Guidance, not advice

Last week Merrill Lynch announced the launch of its long awaited Guided Investing robo advisory platform. Investors get access to a fully automated managed account for only $5,000, compared to the $20,000 required for call center driven Merrill Edge.

A new type of hybrid model

It’s interesting that Merrill Lynch would launch another managed account platform at this point, given the narrow gap between the two program minimums. But industry wide fee compression underscores the importance of cost savings, and with Merrill Edge’s best growth behind it, even a call center is expensive compared to a digital first approach.

I say “digital first” because Guided Investing clients can still get access to a human advisor. In this case, however, the advisor delivers (in the words of a Merrill spokesman) “guidance” and “education”, and not investment advice. Advisors are able to explain product choice as well as why and how a portfolio is rebalanced, for example. Such capabilities reinforce the Merrill message that its portfolio models are not just algo driven, but managed by the CIO.

Compliance friendly

The compliance friendly terms “guidance” and “education” give another clue to Merrill’s intentions. Like BlackRock and other asset managers discussed in my previous post, Merrill wants to get ahead of the DoL rule and fill the advice gap that will be left by the rollout of a uniform fiduciary standard across both the qualified (retirement) and taxable investment spaces. It’s worth pointing out that Merrill announced its decision to stop selling commission based IRA accounts the same week it launched Guided Investing.

Compliance and economics are powerful (and mutually reinforcing) motivations. Especially when the economics are not just about cost savings, but about the chance to develop a whole new client segment. Guided Investing represents not just another robo platform, in short, but an effort to lower delivery costs and fill out the range of options Merrill offers clients, particularly younger and self-directed ones.

Merrill believes (correctly, in my view) that this type of managed investment solution will be as ubiquitous as mutual funds within five years, and so it has no choice but to move forward. Vanguard finds itself at the same crossroads, which is why the firm’s plan to launch a fully automated robo platform (as a complement to its $40 billion AUM Personal Advisory Services hybrid program) is probably the industry’s worst kept secret.

 

Shining light on the thinking at BlackRock

It’s clear that there’s more than a little chutzpah behind BlackRock’s demand for tougher regulatory oversight of robo advisors. This post probes the thinking behind it.

Does BlackRock, with FutureAdvisor in hand, want to shut the door on new robo entrants? A desire to forestall such competition would suggest a level of fear that I do not think exists. (Among other things, the robo narrative has moved past the independent or 1.0 stage). BlackRock’s main concern seems to be that the sloppy hands of existing competitors might result in regulatory sanction on everyone, and so put the hegemony enjoyed by BlackRock and its asset manager competitors at risk.

Neither faster, nor better, nor cheaper

While BlackRock may have paid $150 million for FutureAdvisor, I don’t think the firm believes it owns a better mousetrap. FutureAdvisor may have an innovative glide path feature (which may explain why FutureAdvisor has an older clientele than its robo competitors), but tax loss harvesting, 401(k) advice, “try before you buy” functionality and other core capabilities have become table stakes in robo world. If anything, BlackRock may believe that its proprietary ETFs (characterized by low tracking error and a broad product base, e.g., Japanese fixed income) outshine the plain vanilla offerings of Schwab and Vanguard, although this argument is undercut somewhat by the firm’s recent decision to drop fees.

Asset managers in the catbird seat  

Like the ETF business, robo advisory services have become increasingly commoditized, even as the DoL conflict of interest rule presents a massive tailwind for both. It’s a tricky time for asset managers seeking to shift their offer from manufactured product to advice based solutions.  BlackRock appears to feel it is in the catbird seat, and is perfectly happy to secure its hand and that of its asset manager competitors, all of whom have done well by automating their investments platforms. I’m not saying there’s collusion here, just a noteworthy confluence of interests.  

I’ll talk about the motivations behind the launch of another asset manager-backed robo in my next post.

Coaching the Advisor: Predictive Analytics and NLG

Predictive analytics and natural language generation (NLG) are used throughout the financial services today, but are used less frequently in the case of wealth management. Narrative Science and Yseop are two of the few NLG companies currently selling to wealth managers.  IBM Customer Insight is bringing its cognitive Watson technology to the wealth management industry.  IBM Customer Insight is doing cool things related to behavioral segmentation, encouraging wealth managers to create more robust customer profiles by casting their data net beyond customer income information. More in my blog post here.

There are many use cases for NLG and predictive analytics in wealth management.  For example, predictive analytics can assist with risk management by spotting anomalies in real-time, and therefore, enable advisors to resolve issues faster. NLG can be used to transpose customer data into a short narrative that summarizes a client’s performance.  This narrative could be shared in an email to the client or used by an advisor preparing for an in-person client meeting. 

In my report, Coaching the Advisor: Predictive Analytics and NLG in Wealth Management, I focus on how predictive analytics and NLG solutions can enhance advisor-client relationships, the attributes of competitive analytic solutions, and propose best practices for the modern advisor. I stress the importance of advisors’ establishing genuine connections with their clients in the midst of adopting new analytic tools.

In the next 12 to 18 months, I anticipate wider adoption of these tools in the wealth management industry.

Straddling the Old and the New – Fintech in the Capital Markets

We are sitting at an extraordinary inflection point in the capital markets. The competitive landscape is in flux as competitors find their way through a maze of constraints. The constraints are well known-increasing regulation, rapidly changing market structure, liquidity challenges, and difficult macroeconomic conditions. There is also a feedback loop with the broader economy; many of the same forces that are constraining the capital markets are creating an unusual political landscape. We have seen this playout with Brexit, and the world awaits the outcome of the US presidential election. These then feedback into the capital market as uncertainty around managing volatility, risk and whether regulation will proceed as expected will be delayed or, radically altered.

For many capital market incumbents: the investment banks, broker-dealers, asset managers, and infrastructure firms are also saddled with extremely complicated legacy systems that are highly siloed, very expensive to run and even more expensive to change. While many are rationalizing systems, in certain areas it is just not possible. In many cases, ancient systems are running broad swaths of the back office, and sit under decades of add-ons, fit-ins, force-ins, and integrate with countless systems internal and external. Capital market firms are often in the habit of creating an abstraction layer above systems to tie more and more data and systems together. This creates a kludgy infrastructure, but it can, and does work.

Given that there are so many challenges, and hence opportunities, we have seen a slew of fintechs increasingly offering capital market solutions. There are those that come from the capital markets and speak the language of the markets. They have grown up in the space and see an opportunity to solve a particular pain point in investment process, trading or operations. There are other fintechs that have entered the vertical from another and are leveraging their data processing, analytical, machine learning, and hardware acceleration prowess in the capital markets.

We have seen fintech disruption in banking, but in the capital markets, so far, it has been much more collaboration than disruption. Fintech firms are bringing unique data, analytic, technology solutions into a highly regulated business. Fintechs that partner with existing firms are offered scale, legitimacy, and clients in a highly risk averse and regulation heavy business. For the brave incumbent firms who are providing capital and nuanced expertise to these innovators, there are rewards: new ways of looking at their business, but more importantly, ready built solutions that they can scale. Overcoming the fear of engaging these firms effectively is a path to finding better and more cost-effective solutions.

In my report, From Financial Technology to Fintech: Trends in Capital Markets, I look at the areas in which the rate of change is greatest, the nature of fintech partnerships in the capital markets and how they are evolving. I look at the pain points in KYC, liquidity, trading, liquidity, collateral and operations. I investigate the growing acceptance of cloud, the importance of leveraging data correctly and analytics and tie these to specific providers with solutions in InvestmentTech, MarketTech, RegTech and AltData. I also look at emerging technologies such as distributed ledger technology, AI, and business models that are looking to remap the capital markets at its core.

Yes, we are at an inflection point and some of the systems out there are kludgy, but in the short term, solving specific business pain points is the key to solving some of the industry’s thorniest problems.

In robo world, B2B = buyer beware

The success of robo advisors in commoditizing the historically manual portfolio management process is proving their Achilles heel, as I noted in my last post. Incumbents have taken over the narrative. Yet the efforts of these incumbents to build, buy and partner with the robos comes with its own risks.

Foremost among these is how to implement robo advice within a multichannel ecosystem. As discussed in the report, Getting the House in Order: Consolidating Investment Platforms in the Wake of the Department of Labor Conflict of Interest Rule, the ability to deliver consistent advice across channels has become paramount in the new regulatory environment.

This consistency requires a clear view of assets held in house, which in turn implies eliminating product stacks and their underlying technology silos. Of the big four US wirehouses, Bank of America Merrill Lynch has led the way by consolidating five platforms into one. Their competitors are still trying to solve the problem.

Regional banks, with their legacy tech and limited budgets, are going to have a hard time getting this right. Asset managers are eager to help them launch robo platforms, despite the “me too” nature of the banks’ efforts. 

It’s hard to blame these asset managers for wanting to distribute their wares. B2B sales are in their DNA. But I’d point out that their headlong rush to abet bank robo contrasts with their cautious efforts to roll out on their own platforms.

Schwab spent months and millions to launch Intelligent Portfolios. UBS has moved much more slowly, and appears to be using SigFig as a placeholder until it can achieve the technological and service clarity demanded by clients and regulators alike. Fidelity danced with Betterment before rolling out Go through its retail branches. It's tepid if not touch and go.   

I don’t begrudge asset managers for taking their time. They have their own considerations, foremost distribution. That’s why they are enabling bank robo capabilities, even if it's not clear exactly how the banks will manage this. Why not give the teenager the keys to the Audi? But with their own clients, they have to get things right. They have shareholders to answer to, and the stakes are much higher.

The Big Bad Robo Halt

Let’s pause. Take a break. No, the big bad robo halt isn’t the Betterment Brexit brouhaha I discussed in the WSJ last week. It relates to the degree to which the hype around robo has dwindled.

As detailed in last week’s webinar, robos’ ability to automate previously high touch advisory functions is proving their comeuppance, at least in startup world. The commoditization of the portfolio management process, from asset allocation to rebalancing to tax loss harvesting, works in favor of the large incumbents, with their advantages of brand and scale.

Meanwhile, product innovation efforts by independents as described in my Robo 3.0 report have gained little traction. While the robo value proposition (centering on transparency, cost, and user experience) broached by first movers Wealthfront and Betterment and others remains very much in play, incumbents have co-opted the vision.

We're not yet at the point of a fire sale, but the price tag for independent robos is shrinking fast. This is a question of deployment as well as value; among other things, it's become apparent that putting into action a store bought robo is not as simple as plug and play. I'll discuss the robo world challenges facing asset managers, banks and other incumbents in my next post.

How do you say “Brexit” auf Deutsch?

I was in Frankfurt a couple months back to host a client roundtable and there was a palpable rubbing of hands in anticipation of a possible Brexit. It reminded me of the time I had spent in Frankfurt in the late 1980s, right after university, back when the only real skyscrapers in town belonged to Deutsche Bank. There was a real sense in that era that with the coming together of the European Union in 1992, Frankfurt stood to emerge as a global financial hub.

Obviously, London was to usurp that role. For reasons of language, geography, regulation and infrastructure, that ascendance seems in retrospect to have been inevitable. And yet now, with the UK vote in favor of Brexit, London’s preeminence appears to be at risk.

Jangled announcements of redundancies by a few large banks belie the fact that once the dust settles, financial institutions will shift into a wait and see mode. Yet to say that much remains to be determined is as interesting as saying that the original Star Wars movies were better than the litany of duds that followed.

I hate to fault my friends in Frankfurt, who have fostered the growth of a robust fintech sector and capital markets businesses, for seeing opportunity in the UK decision to step away from the Continent. Schadenfreude is after all, a German word. But I believe that Frankfurt’s aspirations are overdone. Wasn’t it just a few months ago that HSBC and a few other institutions were threatening to decamp Britain for Hong Kong and Singapore? Wisely, they decided to stay. The acquisition of the London Stock Exchange by the Deutsche Börse was another vote of confidence in London.

The ties between the UK and Europe are thick (London is home to second largest community of French citizens after Paris) and mutually beneficial. They are unlikely to be undone by this plebiscite. Yes, the vote will give heart to seccessionists elsewhere in Europe, and increase the fissiparous tendencies (look for another Scottish independence referendum) already present in the UK.

But it’s important to take the long view. The UK has survived, even thrived, in the wake of greater challenges, including strikes, war and the loss of global empire. It is a mature democracy that hosts a financial services hub unrivalled in the world history. Surely it can work through this Brexit.

Capital One Rolls Out a Bank Built Robo

In a blog post yesterday I took automated advisors to task for the black and white way (advisor-assisted “hybrid” model versus “digital only”) they have framed the robo debate. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Capital One’s brokerage arm had launched a platform addressing this very complaint.

The Capital One robo combines a digital interface with telephone access to advisors. It’s an advanced take on the hybrid models offered by Personal Capital and Vanguard, both of which use digital technology (iPads, smartphones and other interfaces) to enhance and scale the contribution of the individual advisor.

What these models do not do is digitize advice delivery. Yes, they deploy algorithms to develop risk based portfolios, but firms have been doing this for ages. The defining characteristic of robo (as opposed to automated) advice is the removal of the real life advisor.

Robot with Benefits

The Capital One robo or robot is a step in that direction in that it automates the entire portfolio manufacturing process, while giving investors the options of getting a wise uncle (or aunt) on the phone to discuss it. This process spans risk profiling and portfolio construction on the front end to compliance and funding at the back.

Needless to say, clients pay for the privilege, to the tune of 90 basis points. This is not much less than the average US advisor charges for his services, and it is a given that other firms will replicate this model, and at half the price. In the meantime, give Capital One kudos for being the first US based bank (Bank of Montreal, whom I discuss in a recent report, was the first in North America) to roll out a homegrown, pure play robo advisory platform.

Keeping up with the Canadians

In my last blog post I described the challenge posed by robo-advisors to the bank dominated wealth management industry in Canada. Here I share observations from my recent report, Thawing Market, The Growth of Robo Advice in Canada, while exploring the implications for other markets as well.

The robo advisory business in Canada lags several years behind its US counterpart, but in terms of learnings and understanding, it is catching up fast. This trajectory reflects the natural development of the robo learning curve as well as economic, regulatory and demographic factors common to Canada and other developed markets. These include a low interest rate environment; a graying population and regulator umbrage towards practices that long have defined the wealth management business.

The Regulators Are Talking to Each Other

Let’s start with the regulators, who are clearly are speaking to each other across borders. In the English speaking world alone, the UK and Australia have banned commissions, while Canada and the US have essentially gelded them.

Directives aimed at conflicts of interest and revenue sharing represent a worldwide tailwind for passive instruments (such as ETFs) and the robo advisors that offer them. In Canada, the high fees charged by active mutual funds have battered those older and affluent investors least able to afford them.

The interest rate starved Canadian banking sector, which accounts for a large part of mutual fund sales, can no longer count on the willingness of consumers to pay 200 plus basis points for a fund. Like the citizens of the defunct East Germany, they’ve looked over the proverbial Wall and seen a better way.   

Small but Mighty

In dollar terms, the robo advisory business in Canada is miniscule. But the modest scale of the business belies a complexity of outlooks and approach.

Canadian regulation presumes portfolio oversight by a real life human being. In practice, this means communication from a dedicated advisor to confirm the suitability of the client portfolio, and to ensure the client understands the risks. While communication can be as basic as an email, it appears that advisors will soon be required to pick up the phone and call their clients, or at least those populations (such as the 65+) in need of more tactile support.

All It Takes Is a Phone Call

This requirement represents an alternative to the binary lens through which US automated advisors have played the market. Their worldview has been black and white (i.e., the advisor-assisted “hybrid” model versus “digital only”) and their messaging shrill if not patronizing (“investors need the guidance of an advisor”). Pure play robos have also become more dogmatic. Remember when Wealthfront used to talk about its brainy investment committee led by Burton Malkiel? This message has since been subordinated to talk of APIs and algos.                                                

Instead of using the concept of human engagement (or lack thereof) as a litmus test, or as a cudgel to bash other models, maybe US automated advisor could acknowledge the robo shades in between black and white? The Canadians, in their temperate and accommodating way, appear to be doing just that.

Robo Advice Comes to Canada

Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took heat back home earlier this year for imploring his Davos audience to recognize Canada not for its resources, but for its resourcefulness. Yet the intent of his statement was less to diminish the contribution of the energy sector to the Canadian economy than to underscore its distorting effects.

Remember, oil rich Canada passed the global financial crisis with flying colors. It took the end of the energy boom, coupled with the onset of digital revolution, to open the bank dominated financial services sector to fresh air and force a stolid wealth management industry to reckon with digital entrants.

Fees for investment management services in Canada are among the world’s highest, as are barriers to industry entry. For startups, the difficulty of taking on the Big Five banks is matched by challenges in getting funded. The small Canadian VC community is oriented more toward payments solutions and cybersecurity than investments, and no wonder: it’s tough to grow scale up fast in a country of 35 million.

Yet, as I point out in my recent report, Thawing Market, The Growth of Robo Advice in Canada, there is a lot happening north of the US border. Despite the odds, investments oriented fintech is gaining steam. It’s not a coincidence that the erstwhile Bank of Montreal, or BMO, this year became the first North American bank to launch its own robo-advisor. Particularly interesting is degree to which the lessons learned from the recent disruption extend beyond Canada’s borders to the US and other markets. I’ll talk about these lessons in my next post.