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By Julia Glum
June 2, 2021
A person is watching robo advisors battle it out.
Sam Island for Money

When you hear the words “robo showdown,” you probably envision something out of a science fiction movie: Hulking machines with their arms outstretched, fighting to the death.

But in reality, it’s more like Eddie Yoon flipping through apps on his phone.

The 32-year-old entrepreneur has put money in a handful of different robo-advisors, or automated investing services, including Wealthfront, SoFi, Ally Invest Managed Portfolios and Marcus Invest. Though it may not be quite as cinematic as the name implies, Yoon’s robo showdown is part of his quest to find out which robo-advisor provides the best returns. He wants to help his more than 36,000 YouTube subscribers, and anyone else who comes across his videos, make informed decisions about where to put their money.

His conclusion so far?

“They all have different strengths, and they all have a lot of weaknesses,” Yoon says.

He’s not the only one running a contest like this. Anna Goodman, a financial coach in California, says she’s met with multiple clients who are either hopping from one robo-advisor to another or sustaining several simultaneously. It’s a growing trend that, in her eyes, comes with few pros and a whole lot of cons.

“I’m starting to notice this pattern of folks who aren’t sure which one is going to ‘win,’ so they spread money across a bunch of different accounts and let the horse race begin,” she says.

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In search of transparency

Curiosity led Amy Fujisaki, a 34-year-old who runs a blog called Yupster Finance, to start her robo experiment.

Back in 2017, she wanted to try a robo-advisor but found the online reviews lacking. They were flush with information about advisory fees, promotional offers and account minimums; what they didn’t have was historical data.

Fujisaki was determined to get more info. So she deposited $1,000 into five robo-advisors — Betterment, Fundrise, Ellevest, Wealthfront and SoFi — plus the S&P 500 as a control. Each service asked her a set of questions to determine her risk tolerance, and Fujisaki intentionally threw the results so she’d get aggressive investments.

Then she stepped back and let them do their thing.

Four years later, her biggest takeaway is that the various robos are “not that different.” With the exception of Fundrise, which is real-estate focused, “the patterns and behavior of my portfolio would be pretty consistent; they’d all go up or down at the same time,” Fujisaki says.

At the end of April, SoFi was in “first place” among the robos, having turned her initial $1,000 investment into $1,596. Ellevest and Wealthfront came in second and third, with $1,514 and $1,494, respectively.

The S&P 500, a 64-year-old index that tracks 500 of the largest U.S. companies, outperformed them all.

Due diligence or ‘unnecessary complexity’?

It’s not unheard of to have several robo-advisor accounts within a single service, or to use a robo-advisor in combination with a traditional financial advisor, says David Goldstone, manager of research and analytics for Backend Benchmarking and The Robo Report.

Lots of investors (who don’t run personal finance blogs) open multiple robo-advisor accounts as an A/B test to slim down a big list of options.

“It can be pretty difficult from the outside to really determine what’s going on inside a robo-advisor, both with the portfolio and with the services offered,” Goldstone says. If you’re deciding between three robos, he adds, “you may want to try out all three services before you make a final decision for the majority of your assets.”

Doing this with intention is fine. But opening accounts with separate robo companies just for the fun of it is a different animal altogether.

“In general, it may be adding unnecessary complexity — especially if you’re picking providers that are similar in how they manage portfolios,” Goldstone says.

Even if you’re technically splitting your assets among five robo-advisors, you’re not really diversifying. That’s partially why Fujisaki is now trying other experiments, including one where she invests $100 a month into robos with various themes, like “socially responsible” and “high-dividend hedge fund.”

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Set it and forget it — or regret it?

Managing multiple robos requires time and effort, which according to Goodman goes against their core concept.

“It’s not what robo-advisors were created to do, which is simplify this picture — centralize your accounts, give you access to set it and forget it while making sure your portfolio diversification is consistent over time,” she adds.

Having multiple robos has other potential pitfalls.

One of the advantages of robo-advisors is that they automatically rebalance. For example, say you want a 60/40 allocation of stocks and bonds, and the market changes. Most robos will recognize this and buy and sell to maintain your desired split. But when you have multiple robo-advisors running, they don’t know about each other unless you tell them, meaning their individual rebalancing could leave your overall portfolio lopsided.

“They could be doing things they individually think are helpful but canceling themselves out,” Goodman adds.

You could also end up with a major tax headache. The issue here is “wash sales” which happen when a person sells a security at a loss and buys a substantially similar one within 30 days. Unlike with other investing transactions, the IRS doesn’t allow people to claim losses on washes.

“When you’re working within the context of one robo-advisor, they are keeping track of their own house,” Goodman says. But with several robos running simultaneously, they could potentially be trading the exact same securities on the exact same days, leading to inadvertent wash sales. If you’re not careful, you could end up claiming losses you can’t actually claim — aka misreporting things on your taxes.

Fujisaki can personally attest to the fact that “it’s really annoying to do your taxes.”

“The first time after the experiment, I was like, crap, I have so many documents with so many pages,” she says.

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The testers’ advice? Just invest already

Amon and Christina Browning, the vloggers behind Our Rich Journey, launched their 2019 Battle of the ‘Bots as a resource for their roughly 487,000 subscribers. They initially put $1,000 into Betterment, M1 Finance and Acorns; from there, they added $10 per account per week over a six-month period.

M1 performed the best, with a 9.08% return on the $1,260 investment. Betterment was 8.86%, and Acorns came in third with an 8.4% return.

As fans of traditional brokerages, it was the first time they’d tried a robo-advisor. And though they give the robos credit for their aesthetically pleasing interfaces, “when we started digging into what the actual investments were, we learned robo-advisors are like middlemen,” Christina Browning says.

Many robo-advisors build their strategies around exchange-traded funds, or ETFs. But you can invest directly in Vanguard, Fidelity or Schwab ETFs for free or cheap. So while the Brownings say it’s great that robos lower the barrier to entry, with just a little more know-how, you can save money on fees by investing directly in those ETFs yourself.

Fujisaki, too, advocates for just getting started. Aside from learning that the five robo-advisors are “basically very similar,” she says her experience underlines the fact that experimentation is fun but unnecessary.

“Just pick one and go with it,” she says. “It’s better to invest now than to invest tomorrow.”

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