By Elisabeth Buchwald
Robo investing has become increasingly ubiquitous on practically every brokerage platform. Now it’s finally come to a firm that once restricted its investment advice to clients with a minimum of $10 million to invest.
Now, with the new robo-advistory service Marcus Invest, anyone with at least $1,000 to invest can access the same trading algorithms that have been used by some of wealthiest clients at Goldman Sachs (NYS:GS) for a 0.35% annual advisory fee. But investing experts say there are more costs to consider before jumping on the robo-investing train.
“Much like in Vegas, the house generally wins,” said Vance Barse, a San Diego, Calif.-based financial adviser who runs a company called Your Dedicated Fiduciary.
Although the 35 basis-point price tag is a “loss leader” to Goldman Sachs, he said companies typically make such offers in order to attract clients to cross-sell them banking products.
“People forget that banks are ultimately in the business of making money,” he said.
Goldman Sachs declined to comment.
Fees for robo advisers can start at around 0.25%, and increase to 1% and above for traditional brokers. A survey of nearly 1,000 financial planners by Inside Information, a trade publication, found that the bigger the portfolio, the lower the percentage clients paid in fees.
The median annual charge hovered at around 1% for portfolios of $1 million or less, and 0.5% for portfolios worth $5 million to $10 million.
Robo advisers like those on offer from Goldman Sachs and Betterment differ from robo platforms like Robinhood. The former suggest portfolios focused on exchange-traded funds, while Robinhood allows users to invest in individual ETFs, stocks, options and even cryptocurrencies.
Robo investing as a self-driving car
Consumers have turned to robo investing at unprecedented levels during the pandemic.
The rate of new accounts opened jumped between 50% and 300% during the first quarter of 2020 compared to the fourth quarter of last year, according to a May report published by research and advisory firm Aite Group.
So what is robo investing? Think of it like a self-driving car.
You put in your destination, buckle up in the backseat and your driver (robo adviser) will get there. You, the passenger, can’t easily slam the breaks if you fear your driver is leading you in the wrong direction. Nor can you put your foot on the gas pedal if you’re in a rush and want to get to your destination faster.
Robo-investing platforms use advanced-trading algorithm software to design investment portfolios based on factors such as an individual’s appetite for risk-taking and desired short-term and long-term returns.
There are more than 200 platforms that provide these services charging typically no more than a 0.5% annual advisory fee, compared to the 1% annual fee human investment advisers charge.
And rather than investing entirely on your own, which can become a second job and lead to emotional investment decisions, robo advisers handle buying and selling assets.
Cynthia Loh, Schwab vice president of Digital Advice and Innovation, disagrees, and argues that robo investing doesn’t mean giving technology control of your money . Schwab, she said, has a team of investment experts who oversee investment strategy and keep watch during periods of market volatility, although some services have more input from humans than others.
As she recently wrote on MarketWatch : “One common misconception about automated investing is that choosing a robo adviser essentially means handing control of your money over to robots. The truth is that robo solutions have a combination of automated and human components running things behind the scenes.”
Robos appeal to inexperienced investors
Robo investing tends to appeal to inexperienced investors or ones who don’t have the time or energy to manage their own portfolios. These investors can take comfort in the “set it and forget it approach to investing and overtime let the markets do their thing,” Barse said.
That makes it much easier to stomach market volatility knowing that you don’t necessarily have to make spur-of-the-moment decisions to buy or sell assets, said Tiffany Lam-Balfour, an investing and retirement specialist at NerdWallet.
“When you’re investing, you don’t want to keep looking at the market and going ‘Oh I need to get out of this,’” she said. “You want to leave it to the professionals to get you through it because they know what your time horizon is, and they’ll adjust your portfolio automatically for you.”
That said, “you can’t just expect your investments will only go up. Even if you had the world’s best human financial adviser you can’t expect that.”
Others disagree, and say robo advisers appeal to older investors. “Planning for and paying yourself in retirement is complex. There are many options out there to help investors through it, and robo investing is one of them,” Loh said.
“Many thoughtful, long-term investors have discovered that they want a more modern, streamlined, and inexpensive way to invest, and robo investing fits the bill. They are happy to let technology handle the mundane activities that are harder and more time-consuming for investors to do themselves,” she added.
There is often no door to knock on
Your robo adviser only knows what you tell it. The simplistic questionnaire you’re required to fill out will on most robo-investing platforms will collect information on your annual income, desired age to retire and the level of risk you’re willing to take on.
It won’t, however, know if you just had a child and would like to begin saving for their education down the road or if you recently lost your job.
“The question then becomes to whom does that person go to for advice and does that platform offer that and if so, to what level of complexity?” said Barse.
Not all platforms give individualized investment advice and the hybrid models that do offer advice from a human tend to charge higher annual fees .
Additionally, a robo adviser won’t necessarily “manage your money with tax efficiency at front of mind,” said Roger Ma, a certified financial planner at Lifelaidout, a New York City-based financial advisory group.
For instance, one common way investors offset the taxes they pay on long-term investments is by selling assets that have accrued losses. Traditional advisers often specialize in constructing portfolios that lead to the most tax-efficient outcomes, said Ma, who is the author of “Work Your Money, Not Your Life”.
But with robo investing, the trades that are made for you are the same ones that are being made for a slew of other investors who may fall under a different tax-bracket than you.
On top of that, while robo investing may feel like a simplistic way to get into investing, especially for beginners it can “overcomplicate investing,” Ma said.
“If you are just looking to dip your toe in and you want to feel like you’re invested in a diversified portfolio, I wouldn’t say definitely don’t do a robo adviser,” he said.
Don’t rule out investing through a target-date fund that selects a single fund to invest in and adjusts the position over time based on their investment goals, he added.
But not everyone can tell the difference between robo advice and advice from a human being. In 2015, MarketWatch asked four prominent robo advisers and four of the traditional, flesh-and-blood variety to construct portfolios for a hypothetical 35-year-old investor with $40,000 to invest.
The results were, perhaps, surprising for critics of robo advisers. The robots’ suggestions were “not massively different” from what the human advisers proposed, said Michael Kitces, Pinnacle Advisory Group’s research director, after reviewing the results.