Say Goodbye to Your Costly “Investment Advisor”

Robo-Advisors

BettermentThere was a time when investment advisors (IAs) offered reasonable value, but now ninety-nine percent of them no longer do. In fact, investors who still use IAs are throwing away their hard-earned dollars. IAs belong to an age of limited financial information, lack of online services and tools, and few options to invest wisely and independently. The value of IAs has decreased since the mid-2000s with a plethora of financial technology (FinTech) companies now providing transparent and low-cost investing solutions for every type of investor. Whether you are starting out or have investable assets in the six or seven-figure range, there are more intelligent ways to invest compared with using a traditional investment advisor (especially a bottom rung mutual fund salesperson).

If you insist on using an advisor, I recommend using an unbiased and objective fee-only advisor who abides by a fiduciary responsibility to his clients. Also, bringing on board qualified advisors regarding insurance, tax, and estate planning makes sense to optimize your financial activities.

Your Advisor: The Bad News

Your advisor can’t predict the future. He knows where the markets are going just as much as you, but he profits from your gullibility and ignorance. The best he can do is offer suitable recommendations based on your investor profile. For example, a portfolio based on your goals, risk tolerance, time horizon, and so on.

Most advisors practice “suitability” as it relates to a standard of care, not fiduciary stewardship thus attracting conflicts of interest to the detriment of your returns. Sorry, but most IAs are more sales professional than they are savvy investment consultants. Some even rise to snake oil man statuses such as Bernie Madoff and Earl Jones.

Your advisor gets paid a premium compared to alternative investment solutions. Who pays this premium? You–the client–pays for it through high, unjustified, and hidden fees. Year after year, you’ll end up with less (irrespective of how the markets perform) which doesn’t baud well for your future and financial goals. The more you pay in fees is the less you keep.

What FinTechs Offer

FinTech companies blend both financial and technology disciplines to make personal finance activities less costly for their users. For example, TransferWise “disrupts” the foreign exchange market by offering low-cost currency conversion services. Wealth management FinTechs focus on providing low-cost investing services and objective portfolio management mainly by using exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

Robo-Advisors

A robo-advisor (robo-adviser) is an online wealth management service that provides automated, algorithm-based portfolio management with or without access to financial advisors (depends on the robo-advisor). An investor completes an investor profile-like questionnaire, deposits money; then her money gets invested in a handful of index funds which are usually rebalanced automatically. The list of funds for two well-known robo-advisors, Betterment and Wealthfront, derive from leading asset managers such as Vanguard and BlackRock (iShares).

Robo-advisors make a lot of sense and are more convenient than dealing with advisor-client paperwork and face-to-face meetings. Also, robo-advisors eliminate relatively high advisor fees. Instead of paying 1%, 2%, or more to a traditional advisor, you will pay much less using a robo-advisor. (Calculate your own scenarios here.)

Robo-advisor account management fees average 0.31% and start as low as 0.25% at Wealthfront and Betterment.

IA vs. RoboAWhat Should You Consider?

Similar to choosing an investment advisor, you want to evaluate robo-advisors based on some criteria.

  1. Fees: how much does the company charge? How much more/less do you get compared to the alternatives? How transparent are they? Is pricing easy to find and understand?
  2. Investment strategy/philosophy: passive or active? Preconstructed or tailored portfolios? How is tax-loss harvesting handled?
  3. Securities: what does the robo-advisor invest in? For example, ETFs, mutual funds, individual securities, and so on. How many asset classes are accessible?
  4. Advisory and client support: do you have to pay extra for advice? How are inquiries resolved? Will you have a dedicated advisor or various people assigned to your account?
  5. Extras: what else is included in your fee? For example, an investment plan, advisor access, annual meeting, and so on.
  6. Client experience: is the investment dashboard user-friendly and easy to navigate? How does reporting look?
  7. Management team: can you easily find who is in charge and more information on leadership?
Robo-Advisor A/C Min Management Fee # of ETFs Rating
Betterment $0 0.25% to 0.50% 13 5
Wealthfront $500 Free to 0.25% ETFs & Stocks 5
Charles Schwab $5,000 Free 53 4.5
Vanguard PA $50,000 0.30% ETFs & Mutual Funds 4
Personal Capital $25,000 0.49% to 0.89% ETFs & Stocks 3.5
Acorns $0 $1/month to 0.25% 6 3
Stash $5 $1/month to 0.25% ETFs & Stocks 2
WiseBanyan $1 Free 22 2
Ellevest $0 0.50% 21 2
Hedgeable $1 0.30% to 0.75% ETFs & Stocks 2
Wealthsimple $0 .40% to .50% 15 1
Robo-Advisor TLH What’s Unique In One Word Rating
Betterment Yes One-to-one relationship with a Certified Financial Planner (premium service). Easy 5
Wealthfront Yes Will use individual securities to optimize tax-loss harvesting. Excellent 5
Charles Schwab Yes No account, commission, or advisory fees. Intelligent 4.5
Vanguard PA Yes Tailored portfolios and low-cost ETFs. Proven 4
Personal Capital Yes For HNWI who want advisory services. Robust financial tools. Sophisticated 3.5
Acorns No Purchase-driven investing. Amounts are rounded up, and the difference is invested. Innovative 3
Stash No Can invest based on goals and interests through “themes.” Misaligned 2
WiseBanyan Yes Free to use and clients can pay for additional products and services. Lacking 2
Ellevest No A goals-based investing approach with a personalized investment plan. Overpriced 2
Hedgeable Yes Unique features such as “downside protection,” artificial intelligence, rewards, etc. Confusing 2
Wealthsimple Yes Americans and Canadians can invest. Conflicted 1

TLH = Tax-Loss Harvesting

*ETFs incur expenses. The expense ratio is stated as a percent, for example, 0.21%. This is an additional cost to an account management fee.

Themed Investing

Consider this scenario. Of all the funds out there, you want to build a portfolio of several stocks. However, you only have $10k to invest and to buy shares of each stock and rebalance them would be costly and inefficient. Given that your focus is on ten stocks, what do you do?

Motif Investing allows you to put your money into ideas without a lot of hassle or expense. They are “a trading platform built around you and your insights.” Similar in some ways to actively managed ETFs, “motifs” are groups of up to 30 securities–usually researched and assembled by Motif staff–that are arranged around a theme. For example, a motif that includes social media small-cap stocks or companies. Furthermore, you can create and customize your motif and invest in themes created by others. Currently, there are some cool sounding themes, for instance, Repeal Obamacare, Online Gaming World, and Drug-Patent Cliffs.

I like the idea of active investing through motifs because it’s an efficient and affordable way to build a portfolio. Also, Motif Investing doubles as a discount brokerage by allowing you to trade individual securities.

Micro-Investing Apps

CoinsTo encourage millennials and newbies to invest, a couple of promising apps have entered the marketplace. Acorns bills itself as a “micro investing” platform that invests your spare change. For example, when you buy a cup of coffee for $3.53, Acorns will round up your payment to $4 and invest the difference of $0.47. Acorns has five asset allocation models consisting of ETFs, for instance, conservative through aggressive based on your investor profile. Their simplified investing approach is excellent for passive investors and investors who do want to be highly engaged in choosing investments.  They charge $1 per month for accounts under $5,000 and 0.25% annually for accounts above $5,000.

Stash lets you choose from a curated set of investments that are shown to you based on your investor profile. They offer a select group of investments based on factors like low fees, managed risk, and historical performance. Investment choices are mostly exchange-traded funds and some popular stocks. You can start with as little as $5, and they provide personalized guidance and recommendations, so you are not in it alone. Their fees are similar to Acorns.

Discount Brokerages for DIY Investors

With all the talk of FinTechs, discount brokerages still prove to be very useful for do-it-yourself (DIY) investors like me. I enjoy investing for the long-term and selecting ETFs based on research. Also, I like trading stocks and options which I can’t do through robo-advisors.

Discount Brokerage Robo-Advisor
Product selection Wide Limited
Options (Derivatives) Yes No
DIY friendly Yes No
Account management fee No Yes

TD Ameritrade (USA), TD Direct Investing (UK), and Questrade (Canada) are all platforms I recommend. Robinhood is a free stock trading app available to US, Australian, and Chinese citizens. It doesn’t come with many bells and whistles, and investing activities are limited to their app.

 

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