Humans and Robots Team up in New SoFi Wealth Management Push

  • Humans join robots as lender ramps up asset-management drive
  • Robo-advice industry to quadruple by 2021, Cerulli forecasts

The line between robo-advisers and traditional wealth-management services used to be black and white. Now it’s increasingly gray.

Social Finance Inc., the online lender known as SoFi, is ramping up its wealth-management platform by adding human advisers to its software-based financial advice offering that’s been in beta over the past year, the firm said Tuesday in a statement.

“We’re really focused on adding the human component,” John Gardner, general manager of SoFi wealth, said in an interview. “We have an operational infrastructure set up to support advice because we have the lending platforms.”

U.S. robo-advisers -- which use computers to build investment portfolios for a fraction of the price traditional brokers charge -- managed $83 billion in assets at the end of 2016, according to an estimate from consulting firm Cerulli Associates. The opportunity for expansion is still large, as Cerulli forecasts the robo-industry will reach $385 billion in assets by 2021.

Among competitors, Vanguard Group started its hybrid service two years ago with mix of technology and access to human advisers by phone or video chat. Betterment said in January that it was hiring more human advisers because customers were increasingly asking for them to back up not only the portfolio recommendations generated by computerized algorithms, but also to help out with big financial decisions.

Read more about the rise of robo-advisers in our QuickTake here

“The combination of the digital side complemented by the relationship with the human adviser can be really powerful,” said Frank Kolimago, Vanguard’s head of personal adviser services.

Charles Schwab Corp. “learned along the way that even the people that are invested in the robo want to occasionally reach out to a person -- even if it’s just to make sure they are doing the right thing,” said Tobin McDaniel, head of the firm’s hybrid offering. Schwab launched the hybrid earlier this year after starting with a mainly tech offering in 2015.

SoFi is also looking to offer a broader menu of asset classes beyond stocks and bonds by including access to other markets that could include hedge funds and private equity as early as this year. The firm has a number of ties to the hedge fund industry given its backing from investors such as Dan Loeb’s Third Point, which has invested in SoFi through its venture arm.

“There is an appetite for access to private equity and hedge funds,” Gardner said. “We have some unique capabilities to do that downstream.”

— With assistance by Charles Stein

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