MONEY financial advisers

Investment Start-Ups Shake Up Financial Industry

Companies targeting mass-market millennials say they're forcing lower prices and greater transparency.

Led by a group of start-ups that have emerged in the last two years to offer previously expensive and exclusive financial services on a low-cost basis to a mass audience, the financial services industry is starting to adapt its ways.

The changing way of doing business is resulting in lower fees and more transparency about services, leaders of the start-ups say. And instead of failing or being gobbled up by larger entities, these online money management and investment product companies have been growing exponentially.

A snapshot of the growth revealed recently at the Reuters Global Wealth Management Summit in New York:

  • Wealthfront.com, a provider of low-fee investment management aimed at tech-savvy millennials, born after 1981, recently crossed $1 billion in assets under management, achieving that feat in two years. (Its closest cohort in the space, Betterment, now has $630 million under management.)
  • SigFig.com, which aggregates accounts and offers investing advice, but does not directly take in assets under management as its main service, tracks $200 billion. The company is on its way to tracking $1 trillion in the next year, said chief executive Mike Sha.
  • Hedgeable.com, which provides low-fee alternative investment products directly and has broad distribution on many traditional platforms such as Fidelity and TDAmeritrade, has $400 million in assets under management. With just six employees, the company is cash-flow positive and developing new products all the time.

For anyone thinking that sounds like a good target for an acquisition, Hedgeable’s chief executive, Michael Kane, said, decidedly, “We are not for sale.”

Already, the companies see their influence in fee slashing industrywide as well as on greater transparency. Firms like LPL Financial, Wells Fargo, and Edward Jones are trying to lower fees by offering bundled services, Kane said.

In five years, 90% of these companies will be offering flat-fee pricing for all of the services they offer a retail client, Kane predicted.

Change is also at hand as traditional firms rethink their pricing model, going from a percentage of assets under management to flat fees. SigFig has helped move this along by showing customers exactly how much they are paying in fees yearly. For clients who have money in traditional mutual funds at a brokerage, fees average $7,000 per year. More than 90% of those costs are avoidable, Sha said.

“Over 30 years, that’s staggering,” Sha said.

Another shift: how firms service customers who don’t have huge account balances. While traditional advisers often have high minimums of $500,000, Wealthfront accounts start at $5,000. In the last few weeks, the company has added about $100,000 in assets under management, all without needing to grow their 40-person staff.

Wealthfront chief executive Adam Nash understands why the big firms still mostly go after baby boomer clients, who control $15 trillion in wealth versus $2 trillion for millennials, a third of whom are still in college.

But Nash sees growth for Wealthfront as millennials age, and wants to engage them as early as possible. The company recently fielded a slew of complaints from college students who couldn’t sign up accounts, so the company lowered its minimum age to 18 from 21.

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