Automated Investing 1.0
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6 December 2014William Trout
My recent report, Disrupting the Disruptors: RIAs, Online Brokers, and the Challenge to the Automated Investment Advisors, looks at the accelerating cycle of disruption that characterizes wealth management today, in which traditional, advisor-centric providers are coming under pressure from technology-based market entrants, which in turn prove vulnerable to disintermediation themselves. Evolution of this sort used to take place over decades; today, disruption is measured in years. Technology has been the driver of change, lowering barriers to entry and expanding the price and servicing options available to investors. These investors include the mass affluent segment and the equally underserved Millennial Generation, whose behavioral characteristics and privileged position as inheritors and generators of assets make them the future of wealth management. The shift toward a technology-driven means of investing has undercut the role of the advisor and exposed inherent weaknesses in the high-cost model of brokerage houses and registered investment advisors. Looking ahead, however, automated investment advisors will face a more rugged environment defined by tighter margins and competition from online brokerages (in many respects the natural competitors of the automated investment advisors) and institutional players such as Vanguard and Charles Schwab, which have built-in client bases and are better positioned to withstand an eventual market downturn. Consolidation lies ahead, whether the result of a price war or a weaker outlook for equities. The real question is whether this consolidation marks the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning for the automated investment advisors. My bet is squarely on the latter.