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ETrade Bucks Investing Trends With a Robo-Adviser Juiced by Humans

The discount broker builds in a nine-member investment team to tweak its robo-portfolios in response to market conditions.

ETrade Financial Corp. is launching a robo-adviser, with a twist: human beings.

The discount broker follows in the footsteps of Charles Schwab Corp., which built its robo-adviser last year, and of startups including Betterment and Wealthfront. Like competing products, ETrade’s Adaptive Portfolio will automatically build custom portfolios for clients at a fraction of what a human financial adviser would charge. But deep in the gears of ETrade’s robo-adviser, people are fully in charge, defying contemporary investing trends.

Previous robos have embraced passive investing, using index funds that include exchange-traded funds (ETFs) rather than pricier actively managed funds. They use a consistent set of formulas to determine how to spread money across different asset classes. At ETrade, a nine-member investment team will tweak portfolios in response to market conditions.

Customers will have two investment options: an ETF-only portfolio and one that includes actively managed mutual funds, along with index funds. Rich Messina, ETrade’s senior vice president of investment product management, and the investment committee will vet the fund managers, deciding when and how much to invest with them.

All this flies in the face of recent trends in the investing world. Passive strategies have been taking a steadily larger piece of investors’ portfolios over the past decade. Investors poured $1.2 trillion into U.S. domestic stock index funds and ETFs from 2007 to 2015, while actively managed domestic stock mutual funds experienced a net outflow of $835 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute.

Investors seem to have come around to a view, popularized by Vanguard Group founder John Bogle and backed up by academic theory and recent results, that it’s very difficult to beat the market consistently. It's practically impossible to predict which fund manager will be able to outperform, the theory goes. Because active strategies cost more, they almost always fall behind passive strategies that buy up wide swaths of the market with cheap index funds.  

“Over time, there’s really no way around the fact that the index fund wins,” Bogle, now 87 years old, told Bloomberg Television in 2013.

Following this advice, Wealthfront, Betterment, and other startup financial advisory firms tend to take a passive-only approach, using only ETFs with low expense ratios. ETrade’s hybrid approach ends up costing more, so its clients may underperform, unless its staff makes the right picks and finds a way to beat the market.

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That said, the fees are still far below the costs of a personal financial adviser and a portfolio entirely made up of actively managed funds. The service charges customers 0.3 percent of their assets a year, with an account minimum of $10,000, compared to Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios robo-adviser, which is free, and Betterment's, which charges 0.15 percent to 0.35 percent, based on account size. Wealthfront charges 0.25 percent per year on assets after the first $10,000.

In addition to any management fees for the portfolio, customers of all four robo-advisers must pay expenses for the funds in which they're invested. The very cheapest ETFs can cost just 0.03 percent per year vs. more than 1 percent for most actively managed equity funds.

ETrade aims to hold costs down by keeping 20 percent to 50 percent of the portfolios in cheaper index funds and using cheaper institutional shares of mutual funds. Customers who choose the hybrid active/passive strategy end up paying fund expense ratios of 0.2 percent to 0.45 percent a year. 

Even those who choose the less expensive ETF-only portfolio may be better off with the element of active management that ETrade's robo-adviser incorporates, Messina said. “There are certain asset classes where active makes sense,” he said. A manager’s expertise can come in handy in emerging markets or bond markets, he said, while certain market conditions may be better for active management than others.

How does Messina decide which fund managers to choose and when to use them? Experience helps, he said. Each member of the investment committee has at least 15 year years in the industry.

“Some of it is your gut," he added.

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