Last Wednesday Bloomberg carried an interesting article: ‘For Robo-Advisors the Next Bear Market is Make or Break.‘ It left the question of make or break unresolved but it did have some interesting details about how Wealthfront and Betterment had fared in the first few months of this year, with Wealthfront reporting that it grew its client-base three times faster this January than 12 months previously. Meanwhile Betterment reported that client growth and net deposits had seen peaks in January and March.
The ability of robo-advisors to survive bear markets is still seen as their Achilles heel by some but the counter argument, that the application of behavioral finance insights and in robos’ outbound communication messages about consistent long-term diversified investing helps investors stay on course, seems to be gaining ground.
But isn’t there a more fundamental reason for the resilience of robo-advisors? Investors who start from scratch and grow their investments over a long period are likely to be less affected by aversion to loss(es) than a someone who gives a wealth manager a discretionary mandate for an already sizable fortune. The corollary for this though is that robo-advisors that require a minimum investment (e.g. Personal Capital - $25K, MedioBanca’s Yellow Advice - €20K) or ones with a charging structure that offers much better value for money for larger portfolios, may not have such an easy ride when the markets turn down. Moreover, perhaps there’s a penalty of success for very low cost robo-advisors and younger clients; growing their portfolios successfully and in 10 or 15 years’ time these clients will be a lot more worried about market downturns than they are at present.