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Peter Yang

Would You Trust Your Retirement to a Machine?

Mar 31, 2015

Betterment looks like a startup right out of tech disrupter central casting. Its office, in an airy loft space, features a beer tap and Ping-Pong table. The founder, Jon Stein, favors open-necked shirts at work, not a suit and a tie. He is 35 years old.

But Betterment isn't in Silicon Valley, and it's not selling chat apps, cat videos, or cheap car rides. It's in Manhattan and trying to make a splash in the very serious business of investment advice. Stein has a Wall Street résumé: He's a former banking consultant and a chartered financial analyst. He also thinks that Wall Street charges way too much and that Internet-based companies can fundamentally change the way you invest for your retirement. "We've taken the friction out of the process. We've made [advice] accessible to everyone. That is the future," says Stein, with the modesty you'd expect from a tech CEO.

What Stein calls "friction" other advisers call a good business. Advice can be expensive. You may pay about 5% off the top for a commission-based adviser who puts you in mutual funds. Or you might pay an annual fee—1% of assets is typical—but many advisers and planners often won't bother with clients who don't have a lot to invest. "It's almost like there were two options: walking, or driving a Mercedes," says Michael Kitces of Pinnacle Advisory Group.

Betterment and at least a dozen competitors, including Wealthfront and FutureAdvisor, think web tools and computer models can deliver advice much more cheaply. Known (sometimes pejoratively) as robo-advisers, they pick investments for you and monitor your portfolio. Many do it for 0.15% to 0.5% of assets a year and welcome tiny balances.

"Many financial advisers are going to get drummed out of the business," says adviser Ric Edelman, a well-known industry figure. That's a bold forecast: Robos manage $19 billion, a relative sliver. Charles Schwab alone runs $2.5 trillion.

Private venture capital investors are racing in—Betterment recently got a shot of $60 million. Using Betterment's implied value as a yardstick, VCs think a robo may be worth about $30 for every $100 in client assets, vs. $3 per $100 for some traditional advisers. Robos "see themselves becoming the next Schwab," says Grant Easterbrook, author of an industry report for the research firm Corporate Insight. "Based on the money they've gotten, the VCs believe them."

A close look at what most robos do reveals a fairly cookie-cutter, if common-sense, investment approach—one many MONEY readers would feel comfortable doing themselves. And there are important things the services haven't yet figured out how to do well.

Still, this could start to finally open up advice to a bigger chunk of middle-class investors, not just the wealthy. Even if robos aren't for you now, you may soon benefit from the way they're changing the business. Other sites, such as LearnVest and Personal Capital, are using technology to connect you to a human adviser or planner you just never happen to meet in person. Established players like Vanguard and, yes, the current Schwab are responding with their own low-cost offerings. (Schwab's headline price: free.) The existence of the robo option puts pressure on everyone's prices.

In other words, you don't need to buy the Mercedes. "Now there are Kias. There are Fords," says Kitces. "There are a lot more choices." Here's how those choices stack up today, and what they can do for you.

Continue reading the rest of this story here.

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