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Fintech Isn’t Taking Over the Advisory Business … Yet

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Although $8 billion in venture capital has poured into fintech companies over the last five years, the dramatic disruption many predicted to hit the financial advisory industry might be unnoticeable to the average investment advisor, according to a trio of Morningstar analysts during a panel looking at fintech technologies and companies that will affect wealth managers at the Morningstar Investment Conference in Chicago.

Adley Bowden, vice president of market development and analysis at PitchBook, which was bought by Morningstar in 2016, noted that today there are more than 1,000 VC-backed fintech companies, compared with 300 in 2011. He said that the advisory business seems to be a last bastion for fintech reform as systems are complex and archaic, as are the regulations. He sees fintech as an interface application, which won’t necessarily be seen by the consumer but used in the back office.

He also noted that some VC-backed fintech firms are pursuing fake or unsustainable models. That said, some are reaching scale in the space; for example, Wealthfront got a $2 billion investment.

Colin Plunkett, equity analyst at Morningstar, said that there are common themes with various industries in terms of disruption. “Disruption happens over a longer period of time, like two generations. Any disruption heralded like Uber is completely unsustainable. Historically, Merrill Lynch was the pre-eminent disruptor; that was 70 years ago when it pioneered a cheaper underwriting model that allowed them to sell direct to investors,” he said. “Then in the 1970s the SEC allowed investors to negotiate commissions and that led to the rise of discount brokers, who then became a primary disruptor. Robo-advisors will be acquired by larger firms and integrated into their platform.”

Abby Magen, product manager of Morningstar’s wealth forecasting engine, said that the distribution landscape is changing dramatically, providing investors different avenues to get their information. She added that tangential firms, such as SoFi, that haven’t been native to the space are creeping in more and more through millennials. “Millennials don’t go to a banks for a loan, or to an investment advisor office; this is changing.” She also says big online firms such as Amazon, Facebook and Google are gaining interest in the fintech area and could force dramatic changes as well.

“Companies that change an industry often will target people that are just about to achieve their income level and grow and mature with them,” Plunkett said. This type of long-term relationship can be very profitable, he added.

Bowden said the way companies are marketing to millennials is all tech-based: through the web, mobile and digitally. And these new firms that cater to millennials have lower price points. For example, Wealthfront has an average account size of $9,000, whereas Schwab’s average account size is three times larger. It may he hard to sustain those small accounts, he said, adding that fintech firm SoFi is targeting the “cream of the crop” millennials, nicknamed Henrys (High Earners, Not Rich Yet), where they have an income stream.

How to embrace fintech?

Magen said that consumer expectations have changed. For example, they want information on demand and not within a 9-to-5 window. They no longer want to wait for a funds transfer to take 24 hours. “Using digital to reach clients today is important,” she says.

Bowden says to keep it simple. Robo-advisors should just ask five questions and let the investor move forward. Robo-advisors will serve only as a tool to IAs.  “At the end of the day, when you look at a household list, the investor will want to talk to people, so a company can’t go fully digital. In one survey, 60-70% of millenials said they still wanted a person in the investment process.”

Regarding artificial intelligence’s impact on the investment industry, Bowden said, “AI is a broad term,” as it could be anything from an algorithm to a machine reading patterns. “They will be built into back-office solutions and make applications more powerful, but not take over,” he said.

Plunkett said at a Berkshire Hathaway meeting he attended, “it was suggested that AI will replace equity analysts. That’s a lofty assumption that is likely to prove false. AI will be able to alert humans to look at trends, etc.”

Magen encouraged advisors to provide “holistic” investment planning, which includes reviewing total client assets and long-term health care, as well as focus on goal setting. She sees AI used as an aid to advisors. “This is an exciting time, it’s not science fiction,” she said. “Successful advisors will adopt technology.”


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