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Is this US website the future for tech-based financial advice?

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While we in the UK are busy sorting through the nuances of RDR regulation, a new venture in the US – PersonalCapital.com  – may just have leapfrogged us all.

PersonalCapital.com – launched recently – promises to be the “next generation financial advisor”. And, it has some serious backing. It’s founder, Bill Harris, is the former CEO of both PayPal and Quicken. Moreover, it has raised $25m in capital from various venture capitalists.

So what does it promise? First, the platform aggregates all your investments from all sources. It then goes on to capture information about your goals and plans, before making asset allocation recommendations and helping you construct a portfolio of stocks and ETFs. It automatically reports and rebalances your portfolio, and it manages the timing of capital gains and losses. Then, for a 1 per cent annual fee, you get access to an independent financial adviser. Aided by technology, that adviser is able to manage up to 200 clients.

In short, it promises to offer independent, fee based, low-cost, empowering and engaging advice that will appeal to the digital generation. While the promises warrant scrutiny, they are on face value compelling.

It is no surprise to me that such an offering has launched. Indeed, it has been a personal and professional irritation that nothing similar has come sooner. Today, the Retail Investment market takes the simplistic view that consumers are either “self directed”, wanting an online execution-only offering, or “delegators”, wanting to put their full trust in a financial adviser. The reality is, the internet has given rise to a new digitally-dextrous generation of “validators” (a term coined by Forrester Research, describing how this generation uses the internet to validate advice they receive).

These validators want the tools and information they need to be in control of their investment strategy, but equally they want to seamlessly interject expert opinion where and when they need it. I liken it to learning to fly a helicopter. The cockpit is the investment platform, that both you and the instructor have access to. Sometimes the instructor will man the controls, sometimes you will, and sometimes you will do so together. All too often though, technologists in our industry want to build an auto-pilot, while advisers want to chauffeur their clients everywhere.

If this model is to take off, it raises some tough questions for all of us. There are major movements in our industry at present. Financial adviser firms are consolidating, platforms are looking at direct-to-consumer offerings, and providers are set to launch a new generation of restricted offering. However, none of these movements, as far as I’ve seen, threaten to meet the standard that Personal Capital has just set down.

Adam Price is the founder at VouchedFor.co.uk

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Comments

There are 12 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Already on it and very close to doing the same. the tools already exist here.

  2. 1% pa is a bit fruity – especially when you consider that you can obtain a far more personalised service in the UK for less if taken over a 5 year timescale.

    My experience would be that the very people you want to attract to this service will be aware of this fact.

    Perhaps at 0.5% pa this could work in the UK…

  3. An interesting concept, but I have never believed in the offer of a ‘free lunch’. Venture Capitalists may not always be clever, but they are known to be greedy. Why would they invest $25M if this was not a good opportunity to sell off in a few years at a potentially huge profit? Whilst their website looks interesting, the section “How it’s free” certainly doesn’t answer the question. I think I can guess the answer though.

    I also question what will hapen to the client with a small portfolio who needs help in a disaster. Will his IFA “pilot” be available to support him and stop the possible fatal crash, or will he be off helping steer larger “helicopters” back to safety?

    There appears an obvious gap for this solution in the UK, but let’s not pretend its free. Also, a significant amount of cross subsidy will exist if everyone pays 1% for IFA advice. Surely a graduated scale would be sensible?

  4. You liken it to learning to fly a helicopter!!?? Maybe we should ask the great British public if they would like this experience….get real.

    And, allthough it is always a tragedy, many amateur pilots crash with devastating consequences.

  5. I agree with Mr Farrell’s comment. This is nothing new. Customer relationship manager software that draws together client investments into one place have been on the market for ages. Not so sure about the asset rebalancing part, but not a major a problem. Besides if the Americans can do, so can we.
    This just smacks of “we’ll test in the USA” they will reject it, and then they’ll offer it to the Gullible UK public (at a profit).

    There will always be investors who prefer to do their own thing, but the vast majority need solid advice from an adviser who remains in the chair and can be seen in person or contacted by phone/email.
    Sadly the banks rarely offer the same service. The customer goes back and their adviser has gone?
    by the way, whats happens in a power cut and the FTSE is in freefall. No parachute or ejector seat in a helicopter (unless you want minced advice).!!

  6. It seems that services more or less like this are launching every day in the US at the moment – some more sophisticated, some much less. (If you want to see how you can strip this sort of thing down to the absolute bare minimum, try http://www.betterment.com.)

    In recent years, dozens of traditional employments have been devastated by mostly-DIY digital alternatives – just talk to any ex-recording studio engineer, ex-printer, ex-typographer, ex-travel agent, ex-bookshop owner.

    In all of these markets a small group of traditional specialists remains, looking after the most sophisticated and others at moments when they have particularly difficult or complex needs. But the bulk of the mainstream business is long gone – and I don’t have the slightest doubt that the same thing will happen to financial advisers.

  7. To follow on from Adam’s point that platforms and providers are looking at D2C offerings and restricted advice propositions, he is correct and this will undermine personal capital.com . the convenience for consumers is the starting point of data aggregation which will appeal to many and this technology already exists (Moneyinfo from Sammedia) and it already has integrations with platforms/providers which will inevitably grow into a similar offering BUT for IFA distribution swell as D2C firms.

  8. @Lucine Camp I agree this is a good example of how dangerous it is to ignore change or to be fearful of it. Like you I supect that there will always be demand for the “traditional” face to face advice particularly where the circumstances are complex/involved. But we ignore the internet at our peril as the examples you gave did.

    I suspect most forward thinking IFA firms are working out how they can combine traditional and internet delivery of advice.

  9. I’d be interested to understand how they are storing all this customer data. Data is the new ‘gold’ and in the US their protection systems are not to UK standards (Safe Harbor, their DPA equivalent being voluntary). So presumably, all this valuable customer data, basically identifying a customer’s monetary value will be stored in ‘clouds’ (technical term for data warehouses, notorious for being insecure).
    I can see this being a hacker’s dream…

  10. I think this runs parallel to many of my clients thinking but this industry always spells change out as doom for all of us advisers! The reality is at even my most savvy digitally focussed clients lose direction, clarity and focus as their life changes. The computer geek regularly changes into a 30 something with kids. Left without the desire to be digitally mobile we simply work alongside. A for 1% or 5% charge the key is always value – value of advice and clear guidance. You can’t look a screen in the eye and see if the next fund fits!

  11. Yet another way to satisfy the insatiable appetites of VCTs and fund managers! In my experience (>40 years as an independent advisor), and having spoken to hundreds of clients, and potential clients, my experience is that most people:
    1: haven’t got the information at their fingertips to completely fill in any questionnaire, 2: most simply can’t be bothered, 3: they don’t actually know what their objectives are, 4: and for sure, they do value the ‘face to face contact that goes hand in hand with a ‘trust based relationship’.

  12. “First, the platform aggregates all your investments from all sources” I suspect that this is by screen scraping which cannot be done here due to database copyright as Yodlee found out.
    Perhaps they are relying on the client passing them their passwords as many do in the USA (I kid not!).
    The point here is time will people spend the time I supect not many will.

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