With robo-advice mutating into new models, ETF providers readying an assault on traditional index providers and a new kind of actively-engaged mobile investor rising to prominence amid the ascendancy of D2C platforms and passive investing, the tech takeover is nearing totality. At the same time, these technologies of investment seem to be converging and coalescing as the lines between robo-advice, D2C platform and passive provider blur.
According to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, the survival of the fittest is a key driver of the evolutionary process. In the financial services ecosystem, tech solutions are emerging as the fittest and most nimble of organisms and are driving evolution forward at a frenetic pace. As the tentacles of tech expand their reach into more industry sectors and broaden their appeal to more retail investors, it seems less a case of tech-disruption and more tech-eruption.
In the latest mutation of these tech offerings, robo-advisers now have high net worth clients in their sights in what marks a significant shift in strategy. According to a recent Bloomberg article, Betterment — which already boasts a number of super wealthy among its clientele — is now actively targeting wealthy investors as the New York-based technology giant looks to steal a march on big banks.
The new offensive comes on the back of Betterment launching a “hybrid” offering combining robo-advice with a human touch. The hybrid model has since gained momentum, with the likes of Barclays in the UK also looking to launch a proposition as technology-fuelled low cost advice gains further traction.
Robo models are also expanding into new product areas, with Moneyfarm recently unveiling plans to develop a SIPP. It comes after the Italian digital advice firm launched an insurance product in its home country. Meanwhile, Betterment is considering offering access to alternative investment products.
The robo-advice market is maturing and diversifying as propositions expand their offerings to different types of investors through different channels and with different products. They are adopting new strategies as they look to expand market share. And they are hungry for a bigger slice of the investment pie.
As robo-advisers launch new waves of attack, ETF providers are reportedly planning an assault on the market. According to a recent Financial Times article, some of the biggest ETF providers are gearing up to wage war on traditional index providers such as the S&P and MSCI. The ETF providers, who are said to be fed up with the prohibitive costs of index licensing, are reportedly mulling the idea of establishing their own stock market indices. Any move could trigger a radical realignment of the relationship between index provider and ETF provider and one that would put the latter firmly in the ascendancy.
These developments are all part of a wider evolution of the financial technology space that has seen robo-advice, D2C platforms, ETFs, passives, smart beta and mobile investment apps become prominent features of the investment landscape. Investment technologies are multiplying and mutating their digital cells at an alarming rate. And they are all part of the same evolutionary process — the drive to cost-effective, automated investing. Their genetic makeup consists of three core strands: they are cheap, they are quick and they put the end investor in the driving seat — a one-stop-shop of efficiency. All of which suggests that traditional distribution and intermediary channels face a fight to ensure they are not bypassed by the tech superhighway.
What is interesting at the moment is that these different investment technologies are in the ascendancy at the same time — all part of a tech tidal wave sweeping across the investment landscape. Furthermore, these technologies seem to be converging so that the lines between robo-advice, D2C platform and passive provider are blurring. Vanguard’s new D2C platform, which harnesses the power of technology to offer a low cost online service including a range of index funds and ETFs, is one such example of converging technologies. And crucially, it puts the end investor centre stage.
With a charge of just 0.15% for the first £250,000, Vanguard’s new low cost platform represents a significant threat to Bristol-based behemoth Hargreaves Lansdown. Indeed, Hargreaves saw its share price plunge 8.5% on news of Vanguard’s D2C offering. Vanguard’s assault could have more far-reaching ramifications across the whole D2C platform sector and potentially trigger a price war that could see some players struggle. The number of D2C platforms has proliferated recently, with the likes of Fidelity, Barclays, Bestinvest, Charles Stanley, AJ Bell, Alliance Trust and James Hay all launching offerings.
The prominence of D2C platforms again comes back to the process of automation and putting the end investor in the driving seat. Amid all the debate about the role of the active manager, it seems we are entering the era of the active investor. A recent CoreData study surveying 334 investors in the US underscores the growth of mobile investing in the new digital age. Half (48%) of the investors we surveyed report using mobile/tablet apps to invest or monitor their investments, while six in 10 (62%) cite interest in mobile investing apps. Furthermore, within five years seven in 10 investors say it is likely they will use mobile apps for various purposes — including investing in funds, investing in shares/ETFs and receiving advice.
And the industry must look to accommodate this new class of actively involved investor. With access to financial data like never before, investors are becoming increasingly interested and involved in investment decisions. Our research shows investors are drawn to mobile investing apps because of their convenience and a desire for greater investment control. Investors want to be active participants in the investing process.
The fact that these titanic technologies of investment have converged and coalesced at the same time as the asset management industry faces growing questions over high fees and poor performance is no coincidence. The FCA has just unveiled a radical package of reforms for the asset management industry in its eagerly-anticipated final report. The report confirmed plans for an all-in fee for investors as part of the regulator’s drive for price transparency.
But despite these regulatory pressures and the threat posed by new technologies, asset managers will continue to survive and thrive. The asset management industry will adapt, evolve and embrace these new investment technologies. Asset managers have not been silent bystanders of the tech revolution. Some have launched their own D2C or tech offerings while others have jumped on the technology acquisition trial, with the likes of Schroders buying a stake in Nutmeg and Aberdeen acquiring Parmenion. A glimpse into the future a few decades from now will surely reveal a very different type of active manager. But active managers will still be around.
However, there is no denying that digital is becoming dominant. The tech sector has taken a quantum leap in evolution which has permanently changed the way investors access and buy financial products. The advance of tech is the financial services industrial revolution. Ultimately technology will open up and democratise financial services to a broader base of clients. And that can only be a good thing.