The buzz phrase of the moment in the financial services industry is robo adviser.
On Monday, February 29, The Wall Street Journal published a Journal Report in the Personal Finance Section of that day’s newspaper. The lead article was entitled: “Can Robo Advisers Replace Human Financial Advisers?” The article opens by musing, “Do investors need people any more?” It goes on to state: “The past few years have seen the rise of robo advisers, a category that includes not only fully automated investment services and advice but also ‘hybrids’ that pair computerized services with hand-holding from human advisers.” Featured in the article is a debate with one industry expert taking the position that robo advisers can, indeed, replace human advisers because humans more often make costly errors, and another expert taking the contrary position that investors need - and want - the human touch.
“Can Robo Advisers Replace Human Financial Advisers?” includes a couple of interesting graphics. One, called “Wary of Advisers,” includes the statement that “Many Americans say they haven’t worked with a professional financial adviser and struggle to find trusted advice, suggesting an opening for new models of services.” The pie chart indicates that only 49 percent of survey respondents report having ever received professional financial advice, and 47 percent report that they had not. The remaining 4 percent were unsure.
Another graphic, “Growth of Robo Services,” indicates that in July 2015 there was $8 billion in accounts over which clients had given robo advisers discretionary control at just 11 named firms.
Earlier this week, Fortune published a fascinating article by Joshua Brown, the CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, which last year launched a robo-advisory service. Brown argues that robo-advisory services not only provide greater access to investment professionals, but also enable investment advisers to better fulfill their fiduciary obligations to clients. He says: “It is now a point of pride for us that technology has allowed us to launch a robo-advisory service of our own, which offers portfolios to households that we would not have previously had the capacity to service. Within five years, my best guess is that every RIA of scale will have a similar solution for investors who would have, in another era, been forced to seek help from a hopelessly conflicted brokerage firm.”
Whether advisers will be adopting automated solutions to expand market share, or to fulfill their fiduciary obligations to investors that they previously would have been disincentivized to serve at all, there is little doubt that robo advice will transform the financial services landscape. Millennials love their apps. Indeed, it seems that many would prefer to communicate via text and email rather than using old-timey modes of communication, such as telephone discussions or face-to-face conversations. So, it seems likely that Mr. Brown is correct that most large investment advisers will need to and will want to offer automated advisory solutions in the coming years.