Robo-advice has become one of the more popular and prominent financial technology innovations of the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. However, Lester Petch, CEO at FinchTech, reckons there’s cause for concern, and below talks Finance Monthly through five reasons robo-advice may not turn out to be all it’s promised without confronting some hard-hitting issues.
In theory these platforms offer expanded access to financial advice and fill a widening RDR gap, at a lower cost and with superior ease of use. Citigroup estimates that assets managed by robo-advisors could reach a collective value of $5 trillion over the course of the next decade – and that is certainly something to aim for.
Excitement and optimism should always be tempered with pragmatism however, and practically speaking, there are reasons to be concerned. Many available and in build platforms promise innovation, efficiency, and accuracy, but have some major potential hurdles to overcome.
- Build cost and overspending on customer acquisition
Robo-advice start-ups are often unknown quantities, and must therefore build from scratch. Many rely on digital and social marketing campaigns, alongside referrals, o generate revenue. The problem is that these campaigns are often expensive – sometimes hideously so. Nutmeg, for example, posted a pre-tax loss of £9 million in the last fiscal year, even as marketing and staff costs hit £10.8 million.
It’s not altogether surprising that when cost of acquisition (CAC) for clients exceeds overall lifetime value (LTV), firms lose money. The assumption is that these expensive omni-channel campaigns will of course be successful, and eventually skew the CAC to LTV ratio back in the company’s favour. This is however a precarious position for any business to find itself in, even one with fantastic technology. Deep pockets are required.
In some cases the aim might perhaps be for the business to accumulate enough assets under management to enable a sale or exit, however this is also a risky strategy. Recent 2016 research by SCM Direct, a UK wealth manager, suggested most UK robo-advisers “will go bust before acquiring the sizeable assets under management to ensure their sustainability”.
- No real performance history
Sophisticated software is no substitute for experience. Many robo-advice platforms haven’t weathered any serious economic storms. Many have little performance history at all and rely on back testing. How much can you trust in a technology that has never been truly tested in the heat of battle, or weathered an event such as a recession or cataclysmic sell off?
- Limited suitability
Robo-advice platforms may be at risk of not always accurately assessing risk tolerance – which can cause serious problems in an economic downturn. Recent research from FinaMetrica found that 21.2% of the firm’s 100,000 customers incorrectly estimated their true risk tolerance by a significant margin, when using a psychometric risk test. Platforms could be vulnerable to recommend investments that are beyond or below the client’s capacity for risk, especially in the event that the markets exhibit extreme volatility.
- Reliance on algorithms
In an age of sophisticated and improving technology, reliance on this tech has led some to treat algorithms with an almost mystical reverence. Many are truly impressive, but can clients truly understand them? No algorithm is perfect, and many are unproven and untested in reality. They’re theoretically created to take human error or preference out of the equation, but human error can be a factor in their design and development. Could a mistake lead to catastrophic consequences for clients and do they know what they are buying into?
- Lack of differentiation
For all the talk of the market’s innovation and creativity, it’s often hard to tell one robo-advisor from another. The major differences tend to be cosmetic, a technological bell here, a branding whistle there, and little differentiating focus on the client’s needs and priorities.
Those robo-advice platforms that enter the market in the near future with more niche or specialised offerings aimed at specific market segments such as cultural groups or different age brackets, are more likely to gain traction, as well as potentially spend less on client acquisition
In conclusion, robo-advisors will need to overcome these problems and more to achieve long-term viability. This isn’t to say that the technology isn’t exciting, the need isn’t there or that it doesn’t have huge potential. The right platforms could potentially redefine the market, and digital investment management is a step in the right direction. If digital investment management platforms can iron out the kinks and focus on what works for their own business model, and more importantly their customers, there is a bright future ahead of them.