What are Robo-Advisors?
Robo-advisors are online investment management services that employ mathematical algorithms to provide financial advice with minimal human intervention. They use their algorithms to manage and allocate client assets in the most efficient way possible.
Robo-advisors use online questionnaires that obtain information about the clients’ degree of risk-aversion, financial status, and desired return on investment.
Degree of Risk Aversion
The degree of risk aversion refers to the extent to which investors are willing to lower returns in order to reduce uncertainty. For an individual, it usually varies depending on the financial goals and time horizon of the investment.
For example, someone who is close to retirement would lean more towards risk-averse investments as they can’t afford to lose their life savings. In contrast, a young investor may be more risk-seeking, as they have time to recover lost funds.
Types of Investors
An individual/investor can be categorized as:
Risk-averse investors typically look for safe investments, although they may realize relatively lower returns.
Risk-neutral investors tend to be indifferent between relatively risky and safe investments.
Risk-seeking investors usually favor riskier investments that offer high rewards.
Features of Robo-Advisors
1. Portfolio management
Robo-advisors create optimal portfolios based on the investors’ preferences. Typically, portfolios are created based on some variant of the Modern Portfolio Theory, which focuses on the allocation of funds to stocks that are not perfectly positively correlated.
Robo-advisors usually allocate funds to risky assets and risk-free assets, and the weights are decided based on the investors’ goals and risk profile. Robo-advisors monitor and rebalance the portfolio as economic conditions change by adjusting the weights of risky and risk-free assets.
2. Tax-loss harvesting
Tax-loss harvesting involves the sale of securities at a loss in order to save on capital gains tax, typically done towards the end of the tax year. By selling a security at a loss, investors avoid paying taxes on that income.
At the same time, it is important to invest in a similar security in order to maintain the portfolio allocation and reap the rewards of an upturn in the markets. Robo-advisors automate the process, allowing users to benefit from tax-loss harvesting effortlessly.
Advantages of Robo-Advisors
1. Less expensive
Robo-advisors offer traditional investment management services at much lower fees than their human counterparts (financial advisors). The minimum amount required to use such types of software is also much lower than the minimum amount required by financial planners.
2. Easy to use and secure
Robo-advisors also add value by allowing investors to invest in many different asset classes conveniently through mobile phones or web applications. Furthermore, they provide full access to portfolio management tools, which offer more flexibility and security to users.
Limitations of Robo-Advisors
Although robo-advisors offer cheaper and faster investment management services than human advisors, they lack the subjectivity required to offer fully-personalized services.
Robo-Advisors vs. Human Advisors
Financial advisors usually got the expertise required to execute trades and construct portfolios for their clients. Given that each client tends to assume a unique attitude towards risk, advisors often need to be subjective in constructing portfolios based on the clients’ goals and needs. Advisors are also responsible for checking in with their clients regularly and re-evaluating investment goals based on changes in the market.
For their expertise, management, and ability to execute, financial advisors charge client fees and/or commissions that can be extremely high. On the other hand, robo-advisors charge relatively low or negligible fees; however, the tradeoff is with the subjectivity and degree of personalization that human advisors provide.
Robo-advisors provide investors and users with the resources and tools needed to execute trades and build portfolios, along with the option of automating their investment. Yet, although robo-advisors offer more flexibility, lower costs, and higher control to investors, they lack the expertise and subjectivity provided by human advisors.
Are Robo-Advisors Safe?
Robo-advisors are neither safe nor risky – the riskiness of a portfolio managed by a robo-advisor fully depends on the preferences of the investor. Robo-advisors provide investors with a variety of risk and timeline preferences to choose from.
Risk-tolerant investors may choose a risky portfolio (e.g., more stocks, fewer government bonds), whereas risk-averse investors may choose a portfolio that offers lower returns at lower volatility (e.g., a relatively higher concentration of risk-free securities). By assessing every individual investor’s appetite for risk, robo-advisors are able to curate personalized portfolios.
Examples of Robo-Advisors
WealthSimple charges a 0.40%-0.50% management fee, depending on the portfolio. There is no minimum investment amount required, and the company offers to manage up to $10,000 worth of assets free for a year.
Wealthfront charges a 0.25% management fee. It requires a minimum investment of $500 and offers to manage up to $5,000 worth of assets free for a year.
Betterment charges a 0.25% management fee. It does not require a minimum investment amount and offers to manage assets free for a year for qualifying deposits.
Ellevest charges a 0.25% management fee. It requires a $0 minimum investment and offers a free subscription to Ellevest Digital (0.25% annual fee) for a month. It is also a company “built by women, for women.”
5. SoFi Automated Investing
SoFi charges a 0% management fee. It requires a $0 minimum investment and offers free career counseling, as well as discounts on qualifying deposits.
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