Robo Advisers to Run $2 Trillion by 2020 if This Model Is Right

Photographer: Getty Images

The robots are just getting their metallic feet wet in the investment advisory business. 

Well, they're not really robots of course, just software that automatically invests and rebalances according to clients' goals and risk tolerances. But it sure is a lot more fun to think of these "robo adviser" products as actual robots like this one or this one. Unless, of course, you are a flesh-and-blood registered investment adviser, then you probably think of scarier robots like this one and this one.  

Either way you imagine them, these robots are swarming into the industry. (Here's a good Peggy Collins piece that lays out how some of the old guard in the industry like Vanguard and Charles Schwab Corp. are jumping in the robo game.)  

Their popularity is going to explode even more, if new projections from consulting firm A.T. Kearney are in the right ballpark. Assets under management by robo advisers are estimated to increase 68 percent annually to about $2.2 trillion in five years, according to a forecast from the firm.  About half of that is expected to come from  money that's already invested and the rest from non-invested assets.  

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Source: A.T. Kearney

Here's how A.T. Kearney explained what robo advisers are to 4,000 Americans in a survey:

"`Robo-advisors' were defined as providers that offer automated, low-cost, investment advisory services through web-based and/or mobile platforms. The service was explained to survey takers as follows: once you enroll for the service, you enter your risk profile and, using advanced algorithms, the platform offers alternative personalized investment portfolios for you to choose from (this is different than investing in a mutual funds or ETFs that are not personalized) and continues to rebalance your portfolio as required. This is all done digitally (online or mobile), without you having to talk to a live person."

That last clause "without you having to talk to a live person" is pretty amusing. It makes you wonder how bad the jokes have gotten among the armies of RIAs out there if not having to talk to them anymore becomes a factor in investment decisions. Of course, like the robots that we've empowered to build our cars and clean our floors, cheapness is often the most important thing. From A.T. Kearney:

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The robots may prove to be even better than humans at one of the most important tasks required of an investment adviser: knowing how to dodge taxes.

"The dramatic collapse of commission prices and the rise of automation means that institutional-grade tax-loss harvesting is now within the reach of all investors," reads a blog post from robo-adviser pioneer Wealthfront, whose claim to fame is programming a robot with all the wisdom of professor Burt Malkiel

Like any new trend involving computers that scares the bejeezus out of us older folks, we of course have the millennials to blame ... er ... thank for the growth of robo advisers, according to the research firm Hearts & Wallets, which attempted to, ahem,  assess "the robo phenomenon through the prism of trend-setting Millennials."

 “They’re less a threat to the current businesses of traditional advisors, who for the most part have happily ignored young and middle-aged investors to focus on Baby Boomers," Laura Varas, a co-founder of the research firm, said in a report.  "Younger consumer preferences will have an outsized impact on financial services as firms race to respond to new trends."

All of this raises some important questions. Like, could growth in robo advisers among the fattest part of the demographics curve lead to more crowded trades and more tightly correlated markets?  What are the implications for Uncle Sam from robots armed with "institutional grade tax-loss harvesting" strategies? Will the Florida conference circuit become filled with awkwardly dancing robo advisers and robo sales traders in May and June? And will they play hookie during the breakout sessions to go shoot a round of golf with handicaps of approximately negative 40?  

If we start seeing portfolios with 90 percent allocations to the Robo-Stox Global Robotics & Automation Index ETF, we'll know something went wrong.