I spent some time through the holidays in December doing research on Robo investment advisors. Below is what I learnt from the research. For folks outside the US, the specific examples won’t be applicable – but, I hope the framework is helpful.
I think there are broadly 4 approaches to managing investments:
1. Financial advisory (High cost, Low effort): A financial adviser typically charges ~1% of funds under management in addition to the fees from individual funds. There are broadly three benefits. First, the financial adviser helps guide your entire financial life including helping you rein your expenses. Second, advisers ensure you have a few basic hygiene factors in place – emergency funds, life insurance, wills, etc. And, finally, since they manage investments for a living, they have access to a lot of information about the markets and presumably have plenty of data to make good decisions.
Now, on the flip side, disciples of John Bogle would tell you that the passive investing approach is a better, safer, bet than active management. The research would be on their side. But, on the other hand, there are many who work with financial advisers to get their financial life in control before branching out themselves. Financial advisers can also be a boon if you have a high net worth as they can help optimize your portfolio for taxes.
Finally, I lump “Personal Capital” into the financial advisory zone. Even if they claim to be a Robo advisor, fees of 0.89% are in the “high” territory. While I wasn’t on the look out for a full blown financial adviser, I did meet with them to understand their approach (I use their free product). I am admittedly a tad skeptical about their approach as I didn’t find much research to back it up. That said, 1) I’m clearly no expert :-) and 2) I’m looking forward to checking back in a few years to see how their strategy plays out over time.
2. DIY complex investing (Zero cost, High effort): This is for folks who love the art and science of investing. These folks have read the books and the research, follow investment managers and trends, manage their portfolios carefully, read SEC filings of acclaimed investors, and have earned investment experience through years of experience. Most important, their eyes light up when they talk about investing and diversification.
While this would be “high effort” for most people, folks who go down this path tend to do it because they enjoy the process. It definitely isn’t for everyone.
3. DIY simply investing (Zero cost, Medium effort): Folks in this bucket just work with a simple portfolio of Vanguard funds and invest/re-balance on a monthly/quarterly/half-yearly basis.
There are two keys to success in this approach. The first is a threshold level of interest in investing to make sure the overall strategy makes sense. And, the second is discipline. Most folks on forums like “Bogleheads” fall in this category. While I’ve seen folks in the Bogleheads community use phrases like “anyone with half a brain can do this,” I think they often mix interest and ability in their judgment of how easy this approach is to follow in the long run.
And, again, the importance of discipline and consistency in the long term success of this approach can’t be overstated. The biggest long term challenging to DIY investing success is managing your own psychology.
4. Robo advisers (Medium cost, low effort): I think there are two categories of Robo advisers. The more popular category is led by Betterment and Wealthfront. I think of both of them as Vanguard++. They take your Vanguard account, overlay it with a fancy UI that restricts you to a few index funds, optimize the mix for your long term goals, automate the process, and perform tax loss harvesting. Both claim they more than make up their 0.25% fee thanks to tax loss harvesting. Most folks who use these services seem happy – so, I think they’re doing a good job.
The second category is Vanguard’s Personal Advisory service. This service is a marriage between the robo advisers and the financial advisers. The main downsides to this service (versus Betterment and Wealthfront) are the absence of tax loss harvesting and a minimum of $50K in investments. But, on the plus side, you get access to a human advisor for 0.3% in fees. The human adviser can, thus, help you craft a reasonable overall strategy for your investments and ensure you stay disciplined.
We weren’t in the market for a full blown financial adviser as we tend to be pretty disciplined about our expenses and didn’t feel this would be as valuable. I have experimented with DIY simple investing (2013-2015, 2017) and attempted a version of DIY complex investing (2018). But, I realized that it isn’t something that I enjoy doing. While it may have been fun to spend time and learn more, time is a constraint with two kids. So, I was in the market for robo advisers for 2019.
After reading most of the reviews in the first few pages of Google searches for Betterment/Wealthfront and Vanguard PAS, we decided to experiment with Vanguard this year. We really value the presence of the human adviser and thought it would be helpful to have conversations about our overall strategy versus maximizing returns on one account. These conversations over the past 3 weeks have turned out to be very valuable and are well worth the fees in our book.
Finally, we love the simplicity of keeping investments in Vanguard as it makes it easy to just discontinue the service if we think we aren’t seeing value or believe we’ll be able to do what they do ourselves.
Looking forward to seeing how this automated approach works out in 2019. I’ll keep you posted.
PS: A big thank you to those of you who responded to my post with your approaches and notes. As always, it was much appreciated.