Forget the techno waffle. A robo-adviser is simply an online investment service which asks you about 10-15 simple questions and then puts you into a suitable basket of investments. And manages this pool of assets for you on an ongoing basis. You don’t have to choose the ingredients – this is all done for you.
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Robo-advice has been heralded as the ‘next big thing’ in investment. We estimate that circa £860 million is managed this way in the UK today with nearer $50bn in the States, where growth rates are going through the ceiling and consultants get into a tizzy publishing upwardly pointing graphs.
Robo-advisers are an interesting idea for those people who aren’t super comfortable investors OR who can’t be fussed to do it themselves. People who don’t want to pay for specialist financial advice but might be willing to pay a lower fee for an automated online service, possibly with telephone support.
It’s a nice idea. We like it. It will grow. But as with all new things we’re a little cautious and the risks need to be better understood.
So who are they?
The UK market is small today and Nutmeg has been the dominant player. Londoners will have seen the ads all over the tube. Nevertheless, more are emerging, such as MoneyFarm, Scalable Capital, True Potential and Wealthify. We’ll hear a lot more over the coming months about these guys.
Here’s the initial Boring Money view, based on our personal accounts we hold with these guys and having met them to chat through the services offered. To date we’ve covered:
How do we choose who to assess? We simply pick the biggest and the most interesting. Please don’t get into a mood if we haven’t covered your Robo. It’s simply because we need to hold accounts with our personal dosh to assess the real customer experience – and most of you have £1,000 minimums. We’re committed to our work but…
How do investment returns stack up?
As many of these robos are new, we only have limited data about how their investments have performed. Where we have results we have included them.
MoneyFarm is big in Italy and is regulated to give advice in the UK. This advice is ‘hardwired’ into the investment selection process. A sort of ‘protect me from myself’ and ‘stop me from doing silly things’. This takes the form of a risk questionnaire, which asks about an individual’s existing finances, their financial goals and ambitions, but also ‘softer’ elements, such as their emotional response to risk.
It is difficult to over-ride the system, and therefore to pick a pool of investments that don’t fit with the answers. So you can’t say you’re investing for a super short timeframe and “can’t risk losing anything” – but then pick a hard-core spicy investment option. The output from the questionnaire leads to one of twelve portfolios, invested exclusively in “ETFs” (or exchange traded funds). These are low-cost investment things which ‘track an index’ (this is the investment equivalent of backing every decent horse in the Grand National, rather than trying to be a smarty and picking the winner).
The group has an investment team of three that decides the right blend of equities, bonds and ‘other’ investments for each risk profile and for the prevailing investment climate. These are reviewed and adjusted over time.
Good For: People with £50k-£250k of assets
Time: Took about 8 minutes to set up
Choice: 15 questions will take you to your ‘risk profile’
Portfolios: 12 portfolios which map to 6 risk profiles
Minimum: £1,000 for most effective allocation (although you can do with less)
Typical customer: 30s and 40s; professional; not an investment geek but some interest in markets
Fees: Start at 0.6% plus investments which are about another 0.25%. The first £10,000 has all Money Farm admin fees waived.
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 0.25% (you just pay for the investments, not the Money Farm service)
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 0.25% (again – just the investments charge)
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 0.73%
The 2016 12-month portfolio performance:
- Portfolio 1: 4.81% (lowest risk)
- Portfolio 2: 7.85%
- Portfolio 3: 15.77%
- Portfolio 4: 15.87%
- Portfolio 5: 16.86%
- Portfolio 6: 16.50% (highest risk)
Nice and simple. Easy enough to use. We quite like it! Just a few concerns about the scale of the operation – still feels small and is security hot enough?
Nutmeg is a nice, digital play and offers investors easy, low-cost access to the markets. For a 0.75% fee, you will get a stocks and shares ISA to suit your “risk profile” (though the cost of the underlying investments may add up to an extra 0.5%). Your risk profile is basically an indication of how much you would freak out if your investments and stock markets tanked in any one year, as well as checking how long you are prepared to stick the money aside for.
The nice online journey will ask you what you are investing for, how long ‘till you want your money, how much you have to start with and how ‘spicy’ you are prepared to be with the investments. At the end of that you get a whizzy chart telling you how they will invest the money for you (which looks pretty much like something that a posh guy in a mahogany boardroom would charge you a lot more to do).
Nutmeg does invest in index or ‘passive’ investments so you won’t ever be in the best-performing stuff but neither will you end up in the worst performing things.
These guys are the oldest and most established of this new crowd.
Good For: Mainstream folk who don’t want to pay for an investment portfolio from a guy in a suit
Time: You can get going in about 10 minutes
Choice: Portfolios ranging from Cautious to Aggressive
Portfolios: 10 profiles offered
Minimum: £500 investment
Typical customer: 40s; not that interested in markets
Fees: start at 0.75% plus about 0.19% for investments
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 0.94%
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 0.94%
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 0.94%
The 2016 12-month portfolio performance:
- Managed portfolio 2: 2.28% (low risk)
- Managed portfolio 4: 4.72%
- Managed portfolio 6: 7.64%
- Managed portfolio 8: 12.86%
- Managed portfolio 10: 15.36% (highest risk)
Nutmeg is the most established and, once logged in, it’s a nice site to use. A good option. Not the cheapest. But OK on price and feels a bit more solid than most.
Scalable Capital is a slightly different beast to its peer group. It’s rather clinical and cool and is clear that its role is not giving advice but in using clever systems and algorithms to deliver tax efficient investing. The group adopts an investment methodology called ‘volatility clustering’. This could be loosely described as managing money with the core belief that ‘when it goes wrong, it tends to go ‘orribly wrong’ and when it’s going up, there tends to be a nice long sunny spell – and tweaking stuff accordingly. This is all algorithm stuff and human intervention is minimal. As you might have gathered, this is an option which will probably appeal to engineers, traders and City folk at first.
Good For: People with £100k plus
Time: We don’t have a test account (refer to the £10,000 minimum!)
Choice: 9 risk profiler questions
Portfolios: Compiled from 14 ETFs (exchange traded funds)
Typical customer: In their 40s; Finance professional, lawyer, engineer; comfortable with markets; able to appreciate and enjoy the nuances of how these guys run money; “We don’t take on people with no investment experience, nor do we take on people with less than 3 months in cash”
Fees: 1% (as with many robos, when they say the all-in fee is 0.75%, this isn’t an all-in fee for you – you need to add the investments which are another 0.25% ish).
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 1.00%
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 1.00%
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 1.00%
5-month portfolio performance (most of their portfolios have only been running for a few months):
- SC Risk Category 5%: 0.09% (lowest risk)
- SC Risk Category 10%: 1.50%
- SC Risk Category 15%: 1.94%
- SC Risk Category 19%: 2.44%
- SC Risk Category 20%: 3.54%
- SC Risk Category 25%: 4.86% (highest risk)
If you dig investments and know what VaR is then check ’em out. Not for your average Joe.
For the time being, True Potential are not offering advice, nor are they particularly ‘robo’. They are targeting a younger, typically less wealthy audience who are starting out on the savings journey (the average age today is 42 and the average income of their workplace pension customers is £24,000). They want to offer them straightforward options, guiding people through a few questions to determine their risk profile and help them to choose one of ten managed portfolios.
These 10 portfolios are built from a range of active funds, from GSAM, Allianz, Columbia Threadneedle, Schroders, SEI, Close Brothers Asset Management and Seven IM.
New clients are asked to select a goal over which they have a free choice. You plug in other inputs – age, income, time frame- and it brings you to a filtered view of the portfolios to choose. This will show when you are likely to hit their goals, and how much you need to save. People can adjust the assumptions, change the inflation figure, alter future income or put in a lump sum.
There is also an app, which 14% of users have downloaded. We really like this. Nice and simple, it pushes out a valuation one a month.
Good for: Those starting out, with maybe £50-£100 to save each month; also good for those with workplace pension schemes to sort out
Time: It takes about 15 minutes to go through and set up an account
Choice: You have to choose a fund which you think maps to your risk profile; mostly active funds
Portfolio: 10 different profiles built with funds from leading global fund management firms
Typical customer: 30s and 40s, worried that they haven’t done much to date. Not an investment expert.
Fees: Start at 1.15% all in, but you are getting “active management” for that. This costs more but has a chance of making you more. The flip side is it could cost more but deliver less if the managers stuff up.
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 1.15%
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 1.15%
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 1.15%
12-month portfolio performance:
- TP Defensive Portfolio: 8.27% (lowest risk)
- TP Cautious Portfolio: 11.95%
- TP Cautious + Portfolio: 10.58%
- TP Cautious Income Portfolio: 13.57%
- TP Balanced Portfolio: 14.78%
- TP Balanced + Portfolio: 15.16%
- TP Balanced Income Portfolio: 14.95%
- TP Capital Growth Portfolio: 17.6%
- TP Capital Growth + Portfolio: 14.37%
- TP Aggressive Portfolio: 17.78% (highest risk)
Although the language is still a bit jargon-y, it’s a nice site and we like the app. A good option for those starting out with smaller sums to invest.
These guys are a little different because they offer low-cost advice over the phone and online. It’s powered by a bit of kit called Parmenion (which is now owned by Aberdeen Asset Management). These guys are actually financial advisers so can talk through any specific concerns with you – but most of your ‘journey’ will be online. They’ll ask you about 20 questions all-in and come up with a ready-made portfolio – so no need to worry about picking any individual investments. They assess your ‘risk tolerance’ and also a really important idea called ‘tolerance for loss’. You may have cast iron guts and be up for some spicy investments BUT if you’re planning to do this over the short-term, and you’re relying on this money for short-term goals, your ‘tolerance for loss’ could suggest that you need to take a chill pill and take your foot off the investment accelerator. Even if you decide to invest elsewhere, we think they ask some really sensible questions which will prompt some useful thoughts.
Good For: People who want some human advice along the way
Time: About 15 minutes from start to set up and funding
Choice: A ‘discretionary’ portfolio built from managers including Vanguard, L&G, Threadneedle etc All mainstream decent names. Tweaked for you by the pros as markets move and change.
Portfolios: 10 profiles offered
Minimum: Lump sum investment £1,000 OR regular investment £100
Typical customer: Nervous investors wanting someone to watch their back
Fees: start at 0.93% all round- pretty good value for advice with a bod at the end of a phone too
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 0.93%
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 0.93%
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 0.93%
Although these guys can be a bit laborious to deal with – feels like they need to spend some serious cash on getting slicker and digital – we actually think the foundations of this are nice and it’s a pretty good half-way house between a traditional adviser and total DIY. We like.
We like Wealthify. It feels nice and they are happy to work with people who have just £250 to invest. Unlike some competitors, these small amounts will be fully invested in a proper portfolio.
Our testing shows that this rally appeals to people who are fed up with the status quo and want to see something a bit different.
Investors are asked about their goal (they can select from a list, or choose freely), how much they want to invest upfront, how long for and whether they want to invest monthly. Minimum investment levels sit at £250 and for that, investors get a fully invested and diversified portfolio – which means it’s spread around the world and amongst different sorts of investments. The system supports five risk profiles – cautious, tentative, confident, ambitious and adventurous.
Asset class weights i.e. how much in UK shares, how much in the US etc. – are determined by an algorithm, but there is a human element – the investment committee decides whether to adjust the output from the machine. So man does still control the machine!
Good For: Beginners with smaller balances; popular with 25-35 year olds to date
Time: Quick and easy; less than 10 minutes to get going
Choice: questions will take you to your ‘risk profile’
Portfolios: 5 different portfolios and risk profiles
Real speak: questions will give you an investment personality and they will stick you in one of their 5 different ready-meals accordingly
Typical customer: Millennials; newer investors; fed-up savers
Fees: 0.7% for sums of up to £15,000, 0.6% if you have between £15,000 and £100,000 and 0.5% for £100,000+. As with other robo-advisers, the cost of the underlying funds (the investments they use to build your portfolio) adds another 0.17% or so to the overall cost.
Cost for a £1,000 portfolio: 0.87%
Cost for a £10,000 portfolio: 0.87%
Cost for a £50,000 portfolio: 0.77%
10-month portfolio performance (most of their portfolios have only been running for this short time):
- Cautious: 6.59% (lowest risk)
- Tentative: 9.9%
- Confident: 14.46%
- Ambitious: 16.64%
- Adventurous: 20.49% (highest risk)
Some nice touches but very early stages. Feels quite new. One of few options for smaller balances. Unproven.
And a final note on risk...
The Robo lot are new. Well – varying shades of new. We think there are some risks we need to tell you about.
As with any investment, no-one can guarantee this stuff will go up. No matter how nice and groovy the interface. This should not be a short-term, two years ‘punt’. The longer you are in the market, the easier it is to ride out the bumps.
The issue with all the robo-advice models is that they are mostly algorithm “cookie-cutters” and the results will only be as good as the shape of the cookie they’ve been programmed to make. If one biscuit is burned, the whole batch will be. They are also typically newer, unproven brands so customers will need to decide whether they are happy to give them a go.
So – does the greater reliance on computers protect you from silly humans OR make you vulnerable to silly computers and markets!?
As with any new development there may be charlatans (at worst) or naïve dreamers in the mix. This robo stuff is all very interesting and the private equity firms can’t get enough of it BUT it’s early days. Investors need to be really careful about where they send their money. Some of the newer players can’t accept debit cards to fund accounts and cash needs to be sent to unknown accounts by transfer. We’ve done this as part of our research, opening up accounts with many players, and we found it very unnerving. This all raises data protection and security issues. Investors need to ensure that the company has a proper custodian, who is holding their money and keeping it safe. However these brands are growing and we think they offer a good entry point for many less confident investors.
Content correct as of February 2017
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