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Baseball, Apple Pie and Robo-Advisors: US Dominates Robo Market

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A report by Investment Trends, a retail investor research firm, found adoption of robo-advisor services is heavily concentrated in the United States, with less than 1% of respondents in the UK, Germany and France using a robo.

“The U.S. has this wonderful culture of ongoing technology innovation,” Michael Blomfield, CEO of Investment Trends, told ThinkAdvisor in an interview. It also has a very large market to support innovation, he said.

For example, Australia, where Blomfield is based, “doesn’t have the population to be able to invest in the startups in the way [U.S. firms] can to develop services and get to some level of critical mass in a time period that works for private equity and venture capital.”

Investment Trends estimates that 950,000 online share investors are already using robo-advisors, with almost half of those adopting a robo-advisor in the last 12 months. It estimates nearly 3 million people are interested in using a robo in the near future, with 530,000 who will likely engage a robo in the next year. 

These estimates are based on data from multiple sources and extrapolated to a survey of almost 9,000 online share traders, as well as 1,450 financial advisors, according to Investment Trends’ Research Director Recep Peker.

A May 2016 article in Money Observer estimated the U.K. robo-advice market accounted for about £140 million ($174.75 million), compared with $75 billion in the U.S. A consumer poll by London media company Boring Money last year found just 1% of U.K. adults used a robo-advisor, although 26% said they were interested in using one in the future.

U.S. firms like Betterment and Wealthfront have been “tilling the field for a long time,” Blomfield said. “They’ve been out there working hard, advertising, innovating, getting the product to a place that works for people. Into that very nicely tilled field walk the major establishment brands.”

That groundwork hasn’t been laid in Australia and the U.K., he said. “The general public is starting from a position of significantly less awareness of what robo is.”

Although interest in robos declines as users approach retirement, the report found, assets were heavily concentrated in accounts held by older, wealthier people.

“I’ve heard senior executives say, ‘This is just for young poor people,’” Blomfield said. “As the notion of alpha, even if consumers don’t use that word, […] has been pretty damaged, so the credibility of offering it is lower,” there’s been a big increase in the use of ETFs.

In an uncertain world, where investors aren’t sure what to buy, “along come these robos and they offer fantastic answers, and answers for older people who are just carving out a piece of their portfolio” to manage with a robo-advisor, he said.

(Related: Betterment Now Offers Human Advice, Restructures Fees)

Blomfield drew a parallel between the effect robos have had on the advice industry to that of the advice industry on stockbrokers. In the past, “there was vastly less service in the stockbroking industry than there were people who would like to participate,” and costs to trade were high.

Today, he said, “the cost of what we would call full-service advice – really comprehensive planning and financial advice – is only available to a small group of people with a lot of money for a high price.”

In the U.S., “the starting point for advice has always been retirement accounts,” Blomfield said, but many investors have more complex needs like tax loss harvesting or establishing a family trust. The cost of services like that “are going to be driven down” by robos, and “that’s going to massively expand the pool of people who are getting really quite robust financial advice.”

However, the entrance of robo-advisors to the financial services industry and the evolution they’ve catalyzed will continue to be disruptive.

“You have to stand back and look at the delivery of advice across its components,” Blomfield said, starting with data collection, and going through the analysis, presentation and acceptance from the client, and implementation and ongoing review.

“At every single one of those stages there are opportunities to deploy technology, whether you call that technology ‘robo’ or what you’ve historically called it, which is automation or straight-through processing or machine reading,” Blomfield said. “Those things are all going to be broken down into their component parts, and firms will have the ability to pick and choose. Firms that play it smart will have a great opportunity to become really narrowly focused on the thing that they think they can do brilliantly compared to their competitors, and automate the hell out of the rest of it.”

— Read Merrill Edge Launches Robo-Advisor With a Twist on ThinkAdvisor.