Beating Robos at Their Own Game: Advisors Fight Back

Tech vendors at the T3 conference in Atlanta release a slew of robo-advisor-fighting tools for human advisors

The robo-advisor threat to human advisors is real, so it’s time for traditional advisory firms to join the digital revolution, say financial technology experts.

“I think robo-advisors will be good for us. They’re the best disruptor I’ve seen,” said Bob Curtis, chief executive and founder of PIEtech Inc., developer of the MoneyGuidePro financial-planning software for advisors.

Curtis stepped forward with his view of the future of advice delivery at the Technology Tools for Today (T3) conference for enterprises in Atlanta on Wednesday. He spoke to an audience of 280 independent broker-dealer reps, tech vendors and other players in the advisor industry, many of whom are eager to understand the threat from so-called “robo-advisors” — online investment platforms such as Wealthfront and Betterment — in order to better compete with them online for client share.

The big robo-fighting news from MoneyGuidePro at T3 is its launch of myMoneyGuide, which is billed in a company release as “a revolutionary approach to advice delivery, investor education and advisor marketing.” MGP has designed the new product to lead investors through a guided online planning experience that motivates them to create goal-based wealth and retirement plans.

As Curtis described it, myMoneyGuide gives individual investors the ability to leap across a chasm of fear and intimidation that separates them from seeking financial help from an advisor. During 90-minute live and interactive lab sessions, participants can build their own personalized plan for retirement. Instructors with myMoneyGuide, many of them certified financial planners, moderate the process while the sponsoring advisor or employer offers commentary and insight.

But it’s up to the investor to choose whether to seek that advice, Curtis noted. Lab participants may request a complimentary review from the advisor who invited them to the event. (And not surprisingly, these labs serve MoneyGuidePro’s interests, too: when a lab participant elects to share a self-generated plan, the system transfers that plan to the advisor’s MoneyGuidePro license, which eliminates the need for duplicate data entry.)

“Loss of privacy and control ties into what robos are doing,” Curtis said. “As an investor, you arm yourself with information before you engage with an expert or a salesman.”

MoneyGuidePro was not alone in bringing robo-fighting financial technology to T3. Other offerings at the conference included a Laserfiche session on “beating the robo-advisors at their own game: driving efficiencies with technology and process innovation” and a Jemstep Inc. session on “how Jemstep’s robo-technology empowers advisors.”

Tim Welsh, president and founder of advisor consultant Nexus Strategy, said the robo theme at T3 was no accident. He viewed it as the start of a trend that will see advisors become increasingly adept at using digital tools to meet and help clients online.

“Automation is coming to the land of the advisor, and we are in the very beginning stages of it,” Welsh said.

Daniel Satchkov, president of portfolio analysis and stress-testing software vendor RiXtrema Inc., also was on hand at T3 to discuss the robo threat in a session on the future of risk.

“If you ever hope to compete with robo-advisors, you must be committed to a relentless end-user focus,” Satchkov said. “A single-minded user focus is a prerequisite of this revolution. Look at what Wealthfront does every day.”

In other words, Satchkov said, online investment management platforms employ risk management technology used by hedge funds and other institutions. These heavy hitters’ computer-aided strategies can do in a matter of minutes or seconds what it used to take a day or longer to accomplish, he said.

At the price of only about a quarter of a percentage point, Satchkov added, Wealthfront and Betterment are redefining value thanks to the help of thought leaders assisting these startups.

Betterment’s investment committee includes Columbia University professors of finance Geert Baekert and Bruce Greenwald; Samad Majd, former vice chairman of Deutsche Asset Management; Dan Egan, former behavioral finance specialist at Barclays Americas, and Lisa Huang, previously a quantitative strategist at Goldman Sachs. Investment management leadership at Wealthfront, meanwhile, comes from Greenwich Associates founder Charles Ellis and Chief Investment Officer Burton Malkiel, a well-known economist and author of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street.”

“They look like more of a robo-hedge fund than a robo-advisor,” Satchkov said of the two startups.

“Quantitative risk technology changes are forcing professionals to redefine value,” Satchkov said, comparing the science behind robo-advisors to recent biotech innovations that quickly and efficiently detect problems that previously required complicated testing to uncover.

--- Check out What Advisors Can Learn From Robo-Advisors: Orion’s Clarke on ThinkAdvisor.

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