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Robo-Advice ‘Not a Zero-Sum Game’ as Schwab Stomps Into Arena

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There is an air of “wait and see” surrounding Charles Schwab’s recent announcement that it would launch a no-fee automated investment advisor service.

During a discussion on Tuesday titled “What is Trending with Digital Advice — Friend or Foe?” at the Pershing Discover 2014 conference in New York — one day after Schwab’s big announcement — thoughts and concerns were no doubt raised by speakers Grant Easterbrook, an analyst for Corporate Insight, and Rich Bingham, director in Pershing’s Global Strategy, Marketing and Communications group.

When asked how Schwab’s new offering will do, Easterbrook said he was taking a “wait-and-see approach.”

“Whenever a big corporation does something like this, we have to wait and see if they’ll actually provide in 4-5 months with a low-cost managed account …” he said. “We’ll see what happens with that.”

Calling to mind recent memories of BloombergBlack or LPL’s NestWise, Easterbrook noted these were “two very hyped initiatives that kind of fell flat before they got off the ground.”

On Monday, Charles Schwab (SCHW) officially announced its no-fee automated investment advisor service, Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, for retail investors set for release in the first quarter of 2015, with a version for RIAs to come “shortly thereafter.”

“If it does go off the ground, I think a lot of people tend to interpret Schwab in this space as sort of a zero-sum game, where it means they’re going to run all those start-ups out of business,” Easterbrook said. “I don’t necessarily view it that way. The pie here of investment knowledge is so large there can’t be a zero-sum game.”

While Easterbrook doesn’t seebig firms getting into the automated advice game as the “end of the world” for robo-advising startups, it may prove to be a challenge full-service brokers.

“I view it as more of a challenge to the full-service brokers of the world. It’s not just startups who are lowering costs and increasing transparency but some of the major hybrid competitors are,” Easterbrook added, “that’s a pretty serious challenge to them.”

While the minimum investment level is set for $5,000, lower than the investment minimums of many RIAs, Bingham also worries that it could still mean competition for advisors.

“[Schwab was] positioning that its a service for low-balance accounts, the kind of accounts that traditional advisors don’t want in the first place,” Bingham said. “They also said it would be a tool for advisors, to cultivate the accounts that they don’t necessarily want to turn away to the point where they become more profitable accounts. That said, it doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be competing with them directly in that space.”

Schwab isn’t alone; its announcement came less than two weeks after rivals began sharing their own robo-advisor news. Last week, TD Ameritrade Institutional (AMTD) President Tom Nally said the firm would take an open-architecture approach to automated investing with a plan to give advisors access to companies that build digital-advice offerings (such as SigFig, Financial Engines, Edelman Online, Trizic and FutureAdvisor) or robo-providers who already custody with TD (such as Jemstep, Upside and NestEgg Wealth).

In mid-October, Betterment struck a deal with Fidelity Investments to introduce robo-advisory services to some 3,000 independent advisors who custody assets at Fidelity. According to Betterment CEO Jon Stein, 25 advisory firms have been beta testers of the Betterment Institutional platform, and an additional “800 to 1,000 firms” have expressed interest in adopting it.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of these major hybrid brokerage firms get involved,” Easterbrook said. Adding what he’s seen, “TradeKing is rolling out a new advice solution. Scottrade might do something this year. The other one I can’t name yet because it’s not public, but they do have a robo-managed account. Vanguard is lowering the minimums to work with their advisors and Merrill Edge, which works with less affluent companies than Merril Lynch does, is doubling the headcount of their advisors [to go after this marketplace].”

Easterbrook likened this current trend of digital advice to TurboTax, where these firms take the lower end of the market.

“In the short term, they’ll take the lower end of the market which is not necessarily a bad thing,” he said. “And it will put competitive pressure for lower fees, more transparencies, better websites and mobile access.”

As Bingham added, “I don’t think it’s an imminent threat to advice as we know it.”

Where a threat may lie is in value propositions.

“I’d say now more than ever your value proposition is incredibly important,” Bingham said. “If your advisors have a business where they predominately take a lump sum of money, manage it [and] rebalance it on an ongoing basis, that’s going to be the model that’s difficult to justify, particularly in terms of fees, as these digital advisors take shape.”

As both Bingham and Easterbrook see it, there will always be a place for human advisors.  

Easterbrook said to think about tax planning, high net worth planning, estate planning and insurance. “All those things are very complex and require a lot of inputs and analysis of situations,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a purely do-it-yourself tool, where people handle estate planning online. There will always be a place for advisors.”

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