By Ian Salisbury
May 19, 2015

Fast-growing internet-based investment services known as robo-advisers have already begun to upend many aspects of the investment business. Here’s one more: Potentially reshaping the long-standing debate in Washington over whether financial advisers need to act in their clients’ best interests.

If you work with a financial adviser you may assume he or she is legally obligated to give you unbiased advice. In fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Many advisers—the ones who are technically called brokers—in fact face a much less stringent legal and ethical standard: They’re required only to offer investments that are “suitable” for you based on factors like age and risk tolerance. That leaves room for brokers to steer clients to suitable but costly products that deliver them high commissions.

The issue is especially troubling, say many investor advocates, because research shows that most consumers don’t understand they may be getting conflicted advice. And the White House recently claimed that over-priced advice was reducing investment returns by 1% annually, ultimately costing savers $17 billion a year.

Now the Labor Department has issued a proposal that, among other things, would expand the so-called fiduciary standard to advice on one of financial advisers’ biggest market segments, Individual Retirement Accounts. A 90-day comment period ends this summer.

Seems like an easy call, right? Not so fast. Wall Street lobbyists contend that forcing all advisers to put clients first would actually hurt investors. Their argument? Because advisers who currently adhere to stricter fiduciary standards tend to work with wealthier clients, forcing all advisers to adopt it would drive those who serve less wealthy savers out of the business. In other words, according to the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a fiduciary standard would mean middle-class investors could end up without access to any advice at all.

(Why, you might ask, would anyone in Washington listen to business rather than consumer groups about what’s best for consumers? Well, that is another story.)

What’s interesting about robo-advisers, which rely on the Internet to deliver automated advice, is that they have potential to change the dynamic. Robo-advisers have been filling this gap, offering investors so-called fiduciary advice with little or no investment minimums at all. For instance, Wealthfront, one of the leading robo-advisers, has a minimum account size of just $5,000. It’s free for the first $10,000 invested and charges just 0.25% on amounts over that. Arch-rival Betterment has no account minimum at all and charges just 0.35% on accounts up to $10,000 when investors agree to direct deposit up to $100 a month.

Of course, these services mostly focus on investing—clients can expect little in the way of individual attention or holistic financial planning. But the truth is that flesh-and-blood advisers seldom deliver much of those things to clients without a lot of assets. What’s more, the dynamic is starting to change. Earlier this month, fund giant Vanguard launched Personal Advisor Services that will offer individual financial planning over the phone and Internet for investors with as little as $50,000. The fee is 0.3%.

The financial services industry says robo-advisers shouldn’t change the argument. Juli McNeely, president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, argues that relying on robo-advisers to fill the advice gap would still deprive investors of the human touch. “It all boils down to the relationship,” she says. “It provides clients with a lot of comfort.”

But robo-adviser’s growth suggests a different story. Wealthfront and Betterment, with $2.3 billion and $2.1 billion under management, respectively, are still small but have seen assets more than double in the past year.

And Vanguard’s service, meanwhile, which had been in a pilot program for two years before it’s recent launch, already has $17 billion under management.

Vanguard chief executive William McNabb told me last week that, although Vanguard had reservations about the specific legal details of past proposals, his company supports a fiduciary standard in principle. Small investors, he says, are precisely the niche that robo-advisers are “looking to fill.”

 

 

 

 

 

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