creation – the market provides an answer, as this month MassMutual’s Flourish subsidiary has announced the launch of “Flourish Crypto”, a platform that will allow advisors to serve as a discretionary manager and trade their clients’ direct cryptocurrency holdings (which is held with Paxos Trust Company as the ‘crypto custodian’ for safekeeping of client assets), with integrations to Orion and Tamarac (and eMoney) for advisors who want to pull in the client’s cryptocurrency holdings to track balances and report out on performance results. As well as pulling in the values for advisors who are managing their clients’ cryptocurrency holdings to be able to bill on the holdings as well. (Though notably, there is still much debate about how best to calculate an AUM fee on an investment that can change by 5% - 10%+ in just a few days, with some suggesting daily-average or even per-second-average-balance billing may be coming soon!)
Yet the reality is that this month also witnessed the launch of the first (and second, and soon many more) Bitcoin ETFs, suddenly providing advisors with a number of different ways to invest their clients into cryptocurrencies if they so wish. Technically, though, the currently available Bitcoin ETFs don’t actually hold Bitcoin directly – instead, they trade in Bitcoin futures contracts that could potentially deviate from the returns of the cryptocurrency itself. Though if cryptocurrencies really continue their dramatic rise, futures-based ETFs would still be expected to provide the bulk of those returns. Not to mention that ETF solutions have the added appeal of already fitting within an advisor’s existing trading platform and systems (like any other ETF), obviating the need for a specialized crypto custodian to hold and facilitate trading for ‘off-platform’ assets for clients in the first place.
Which means the launch of Flourish Crypto raises the question both of whether advisors will want to invest in cryptocurrencies at all – given the ongoing debate about whether cryptocurrencies even represent a long-term investment opportunity, not to mention the sheer volatility and its attendant risks (if an asset is so volatile it’s hard to even calculate an AUM fee on it, how comfortable will advisors be to hold and trade it for a client as a fiduciary!?) – and also whether there will be any advisors who want to go so far as to try to directly trade Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies versus ‘just’ taking on a small slice of exposure in a client’s portfolio via an ETF to give them at least ‘some’ participation if Bitcoin continues its rise? At this point, the jury is still out on both, though Flourish Crypto faces a significant uphill battle given how slow advisor adoption of cryptocurrency investing has been thus far.
One of the most significant challenges for AdvisorTech firms – or really, any technology – as it grows is the accumulation of “code debt”. In essence, code debt represents the ever-growing cost that technology firms face as the new layers of features and capabilities that they build increasingly necessitates rewriting some of their original code to make it more efficient… except that the more capable (and complex) the software becomes, the more expensive it is to do so. And in some cases, the reality is that a new feature ‘needs’ to be shipped with shortcuts that made it more expedient to build and launch, even though doing so virtually guarantees incurring additional code debt for when the new feature needs to be refined in the future.
In practice, all technology companies incur some level of code debt, and similar to the prudent use of other types of (financial) debt by entrepreneurs, can actually enhance the growth and long-term success of the company. As in practice, always keeping code debt at $0 can actually be limiting to growth – because it’s much more time-consuming in the first place, and can prevent the company from even getting off the ground (or alternatively getting outpaced by competitors who are willing to incur more code debt to iterate faster). And in the ‘ideal’ world, just as inflation tends to lift wages over time – literally making it ‘easier’ to repay today’s debt with inflation-boosted future dollars – so too is it often easier to repay code debt in the future with the additional software developers that a growing technology company can hire as it grows.
Except, unfortunately, not all companies get around to repaying much (or any) of their code debt. Which over time, like other types of debt, accumulates interest that can make it exponentially harder to repay if it is allowed to compound for too long. Thus why in the long run, even the ‘best’ software companies often eventually fall behind newer upstart competitors; because if too much code debt accumulates without repayment, by the time it becomes ‘necessary’ to do so, it is no longer feasible to do, and the slowness that results (from slow software performance to the slower rollout of new features) just accelerates the company’s demise to its next generation of competitors.
And so it’s especially notable that at its latest “Fearless Investing” Summit, Riskalyze announced that it has completed a major re-writing and overhaul of the calculation engine underlying its Portfolios tool, effectively paying down a significant chunk of its naturally accumulated code debt from its recent years of growth. As shown directly from its stage in a side-by-side live demonstration, the new ‘P7’ version of the Riskalyze engine loaded out a complex portfolio (with hundreds of positions) almost instantaneously, as compared to nearly 30 seconds for Riskalyze’s prior P6 edition. (Especially admirable for Riskalyze, as you have to really believe in your product to be willing to do such a demonstration live for users!)
Arguably it shouldn’t really be news that a major AdvisorTech software company announced that it made some investments to refine its underlying software for significant speed improvements… except that in reality, it’s quite rare amongst AdvisorTech vendors that serve financial advisors, where it is far more common to just keep building the next feature and the next feature and the next in an effort to expand market share and top-line revenue to boost (short-term) enterprise value for the next acquirer or PE investor, rather than do the ‘less newsworthy’ work of overhauling the existing software for existing users to make their (long-term) experience better.
All of which can be interpreted as a very positive signal from Riskalyze that the company and its leadership are really in it for the ‘long run’, with a willingness to do what it takes in paying down code debt to stay more nimble and competitive and reinvest into the satisfaction of their existing advisor users.
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? Will Schwab be able to gain traction with its new Personalized Indexing solution within the advisor community? Will Fidelity be forced to ‘match’ with its own direct indexing tools for RIAs? Can Panoramix compete in a crowded portfolio management marketplace? And will advisors actually want to trade direct-held cryptoassets for their clients, if Flourish Crypto makes it possible? Let us know your thoughts by sharing in the comments below!