The Robo-Advisor Cometh
As proof that the robot revolution will spare no one, even our industry is feeling the intense weight of cheap human alternatives in the form of “robo-advisors”. Given some glowing press by the Globe and Mail over the last weekend, robot advisors now represent a real and growing segment of the financial services markets and are forcing many advisors, including us, to ask how they and we will live together and what our respective roles will be.
To say that robo-advisors are a hot topic among financial advisers is to understate the collective paranoia of an industry that has come to see itself as besieged with critical and often unfair press. We haven’t been to a conference, meeting or industry event that doesn’t at some point involve financial advisors attempting to rationalize away the looming presence of cheap and impersonal financial advice. While there are some good questions that get asked at these events, there is a whiff of denial that must have given false hope to autoworkers in the 80s and 90s in these conversations.
For the uninitiated, robo-advisors are investing algorithms that provide a model portfolios based on a risk questionnaire that people can complete online. Typically using passive investment strategies (ETFs), these services charge lower fees than their human counterparts and offer little in the way of services. There isn’t anyone to talk to, no advice is dispensed and you won’t ever get a birthday card. But you can see your portfolio value literally anytime you like on your iPhone.
Looking past the idea of reducing your lifetime financial needs down to a level equivalent to a Netflix subscription, the concern around robo-advisors illustrates everything that our industry gets wrong about what services we provide that are most valuable. The pitch of automated cheap portfolio alternatives revolves entirely around the cost of the investments and has little to say about what it is that leads to bad financial self management.
The distinguishing feature between what we do, and what a computer algorithm can offer extends well past the price of the investment. Time and time again investors have shown themselves to be bad at investing regardless of their intentions. Financial advisors do not exist because there haven’t been cheap ways to invest money, they exist because there is an existential struggle between planning for events decades away and the fight or flight responses burned into our most reptilian brains. When times get tough investors make bad choices. Financial advisors are there to stop those decisions before they permanently define or destroy an investor’s long term plans.
That multi-decade struggle between an advisor and their client’s most primal instincts is an intangible quality and takes many forms. Genial conversations about new investing ideas, gentle reminders not to overweight stocks that are doing well, trimming earnings and investing in out of favour sectors and sometimes just being there to listen to people as they make sense of their problems and financial concerns is an ongoing roll that we, and thousands of other advisors, have been happy to fill. These qualities can be difficult to quantify, but can be best expressed in two ways. First, by the independent research which has shown that Canadians who work with a financial advisor have 2.7x the assets of investors who didn’t and second, by the number of our clients who have remained clients for the near quarter of a century of our family practice.
Fees, by comparison, are very tangible and as a rule people hate fees. And while bringing down costs is a reasonable expectation in any service, there is a snarky cockiness to proponents of robo-advisors that see the job of financial management as both straight forward and simple. Robot champions are quick to say that financial advisors must adapt to the new world that they are forging, but it is unclear just how different and liberating this world will be. Far from creating a new utopia of cheap financial management for everybody, what seems more likely is that they will have merely created a low cost financial option for low income Canadians, a profitable solution for banks and other large financial firms but not for their investors.
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting, as they say. When the markets suddenly collapsed in the beginning of the year, bottoming out in mid-February, robo-investors did not sit idly by and let their robot managers tend to their business unmolested. Robot advisory practices were swamped with phone calls and firms relied on call centres and asked employees to stay later and work more hours to deal with the sudden influx of concerned investors wondering what they should do, whether they should leave the markets and what was going to happen to their investments. As it turns out, when times are bad people just want to talk to people.