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Financial Planning > Tax Planning

Advisor Future Shock: Rising to the Robo Challenge

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Many years ago, back when I was an editor at Financial Planning magazine, I was assigned the happy task of keeping futurist and author Alvin Toffler company in the green room for about an hour before he went on as the keynote speaker at the IAFP (now FPA) national convention in New York.

Perhaps it only we older people who will remember Dr. Toffler as the first professional “futurist,” (George Orwell and H. G. Wells notwithstanding), as the author of many books including: “Future Shock,” “Power Shift,” and “The Third Wave,” which had just been published at the time of our meeting. 

For me, it was a fascinating and educational conversation, from which my biggest takeaway was this: “Futurists don’t know any more about the future than anyone else,” Toffler told me, “but the good ones know a lot more about what’s happening in the present.” His comment made me realize that the real value we journalists add is to help people stay better informed about the present, so that they can make better decisions about the future.

Toward that end, in my blog last week (2015: They Were Doing What? Robos, Flat Fees and Fiduciary), I took a look back on the events of 2015 that had, in my view, the biggest impact on the independent advisory world: the rise of the Robos, and the resulting pressure on advisory fees; the resurrection of flat advisory fees; the lack of progress on a fiduciary standard for brokers; and the conundrum of the CFP Board and the movement toward state licensing of financial planners.

For my last blog of the year, I’d like to use that assessment about the present (and recent past) to take a look forward and speculate a bit on what the coming year might hold for the industry.

In light of the above-mentioned events and others, I’d sum up my vision for 2016 in the advisory industry as “The Year of Marketing.” Yes, I’m well aware that, at least since I started covering the advisory world more than 30 years ago, every few years or so, someone comes out with their “reason” why independent advisors are finally going to have to start marketing. An, every time, they’ve been flat wrong. But despite all that, and even though it’s a cliché, I do believe that this time, it really is different; and advisors really are going to have to start seriously marketing their services. 

The reason I think this time really is different is that the world has changed in some very important ways. As I wrote last week, and many times before that, very few if any financial planners have ever been able to make a living getting paid solely for financial planning. In the 1970s, planners sold mutual funds; in the early ‘80s, they sold tax shelters; in the mid ‘80s they sold variable annuities; and around 1990, they transitioned to asset management.

Yet with each “product” or service, planners didn’t really have to “market.” Rather,  financial planning did it for them. That is, the concept of having a comprehensive “financial plan” was such an obviously good idea that most clients were more than happy to go along with whatever “product” was recommended to grow their assets and make their plan work. And today’s low-cost investment vehicles have provided a very efficient way to meet those goals—and justify an ongoing advisory fee.

The so-called “Robo Advisors” are changing all that. By offering asset management as a fraction of even the lowest independent advisors’ AUM fees, robos have undercut the advisory market. Slap a rudimentary digital “financial planning” interface on that, and robos can offer an investment solution that even the Garrett Planning Network folks won’t be able to compete with. 

But as anyone who’s spent any length of time around the financial services industry knows, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Robo platforms are no exception. As far as I can tell, those low, low AUM fees are an illusion: I have yet to find a robo that isn’t generating the majority of its revenues through much more lucrative relationships with the providers or distributors of the products that go into their clients’ portfolios. What’s more, the digital AUM and financial planning algorithms that many robos use are very rudimentary (dare I say, amateurish) at best.

Both of these flaws spell opportunity for independent advisors who provide truly independent advice, who have a fiduciary duty to clients and offer high-quality financial planning and asset management. But to take advantage of this opportunity, advisors will have to do something they’ve never really done: Market their services—seriously. That is, truly sell the differences between what professional advisors do and what robos actually deliver, in a way that resonates with today’s investors.


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