E-Trade Financial Corp. is launching a robo-advisor with a twist: human beings.
The discount broker follows in the footsteps of Charles Schwab Corp., which built its robo-advisor last year, and of startups including Betterment and Wealthfront. Like competing products, E-Trade’s Adaptive Portfolio will automatically build custom portfolios for clients at a fraction of what a human financial advisor would charge. But deep in the gears of E-Trade’s robo-advisor, people are fully in charge, defying contemporary investing trends.
Previous robos have embraced passive investing, using index funds that include exchange-traded funds (ETFs) rather than pricier actively managed funds. They use a consistent set of formulas to determine how to spread money across different asset classes. At E-Trade, a nine-member investment team will tweak portfolios in response to market conditions.
Customers will have two investment options: an ETF-only portfolio and one that includes actively managed mutual funds, along with index funds. Rich Messina, E-Trade’s senior vice president of investment product management, and the investment committee will vet the fund managers, deciding when and how much to invest with them.
All this flies in the face of recent trends in the investing world. Passive strategies have been taking a steadily larger piece of investors’ portfolios over the past decade. Investors poured $1.2 trillion into U.S. domestic stock index funds and ETFs from 2007 to 2015, while actively managed domestic stock mutual funds experienced a net outflow of $835 billion, according to the Investment Company Institute.
Investors seem to have come around to a view, popularized by Vanguard Group founder John Bogle and backed up by academic theory and recent results, that it’s very difficult to beat the market consistently. It’s practically impossible to predict which fund manager will be able to outperform, the theory goes. Because active strategies cost more, they almost always fall behind passive strategies that buy up wide swaths of the market with cheap index funds.
“Over time, there’s really no way around the fact that the index fund wins,” Bogle, now 87 years old, told Bloomberg Television in 2013.
Following this advice, Wealthfront, Betterment, and other startup financial advisory firms tend to take a passive-only approach, using only ETFs with low expense ratios. E-Trade’s hybrid approach ends up costing more, so its clients may underperform, unless its staff makes the right picks and finds a way to beat the market. That said, the fees are still far below the costs of a personal financial advisor and a portfolio entirely made up of actively managed funds.