Robo-Adviser Startup Eyes Japanese Millennials’ Spare Change

  • Younger Japanese are saving and investing less as wages slump
  • WealthNavi is backed by Japan’s biggest banks including MUFG

Shoppers look at clothing outside a store on Takeshita Street in Tokyo.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Like their peers overseas, Japan’s millennials aren’t known for squirreling away their money. Kazuhisa Shibayama is trying to change that, one coin at a time.

The founder and chief executive officer of WealthNavi Inc., a startup backed by Japan’s three biggest banks, is developing an app that encourages users to invest their spare change by putting aside less than $1 each time they open their wallets.

The software works like this: When a customer buys something with their credit card or electronic money, it rounds up from the purchase price to the nearest 100 yen (95 cents) and collects that change. Once the balance reaches 500 yen, the cash is channeled into an investment fund selected using the robo-adviser’s algorithm-based technology.

Shibayama’s ambitions depend on whether younger Japanese can be persuaded to save and invest more as wages stagnate, stock prices fall and interest rates evaporate in an economy that’s still plagued by deflation. WealthNavi is one of many companies emerging around the world that are seeking to appeal to tech-savvy investors and disrupt the financial-services industry by using computers to do the job of money managers.

Show Attraction

“We want to show people in their 20s the attraction of making regular, small and low-risk investments,” Shibayama, 38, said in an interview in Tokyo.

More than half of Japanese in their 20s who live alone have no long-term investments or savings, according to a survey by the Central Council for Financial Services Information. That’s up from about a third in 2007. About 45 percent of people in their 20s in households with more than one person also don’t invest or save, the survey showed last week.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is seeking to address that, part of a drive to boost the economy by getting people to invest more of their cash. Households should try to build stable returns by investing periodically, diversifying assets globally and holding products for a long time, the Financial Services Agency said in its annual policy review in September.

“What we’re doing here fits in really well with what the authorities are trying to promote in Japan,” Shibayama said.

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WealthNavi will invest the funds in about 11,000 listed bond and equity exchange-traded funds chosen to generate returns of about 2 percent to 3 percent more than global economic growth, the CEO said. The app is the first in Japan to target customers’ small change and will be available next year, he said. Similar services are available overseas from companies such as Irvine, California-based Acorns Advisers LLC.

Biggest Banks

Founded in April 2015, WealthNavi has raised 2.1 billion yen ($20 million) from investors including the venture-capital arms of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc., Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc. and Mizuho Financial Group Inc. The firm now has 27 employees. Its core robo-adviser investment product opened to the public in July, offering diversified investments including overseas ETFs.

The startup charges 1 percent on its existing service for customers with more than 1 million yen to invest. Shibayama didn’t comment about its performance so far.

With more than 80 percent of WealthNavi’s customers in their 30s and 40s, he is seeking to broaden the client base with the new app. Its fee structure hasn’t been decided yet.

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