Humans Are Coming for the Robots’ Jobs at BettermentBy
Traditional management advice will double some advisory costs
Move looks to lure wealthier clients, boost fee income
The largest independent robo-adviser is adding human advice to the automated technology it’s championed for years.
Betterment LLC will begin offering recommendations from certified financial planners and other experts alongside its computer-driven service, which aims to build investment portfolios for a fraction of the fees charged by traditional brokers. The human touch will cost 50 basis points of clients’ assets for a “premium” plan allowing unlimited advice from financial planners, roughly double the charge for the company’s digital service, depending on the account size.
The move marks an evolution for robo-advisers as they add more services in an attempt to win high net worth individuals and compete against traditional asset managers. Citigroup Inc., whose venture capital arm has participated in at least two funding rounds for Betterment, previously said wealthier clients wouldn’t move a larger chunk of assets to robo-advisers.
“Over the last couple of years, as our client base has gotten older and wealthier, we’ve had a call for handling more advanced situations,” Alex Benke, Betterment’s head of financial advice and planning, said in an interview. “We’re meeting that need now with the ability to talk to a certified financial planning professional or another licensed expert.”
Betterment and other automated investment service providers have seen substantial growth over the past two years as they’ve lured customers looking for low-cost advice. Established firms from Vanguard Group Inc. to Charles Schwab Corp. have elbowed in, offering low-fee automated plans to attract younger investors and maintain a huge lead in assets under management.
The announcement Tuesday is part of a move to close that gap and boost fee income. While Betterment will maintain its $0 account minimum for digital-only customers, clients will need a minimum $100,000 in assets for a plan that costs 40 basis points and gives access to investment professionals once a year. The 50-basis point plan will provide unlimited access and require a $250,000 minimum balance. There is no fee charged on assets above $2 million.
“As you add assets and as you add more customers, you do need more certified financial planners because there will be more customer service involved, especially if higher net worth clients are there,” Arvind Purushotham, managing director and co-head of venture investing at Citi Ventures said in an interview.
The top four robo-advisers boosted their assets by almost 80 percent last year, with Schwab and Betterment more than doubling their take. Vanguard, the biggest participant in the computer advice market, grew its assets under management by 68 percent to $52 billion, dwarfing Betterment’s $7 billion. Like Schwab, Vanguard offers a hybrid that combines tech with human advisers available by phone or video chat.
Josh Brown, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management, said that eventually all robo-advisers will see this convergence.
“Automated allocation software is just a tool, employed by human firms, like email,” he said in an interview. “We won’t be drawing any distinction between advisers and robo-advisers in the end.”