Guidance, not advice

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11 October 2016
William Trout

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.

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Blogs
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Asia-Pacific, EMEA, LATAM, North America