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Robo-advisors Might Prompt Shift to Best Interests Standard

For decades, financial advisors have had access to advanced software that can use know-your-client data to categorize investors and prepare model portfolios for them. Some of these programs also use more sophisticated algorithms designed to help formulate recommendations for specific reinvestment of dividends, rebalancing of client portfolios and tax-loss harvesting on an ongoing basis. What’s new, however, are service delivery models in which these powerful tools are made available directly to clients online.

These are the so-called “robo-advisors” that are designed to be used primarily with portfolios of exchange-traded funds, dialed to set-it-and-forget-it automatic mode, and wrapped in a very low monthly subscription price. They’re quickly gaining popularity, especially among the key demographic of investors aged 20 to 40 years old — a digitally astute cohort very comfortable with online services.

U.S. robo-advisor firms such as Wealthfront Inc. and Betterment LLC are enjoying phenomenal growth. In the past three months alone, assets under management for this segment increased by more than 36%, to US$15.7 billion from US$11.5 billion. In Canada, Canadian ShareOwner Investments Inc. now has a robo-advisor program up and running, and others are set to launch their own proprietary services.

Does this worry the rest of the investment industry? Probably not much, at least for the time being. Most firms likely dismiss robo-advisors as a simplistic concept designed to service the low-margin, volume-driven niche that traditionally has held no attraction for mainstream brokerages. So, even though the technology predictably will get more refined, more subtle and more “human” over time, it’s probably assumed that most clients will still choose to deal with real people rather than robots bearing discounts.

But this same assumption also pervaded the travel business when Expedia and Travelocity burst onto the scene about a decade ago. Today, according to reports, there are 34% fewer travel agents working than there were 12 years ago — primarily due to the impact of these online booking services.

Technological change is pummeling realtors in much the same way. Homebuyers today are finding houses on their smartphones, taking virtual tours and securing loans online, so real estate brokers are challenged to still add value to the homebuying experience. Likewise, sellers can prep their houses and find buyers with a few clicks of a mouse and no longer need to lean on an agent as heavily for those purposes.

To stay in the game, realtors have begun emphasizing their role as stalwart protectors of clients’ interests. They’re even going so far as advertising a fiduciary duty code tattooed on the arm of a real estate agent. Travel agents have adopted a similar strategy by playing up their ability to steer clients away from dangers posed by undercapitalized air charters and sketchy hotels that look deceptively fine online.

This could be a glimpse of the investment industry’s future as well — one in which increasingly sophisticated robo-advisors offering significant price advantage dominate the low-end and middle market while human advisors, hoping to stave off their own mass Expediation, are forced to offer clients an ever-greater sense of protection from mistreatment in the financial market.

The impact of this overt “I’m your protector” stance would be profound, though, since it would catapult advisors straight toward fiduciary status in law. In effect, they’ll be inviting courts and regulators to impose broad obligations upon them to act in their clients’ best interests.

If the future truly might play out this way, it’s worth asking whether the investment industry’s current refusal to embrace a best interests duty will be viewed ultimately with some regret – specifically, regret that their refusal may have undermined or delayed containment of the robo-advisor beachhead before it gained momentum, and, relatedly, regret that time spent fighting against the imposition of a best interests standard wasn’t used instead to fine-tune it, getting it to fit both a need for investor safeguards and a need for a workable business model.

In short, will the current impasse on best interests be seen someday as a missed opportunity for the investment industry to shape its own future?

August 25, 2014