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A Review of Robo-Advisors (Vanguard, Betterment, etc.) [WARNING: LONG POST]

In response to the question: What is the best robo-advisor?
To dissect this topic, I want to break it down by a custom FinTech Pyramid that I created to answer this question.
As you can see with my infographic, I separate assets and liabilities among five groups:
I will base my analysis on each group, as I believe it is easiest to declare winners in each, based on the needs of the end users, and thus how robos have segmented the market.
Introduction
A firm that targets everybody, really targets nobody.
This question is very much like asking, what is the best fast food restaurant, or what is the best car? Do you want mexican or pizza? Fast casual or sit down? An economy car or luxury? Electric car or gas guzzler?
If you want to think about it like the ETF market, are you looking for an index fund or something more specialized - a Vanguard Group or a Wisdomtree? You can’t pick a “best” ETF because they are targeting different markets.
FinTech Pyramid — Savers
This segment I define as being very tied to their new financial independence. They are entering college or the workforce and have established their own bank accounts, debit cards, and are starting to pay their own bills. Any robo solution needs to address these needs.
The main players here would be Acorns (Brokerage), Digit, Stash.
Acorns (Brokerage) really was the innovator in this customer segment. For years, it was derided to offer investment focused products to college students. This has since changed that Snapchat (product) and others have announced their intention to get more involved in fintech. But, the thought of offering an investment product to those with only $100 or maybe even less to invest was very disruptive.
What Acorns did was take a page from the old Bank of America (company) ‘Keep the Change Program’ and combine it with the robo principles that were created by Betterment (product/company).
Instead of investing in a near 0% interest rate Savings Account, Acorns decided to engineer it as an investment account in the stock market instead.
It has paid off, as of the time of this writing, Acorns has 472,000 accounts!
The negative - they charge $1 per month on balances below $5,000. Given their average account size I calculate to be around $155, that means the average person is paying 7.7% per year in fees.
But, I am a strong believer in consumer driven economics, customers love this app and don’t seem to care about the high fees. If interest rates go up, I believe this customer segment can move towards something like Digit, but at 0% that is hard to do.
Winner: Acorns
FinTech Pyramid — Experimenters
This market I define as being UI UX focused. They are first time investors in the market, thus the experience needs to be fast, seamless, and educational. Robinhood (Brokerage) has done a brilliant job targeting this audience. According to a Fortune report, their average customer age is 26. They make it very simple, clean, and FREE to buy your first stocks.
Likewise, I have always been impressed with the clean UI/UX of Betterment (product/company) and how many little bells and whistles they have to make their app simple for a complimentary wealth audience. There is a reason why they have attracted over 100,000 clients. It is very easy to use for first time investors.
Acorns also has a very nice interface that wins a lot of awards for their UI/UX. You could argue they have a good product for the Savers and Experimenters.
But Betterment has a much more robust technology platform that cuts across web and mobile, while Acorns is strictly mobile and it it focused more on savings (through the round up the change feature). Betterment also has been in the market longer managing money, and has a large Data Science department that puts out many interesting studies. For these reasons, I believe they are the clear winner in this segment.
Winner: Betterment (product/company)
FinTech Pyramid — Career Makers
For those in Generation X and Millennial Generation that are just getting their careers on track, the biggest thing they are looking for is investing robustness and features. They are 20–30 years away from being able to reach a Private Bank like Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management, and they may only have $50,000 saved up, not nearly enough to access a private bank. According to Barron’s, the median minimum investment on these private banking platforms is $3 Million.
Some of the biggest things here that are wanted would be access, investing sophistication, and breadth of platform. On the liabilities sign they are most likely starting to re-finance their student debt and using more high end crdit cards like American Express (company). They are also driven by things like rewards and new experiences.
Career makers want to go into work and tell their friends that they just invested in the next Uber (company). This comes down to what I define as “access.” Below, we show the current portfolio makeup of a Hedgeable portfolio.
This includes our own Venture Capital fund that has a $1 minimum investment, integration with Coinbase for bitcoin and soon Ethereum (virtual currency) and more products in the pipeline lie P2P Lending investments, private real estate, and green energy. Hedgeable also allows clients to change the entire makeup of their portfolio to be Impact Investing focused, or called SRI in the industry -
Career makers also want to make sure their growing sums are at least attempted to be protected from big collapses like the 2008 Financial Crisis. Remember, this demographic was in the Experimenters segment during the crisis, and they were deeply hurt by the aftermath. This comes down to what I define as “investing sophistication.”
Below, I show GIPS compliant client composite performance of Hedgeable clients from Jan 1 - Feb 11 of 2016, versus a passive “Robo Index” that we have developed.
What is Hedgeable's investment philosophy?
A third decision point here would be what I call the “breadth of platform.” Are you a small business owner? Do you want to open an account for kids? The “best” robo-advisor might not even be able to take your money because of limited account types! So this could be a very important determining factor for career makers.
Wealthfront currently supports taxable investment accounts including individual, joint and trust accounts. We also support Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, and Rollover IRAs.
Betterment is harder to pin down, because they separate all of the account types into separate FAQ questions based on goals, but it seems like they offer about the same number as Wealthfront, with one or two exceptions.
Hedgeable offers the most account types. In addition to all those listed above, Hedgeable has 27 account types, including 4 different joint accounts and popular small business account types like SIMPLE IRAs and Solo 401ks.
Because of these three dynamics, I believe Hedgeable is the winner for Career Makers.
Winner: Hedgeable
FinTech Pyramid — Accumulators
This segment has reached the pinnacle of their careers, and their earnings start to level off. They have “access” due to their typically larger account balances than those lower on the pyramid.
They have accumulated many accounts across savings, checking, mortgage, investments. They are looking for the most robust app to keep track of these finances.
The average American in this demographic spreads investment accounts across 3 or more firms. They also have 4 or more credit cards, 2 or more kids ready to go off to college, at least 1 mortgage, 2 or more insurance premiums and health accounts, and much more. PLUS, I call them accumulators, because the numbers get larger as they reach their 60s and 70s.
This leads many to need a very robust suite of Personal Financial Management (PFM) apps to look at these accounts.
Personal Capital has done a very good job of targeting this demographic. As of the time of this writing, they have over 1 Million downloads of their PFM apps, which like Mint.com (product) was originally, are built on top of the Yodlee (company) aggregation software. Other platforms have PFM, but Personal Capital is by far the most robust.
Personal Capital allows you to hire one of their advisors if you want to talk to someone about your accounts and build an investment plan.
I like to think about Personal Capital as the only true player in the market that is disruptive to the advisory industry. Whereas firms like Acorns, Betterment, Hedgeable, Wealthfront are targeting clients that have traditionally been shut out of the advisory space - they do not meet the minimums - Personal Capital is directly competing with them with a similar business model.
The average balance of a Personal Capital client is about $125,000 according to my calculations based on SEC data. An advisor at Merrill Lynch or Wells Fargo (company) is about the same. Instead of building their own PFM apps, these advisors will use tools like eMoney Advisor for account aggregation or a TAMP platform such as Envestnet (company).
Thus, if you are in the accumulator phase, Personal Capital is a good choice as a digital solution vs. a traditional advisor.
Winner: Personal Capital
FinTech Pyramid — Preservers
This customer segment is going to be more income based, they are typically already in retirement, and are looking for products like annuities and health insurance. They also will tend to be more tied to the traditional brands like Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch, Vanguard Group, etc, because they came of age with many of them.
This is why Schwab Intelligent Portfolios and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services will most likely be strong choices for this group. Not necessarily for the actual product offered (as of the time of this writing I do not believe either offers true retirement & insurance), but because branding and trust matters with this demographic.
Remember, Schwab was founded in 1971, and Vanguard in 1975. They were the fintech disruptors of their day. From the time the Preservers have been in their 20s and 30s - like the Gen X / Gen Y generation of today - they have grown with these brands.
The brands Baby Boomers know from the 70’s remain attractive today.
This will explain why Schwab has been able to move over about $5 Billion from this demographic, while Vanguard has been able to move over about $30 Billion, since they launched their digital solutions. According to reports, 75% -80% of Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolio AUM has come from existing clients. Their average client is over 55 years old, so this proves my hypothesis. They struggle to attract new young clients, but are very solid choices for their current Baby Boomer client base.
Tie: Charles Schwab and Vanguard Group
Pareto Principle - Other Segments
I am also a strong believer in the 80/20 rule. My pyramid probably only encompasses about 80% of the market.
For the 20% of the equation there are specialized situations that drive human behavior in consumer finance and in particular in wealth management.
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Bargain Hunters
We see this “coupon” or “bargain” mentality occur a lot in the ETF space, some investors will solely look at low-cost options, and compare expense ratios of Vanguard, SsgA, Blackrock iShares, etc.
Here the competitors would be Wisebanyan and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios.
Both are no management fee, but Wisebanyan is truly no fee, Schwab is not really free when you look under the hood, as we did here -
Why does Schwab Intelligent Portfolios hold so much cash?
What is a good Schwab Intelligent Portfolios review?
In fact, we estimate that with increasing interest rates, Schwab could be making over 2% on some accounts!
WiseBanyan has done a nice job on their app design, and they have high ratings among customers in the iOS App Store.
Because of the many conflicts of interest within the Intelligent Portfolios product, I believe Wisebanyan will be the clear choice among those looking at a simple solution at no cost.
Winner: WiseBanyan
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Tax Efficiency Hunters
If you have a large amount of unrealized capital gains in a taxable account or are concerned with cutting down on a potentially large tax bill on an account transfer or ongoing trading, then this sub-category is for you.
Although most people will typically compare Wealthfront and Betterment (product/company) head on, I think of Wealthfront more as a tax manager and Betterment (product/company) as a UI/UX focused personal finance app.
Tax managed investing is a very lucrative industry. For example, Parametric is a leading institutional asset manager that focuses on tax optimization, and they have over $160 Billion in AUM!
When Wealthfront pivoted from Kaching (and then their original Wealthfront business model of a marketplace for actively managed portfolios) they smartly created new awareness in the industry for Tax Loss Harvesting. This technique has been used for decades by advisors, but was never optimized for the scale that Wealthfront operated on. They obviously hit a nerve in the market, especially from high earning Silicon Valley workers, because since they brought this to the forefront in their marketing, it has become “table stakes”. Every robo is expected to offer it, and Wealthfront can be credited with this.
Below, is what Wealthfront claims is the returns from their TLH strategy (until August 2014).
Wealthfront also does tax-efficient transfers of securities. Again, if a client has a large amount of realized gains in a taxable portfolio it becomes difficult to sell them. If you go to Wealthfront, they claim to sell them in a tax efficient manner, waiting for some legacy securities to become long-term gains, etc.
Introducing Tax-Minimized Brokerage Account Transfers » Wealthfront Knowledge Center
For these reasons, I would say Wealthfront is the leader in this niche part of the market so far.
Winner: Wealthfront
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Service Hunters
This niche will cut across demographic lines. Some consumer finance shoppers are most interested in the breadth of customer service.
Personal Capital and Vanguard Group approach to support is to provide a human advisor that you can chat with. So, if your only concern would be that you want to talk to someone about your account via a video portal then these would be good choices. Below, I show the video portal from Vanguard PAS -
Some people (like myself, who has never walked into a bank branch and hates talking on the phone) are looking for a more digital/tech look and feel. On the more digital side I believe Hedgeable has the most robust service, which is 7 day text messaging, live chat, support ticketing, phone, CIO office hours, digital consultations, email, and soon chatbots.
Betterment (product/company) would be a close second, they also offer 7 day chat and phone service and they get good reviews from customers on service. Although, I am writing this in the afternoon on a weekend and Betterment’s chat is offline (see below), even though the chat hours say it should’t be -
Some platforms just aren’t selling service and that is fine - sometimes people just want to go to an automat (remember those?!) versus a sit down restaurant. For example, Wealthfront doesn’t even offer a live chat feature, but that is purposeful (I assume), since they are trying to build more of a TurboTax (product) low service model.
I cannot pick a best of this sub-category, because it really depends on what kind of support is important to you - an advisor via video chat or a fully digital experience.
Winner: Depends on service type wanted
Conclusion Part I
The wealth management market is very complex, there is never going to be a one size fits all solution for everyone. Therefore I suggest the following two steps -
Determine where you stand on the FinTech Pyramid Below I created a graphic based on the levels of the pyramid and my selections in each:
Once you have determined where you fit in the pyramid (there will be some overlap in age, thus I took off the ages in some of the levels), it will help to narrow down the “best” selection for you and your circumstances.
Determine if the 20% rule applies to you If so, the pyramid isn’t going to be applicable, and you can look across the spectrum for a solution. This accounts for why about 80%-85% of most robos’ demographics fall within the same age range, but 15%-20% do not. There are many more categories, but I focused on just three in my analysis.
Conclusion Part II
A shopper that is best suited for a Hyundai (car company) is probably not going to be hanging out at the Tesla Motors (company) dealership and someone in a hurry on game day is probably not going to trade in their Papa John's Pizza order for an hour adventure at Outback Steakhouse.
Many of the answers here will point out a clear winner, but that is because they fall in a certain part of this pyramid, and they are looking myopically at the market from their own eyes. Thus, they are not even mentioning some key players in the space, that aren’t targeting their demographic. There is no way a firm can be best for everyone, and I don’t believe anyone tries to be. This is a common miss-conception in Financial Technology.
Just look at the infographic I made below. This shows data from a Citi survey, on the expected rise of robo assets over the next 10 years. Much like the ETF market, this space will be fragmented, with “best” in class equivalents of Vanguard, SSgA, WisdomTree, GlobalX, etc. Or if you want to look at it like the trading market, an options trader certainly wouldn’t think Robinhood (Brokerage) is “best” because they don’t even offer that service, even though millions of 20 somethings might love it!
There is nothing wrong with any of the players in the market, it depends on what is important to you at a particular stage in life. Happy investing!
Disclaimer: This is not a solicitation to buy or sell securities or an offer of personal financial advice or legal advice. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. It is suggested you seek out the help of a financial professional before making any investing or personal financial management decision.
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