An oft-repeated critique of robo-advisors is that in a market downturn, there’s no one to hold clients’ hand and keep them in the market.
David Lyon, founder of Oranj, a digital practice management application, has seen that attitude firsthand. When he meets with firms and the conversation turns to robos, “Most advisors’ first reaction is, ‘Oh, wait till the market downturns. Everyone’s going to be running for the doors,’” he told our sister site, ThinkAdvisor, on Wednesday. “That’s what happened to eTrade during the recession and everyone moved to cash.”
However, he added, “I think it has to be a bigger dip than a week to really settle in with people’s emotions.”
That appears to have been the case at Betterment. According to Arielle Sobel, a spokeswoman for the robo-advisor, “our customers behaved incredibly well,” with less than 2 percent changing their asset allocation.
The platform experienced very large onetime deposits from customers, saw a “strong increase” in signups and had a “record week for tax-loss harvesting, which helps our customers when the market drops.”
Sobel told ThinkAdvisor in an email, “Our customers are smart. We continually educate them on the need to stay long-term focused, and have placed behavioral finance at the center of the platform to help with volatile times like these.”
Lyon noted that the true impact of the recent volatility on robos probably won’t be known until they report their AUM numbers.
“I think the larger issue that a lot of this attention is pointing at is how does it affect the service that people are receiving, how does it affect inflows and outflows,” he said in an interview. “From where I sit, I don’t see it being any different from what Vanguard would experience. The true test over time is whether this is the experience that people are actually looking for.”
He added that the real value robos provide to investors is greater accessibility and convenience. “Robo-advisors do a very good job of presenting their service as a passive way to invest,” he said. “That sets expectations up front. The long-term thing to watch is that as investors are paying more attention and have needs outside their investment portfolio, how are they going to be met?”
For example, as millennial investors on a robo platform get older and start accumulating assets outside of their investment portfolio, if “you look at what their true needs are, the robo-advisors are only providing value to a quarter of their needs,” Lyon said. “When it comes to retirement planning and other financial planning, whether it’s buying a first home or another home, over time people are going to want more. That’s the biggest risk for the robo-advisor.”
Paul Resnik, co-founder of FinaMetrica, pointed out that investors’ “risk tolerance is generally stable over time and doesn’t tend to fluctuate with changing markets. What changes as markets move is typically investors’ risk behavior driven by their perceptions of risk, not their risk tolerance,” he said in a statement.
FinaMetrica announced on Tuesday that it has cut the price of its psychometric risk tolerance test for U.S. consumers to $4 following the market correction.
He added, “If you have a portfolio mix that you agreed to with your advisor when you were in a calm and rational state, then now that markets are volatile is unlikely to be a good time to change that allocation.”