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巴伦周刊:Backend智能投顾评测引发诸多市场争议

按照科技创业标准,机器人投顾已然接近中年。到今年5月,作为智能投顾的行业先驱、业内规模最大企业的Betterment也已经7岁了,现有资产管理规模高达91亿美元。

作为一家公司,Betterment并算不上太传奇。许多一流乐天堂娱乐咨询公司管理的资产远超91亿,但这种科技驱动的运营模式对美国乐天堂娱乐咨询业的影响却不容小觑。

Betterment等年轻的竞争者为世界财富管理界带来了颠覆性技术,就像特斯拉促使底特律拥抱电动车和自动驾驶技术那样。但并不像特斯拉需要一块一块造出整辆车,机器人投顾的投资组合中满是像先锋集团和黑岩集团这样的基金巨头管理的低成本交易所可交易基金。这种模式约等于特斯拉拿福特汽车来打造其Model S车型。但这并不妨碍智能投顾的颠覆性。

先锋集团和Charles Schwab于2015年先后进军智能投顾界,在管资金规模分别为830亿美元和190亿美元。Fidelity,美国银行美林证券部(BAC)、TD Ameritrade Holding(AMTD)和E Trade Financial(ETFC)最近也开始了相关项目。而据报道,高盛、摩根大通和摩根斯坦利也都在开发自己的数字投顾平台。这些公司能够利用他们已有的顾客关系,这为他们在吸引资产或是将资产转移至他们的数字平台上时提供了优势。

Schwab机器人投资产品Intelligent Portofolios负责人Tobin McDaniel表示,目前最大的机遇在于转化那些仍在使用自我管理账户的用户。Schwab的自我管理账户中就存有1万亿美元。“机器人投顾对于这些人来说是个更好的解决方案。”

同时随着独立的机器人投顾不断发展,人类的帮助愈发重要。今年1月,Betterment开始提供人工咨询服务,收费更高。上周,该公司上线了一个传送讯息服务,所有顾客可以利用该服务提任何关于投资或乐天堂娱乐规划的问题,一个工作日内就会收到答复。

机器人投顾公司FutureAdvisor联合创始人Bo Lu表示:“独立的数字创企在增加人工顾问,业内现有咨询公司在增加软件,最后我们得到的是混合体。”FutureAdvisor创立于2010年,2015年被黑岩收购,Bo Lu仍管理着他的公司。

对消费者来说,混合体是个不错的选择:低成本基金、低成本咨询师。

Betterment的智能投顾平台现在包括人工顾问讯息服务,费用是投资资产的0.25%。投资5万美元,一年费用125美元。0.4%的费率就提供无限人工咨询服务;客户可以像在传统顾问公司一样预约电话咨询。

先锋集团要求其使用数字顾问服务的用户通过人工顾问管理变化,年费率为资产的0.3%。传统基于费用的顾问收费通常是资产的1%,这还没算基金的成本。

如果没有交易所交易基金(ETF),这场数字革命就不会成功。ETF费用一直在下降,让投资者能够较为便宜地获取追踪股票和债券市场的指数。这种形式通常是一种被动投资,即投资者并不挑选能够打败市场的单个资产也不在那瞄时机。

先锋集团说其数字投资组合的ETF费用平均在10个基点,所以五万美元投资在先锋集团的全部费用只有200美元一年,费率0.4%。

时间的流逝还给智能投顾带来了另一重要元素:过往记录。大多数智能投顾现在都有一年及以上的记录。根据新泽西州马丁斯维尔一家分析公司BackendBenchmarking的数据,Barron对这些智能投顾的表现进行了全面研究。

Backend自2016年10月起开始发布其“智能投顾报告”,最新季报这周将公布,Barron得以提前拿到这期季报。

过去一年,Schwab的智能投顾以微弱优势位列表现榜第一。其投资组合年回报率11.94%,略高于betterment的11.68%和E trade的11.6%。

智能投顾做的是长期投资,所以一年的表现并不能完整体现他们的表现,但仍提供了一个比较的标准。更重要的是,Backend的数据让人们得以窥见机器人是怎样组成他们的投资组合以及他们的决定怎样影响回报率。

为了追踪智能投顾不甚明显的表现情况,Backend在16家机器人投顾平台开设账户并放入资金。然后根据60%证券加40%债券的组合希望回答了风险调查问卷,因为这是一个公认的的能够提供中等回报风险又较低的投资组合。(Backend还另开了风险程度更高的退休账户。)

BackendBenchmarking发布者Ken Schaprio表示:“一切就像车库里的实验。所有那些钱都被投进机器人投资中,但却没有表现记录。就是一抹黑。”

表现记录一直是个能够惹怒乐天堂娱乐顾问的话题,他们说个性化的投资组合不应与其他账户比较。Schaprio还运营着一个有10亿美元在管资产的乐天堂娱乐顾问公司Condor Capital Wealth Management,在Barron上也有排名。他认为所有乐天堂娱乐顾问都应有某种形式的表现追踪,就像Morningstar追踪共同基金和交易所交易基金那样。

当然,智能投顾公司并不总是欢迎Backend的做法。先锋集团要求将其摘出研究报告,并且将Backend在其机器人投顾平台上的一个账户移除。Backend随即靠一个备用账户搜集数据。该公司说,他们致力于形成一个独立的数据来源,而且也没有向机器人投顾公司申请批准。

该公司还受到了一些质疑,Wealthfront认为Backend没有公正地计算他们的投资表现。Wealthfront随即被从报告中摘出。随后Backend纠正了这个出现在其最初的一个报告中的问题,将之称为“成长痛”。最新的报告中又涵盖了Wealthfront。

Betterment指出Backend的报告并没有考虑到顾问关系中的微妙问题,比如出于税务考量的决定。这些微妙之处被先锋集团称为“顾问阿尔法”——据其计算可以增加约3%的回报。

Schaprio并没有宣扬将Backend的数字作为选择机器人投顾唯一的标准。“把它当成一个参考意见。”

By tech start-up standards, robo-advisors are already approaching middle age. Betterment, the pioneering robo-advisor and still the largest of the independent firms, turned seven in May. It now has $9.1 billion in assets under management.

As a business, it’s a modest success story. Many top-ranked financial advisors have far more in assets. But it’s hard to underestimate the broader impact Betterment has had on financial advice in the U.S.

The firm and its younger rivals have introduced game-changing technology to the wealth management world, similar to Tesla pushing Detroit to embrace electric cars and autonomous driving. Unlike Tesla, though, the robo-advisors haven’t built an entire car from scratch. Robo portfolios are filled with low-cost exchange-traded funds managed by fund giants like Vanguard Group and BlackRock (ticker: BLK). It would be akin to Tesla building the Model S with a Ford motor. Still, the collaboration doesn’t diminish the robos’ trailblazing ways.

“They were a kick in the pants for the industry,” says Kendra Thomson, who runs Accenture’s global wealth management practice and works with some of the largest players in the world of financial advice. “They have innovated on the client experience and proven that there’s demand for advice across all asset classes and all demographics.”

Says Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein: “For me, one of the most satisfying results of the work we started seven years ago is seeing the entire industry change.”

Vanguard and Charles Schwab (SCHW) joined the robo movement in 2015. Their digital efforts have amassed $83 billion and $19 billion, respectively. Fidelity, Bank of America’s (BAC) Merrill Lynch unit, TD Ameritrade Holding (AMTD), and E*Trade Financial (ETFC) are more recent entrants, and Goldman Sachs Group (GS), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and Morgan Stanley (MS) are all reportedly working on their own digital offerings.

The existing players are able to leverage their client relationships, which gives them a leg up in recruiting assets, and in some cases shifting assets, to their digital platforms.

“The vast majority of clients already maintain an existing relationship with Vanguard,” says Frank Kolimago, who heads Vanguard’s robolike platform, Personal Advisor Services. “They’re looking to make the relationships a bit broader.”

Tobin McDaniel, who runs Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios robo product, says the big opportunity lies in converting investors who still use self-directed accounts. Schwab alone, he notes, has $1 trillion in self-directed accounts. “Robo advice is a much better solution for most of those people,” McDaniel says.

Meanwhile, as standalone robos have matured, they have turned to humans for help. In January, Betterment began offering human advice for a higher fee. And last week, the firm turned on a messaging service in which all of its customers can reach out to real advisors for any investing or financial-planning questions, with a response in one business day.

“The digital independent start-ups are adding human advisors, and the existing advisory firms are adding software, and we’re all ending up in the middle,” says Bo Lu, who co-founded robo FutureAdvisor in 2010 and continues to run the business, which was acquired by BlackRock in 2015.

For consumers, the middle is a good place to be: low-cost funds, managed by low-cost advisors.

BETTERMENT’S ORIGINAL robo tier, which now includes the advisor messaging service, charges one-quarter of 1% on invested assets. For a $50,000 investment, that’s $125 a year. For 0.4%, the company now offers unlimited access to human advice; customers can schedule calls as they would at traditional advisory shops.

Vanguard, which forces its digital-advice customers to run changes through a human advisor, charges an annual fee of 0.3% of assets. Traditional fee-based advisors usually charge around 1% of assets—and that’s before the cost of any funds.

The robo revolution wouldn’t have been possible without ETFs, whose fees continue to fall. The funds provide investors with inexpensive exposure to indexes that track stock and bond markets. It’s generally a passive form of investing, meaning investors aren’t picking individual winners and losers and they’re not timing the market.

Vanguard says the ETF fees for its digital portfolio average 10 basis points, or 0.1%. That gives Vanguard’s service an all-in cost of 0.4%, a paltry $200 a year for a $50,000 account.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME brings another important ingredient to the robos: performance history. For the first time, most of the robos now have a track record that’s a year or more. And Barron’s has a comprehensive look at how they’re doing, thanks to groundbreaking data from BackendBenchmarking, a Martinsville, N.J.–based analytics firm.

Backend began publishing its “Robo Report” in October 2016. Its latest quarterly report will be released to subscribers this week (the subscription is free at backendbenchmarking.com), but Barron’s got an exclusive first look.

Over the past year, Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios robo has been the top performer, by a narrow margin. Its portfolio gained 11.94%, edging out Betterment (11.68%) and E*Trade (11.60%).

Robos are building long-term portfolios, so one-year performance is an incomplete picture. But it begins to give a basis for comparison. Perhaps, more importantly, Backend’s data is opening a window into how the robos craft their portfolios and how their decisions affect returns. (See the table above and the sidebar for details.)

In order to track the robos’ otherwise opaque performance numbers, the research outfit opened and funded accounts at 16 different robo-advisors. It answered the robos’ risk surveys with the aim of creating a portfolio that consisted of 60% equities and 40% bonds, a time-tested approach for moderate and somewhat risk-averse investing. (The firm separately opened retirement accounts with more-aggressive allocations.)

“It started out as an experiment in the garage,” says Ken Schapiro, publisher of BackendBenchmarking. “All this money is going into these robo investments, but there was no track record. It’s a black box.”

PERFORMANCE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a touchy issue with financial advisors, who argue that customized portfolios shouldn’t be compared with other accounts. Schapiro, who also runs Condor Capital Wealth Management, a Barron’s-ranked advisor with almost $1 billion in assets, thinks all advisors should have some form of performance tracking, along the lines of what Morningstar does for mutual funds and ETFs.

Sure enough, the robo firms haven’t always celebrated Backend’s efforts. Vanguard asked to be removed from the report, and it pulled one of Backend’s accounts from its automated platform. Backend immediately picked up coverage from a backup account. The firm says it’s committed to being an independent source of data, and it’s not asking for permission to track the robos.

The company also faced some early backlash from Wealthfront, which felt that Backend had unfairly calculated its performance. Wealthfront was removed from the report soon after. Backend corrected the issue, which came in one of its first reports, and calls the experience a “growing pain.” Wealthfront has been added back to the latest report.

Betterment points out that BackendBenchmarking’s report doesn’t pick up the nuances in an advisory relationship—tax-advantaged decision making, for instance. The nuances are what Vanguard calls “advisor alpha”—which it calculates can add about 3% to the returns of advisor-managed portfolios.

Schapiro isn’t claiming that Backend’s performance numbers should be the only factor in choosing a robo-advisor: “I would say: Use it as a guideline.”


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