It could be argued that ‘robo advice’ is currently the hottest topic in the financial services industry.
Money is flowing into technology that will deliver the simplest of solutions with the minimum clicks. Venture capitalists are falling over themselves to get in on the next start up and the old guard are scrambling to make sense of the Millennial generation’s habits, believing these individuals won’t want face-to-face advice.
So far, the evidence for robo advice delivering a financial nirvana for technology investors and financial services providers isn’t entirely obvious when you do the maths on money raised, cost of service and AUM.
In October 2015, the US-based robo advice provider Wealthfront raised $64m at a valuation of $700m on AUM of around $1.7bn charged at 0.25%, giving it revenue of $4.25m and a multiple of 165x.
In March 2016 Wealthfront had closer to $3bn in AUM, but even if it gets to $30bn that is still a 9x multiple. I’d say even reaching $30bn will be good going when you consider there are currently over 200 robo advice services online or coming online, with a number of big players yet to show their hand.
Loyalty is a big issue. For example, if the other US robo advice giant, Betterment, out-performs Wealthfront in 2016, won’t many of Wealthfront’s clients simply do what the majority of unadvised clients do – chase performance and flip their account to Betterment?
Acquisition cost-per-client for a pure tech solution seems to dominate the spend and, in an increasingly competitive arena, it isn’t clear that ‘if you build it they will come’.
The speed of AUM growth within the emerging robo advice services of some of big traditional players has been met with much fanfare in the US – Schwab and Vanguard to name two – but on closer inspection asset flows seem to come from their other direct-to-consumer (D2C) or unadvised channels.
So what does all this mean for financial advisers? Many aren’t sure what to do. Currently they hold a very strong position and, in the near future, the data indicates this is likely to continue. Datamonitor Financial’s Global Wealth Markets Analytics report (April 2015) predicts global liquid assets at the end of 2018 will be $114Tn, while a report from McKinsey in June last year estimated the total addressable market for ‘virtual advice’ at $13.5Tn giving it a share of 12%. If these figures are correct it looks like 88% of the worldwide market will still be advised in 2018.
Also, robots can’t deliver the personal ‘comfort factor’ offered by real live financial advisers – that arm around the shoulder that says “I am an expert and I have carefully analysed your situation and this is what I think you should do.
But robots have scale and efficiency and as the American’s say they want to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ too.
While the question that seems to dominate is which is better a) the human or b) a robot, I suggest is the real answer is c) a human combined with a robot.
Take air travel for example. We all know that many planes are flown using auto-pilot but how many of us would be comfortable getting on a plane that relied totally on the robot and didn’t have an experienced pilot on board? If – or when – the ‘computer says no’ I want an expert on board who can take action to avert a catastrophe.
Another, perhaps less dramatic example is chess.
The former world champion grandmaster Garry Kasparov played in the most noteworthy “Man vs. Machine” events. In 1996 he defeated IBM’s computer Deep Blue but the following year he lost the rematch. The first game of the 1996 match remained famous though, as it was the first game in the history of chess in which a world champion had been defeated by a computer.
Garry Kasparov had the idea to invent a new form of chess in which humans and computers co-operate, instead of contending with each other. He called it ‘Centaur Chess’ as, like the half man, half horse of Greek mythology, he felt a combination of human and technical strengths offered the best of both worlds.
If we take the same approach in financial services perhaps rather than robo advice the solution we should be focusing on is ‘Centaur Advice’, or ‘Centaur Investing’.
I truly believe the ‘Centaur’ concept of well designed, purpose built technology combined with a skilled adviser is the way forward. Without a doubt, technology has the potential to streamline the financial world and make it more efficient, cost-effective and, ultimately, more profitable but it’s not the answer on its own.
Until you and I are happy to get on a jumbo jet that is flown without an experienced and qualified pilot on board, I believe there will always be a place for real people. That’s why we’ve built our business around technology that puts advisers in control – you could say they are the Centaur of all we do.