Money Managing Machines: Should a Bot Invest for You?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —While the pundits analyze the stochastics, macroeconomic models, market inefficiencies and interest rate conundrums, most people realize that the stock market is really in the metal belly of The Machine. Computer trading dominates Wall Street. And now a leading edge of automated money management services is targeting the do-it-for-me investor -- especially younger, tech-savvy consumers wary of Wall Street.

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We are talking totally turn-key money management services. Not account aggregators that help you “see your total financial picture.” And we’re not talking about a portfolio recommendation service that analyzes your current holdings and suggests improvements but still requires you to handle the actual trades and implement the strategy. This is a set-it and forget-it deal: sign-up, fill out the obligatory risk-tolerance survey, transfer in some cash and you’re done. They do all the trades, re-balancing, tax-loss harvesting, and the rest. It’s kind of like those old-fashioned separately managed accounts (SMAs) that your father had back when the investment world was dominated by traditional brokerage houses. Remember those? Merrill Lynch? Smith Barney? E. F. Hutton? How quaint.

So, don’t expect any chummy lunches at The Club with your stockbroker. Andy Rachleff, President and CEO of Wealthfront says that’s not what his target market is looking for anyway.

“We originally designed Wealthfront for 25- to 40-year-olds who work in the tech community,” Rachleff says. “It’s all done online by implementing Modern Portfolio Theory with low cost ETFs. The only thing you don’t get is someone to hold your hand.”

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So as they say, you want a friend? Buy a dog.

Wealthfront’s lineage dates back to late 2008 when it was hatched as fantasy stock market game called kaChing.

How things have changed. Now, Burton Malkiel, the legendary economist, Princeton University professor emeritus of economics and author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, is the guiding hand behind its investment process.

Another player in the field is Betterment. Betterment claims to be more robo than the rest. The entire process is automated.

“Our mission is to be Apple meets Vanguard – an intuitive interface combined with smart, efficient investing,” says Jonathan Stein, Founder and CEO. “We save you time and money by using our technology to handle everything, from the advice about what your goals should be, to how much you should save, to choosing your investments, to keeping you on track to reach your goals.”

And remember separately managed accounts (SMAs), those traditional brokerage firm managed investment accounts we spoke of earlier? Like Wealthfront’s Rachleff, Stein is not a fan either.

“We think it's crazy--and typical of the investment industry--that SMAs lead you to believe that you should put your money into several different strategies - chasing the hot dot or worrying about what's the latest trend," Stein says. "We focus, instead on getting you there as fast and cost-efficiently as possible.”

Wealthfront has a $5,000 minimum initial investment. Betterment has no minimum investment for its “Builder” account but does require an ongoing monthly deposit of $100 on initial investments less than $10,000. Generally, both services charge a monthly or quarterly fee based on an annual rate of 0.25% on assets managed. It can be slightly less – or slightly more – at Betterment, depending on your balance. These management fees are in addition to the embedded fees carried in the ETFs. Neither service charges a commission for trades.

So, what’s the scorecard on performance? Say, as compared to the S&P 500’s 2012 performance of 13.4%?

Wealthfront won’t compare its portfolio performance to the S&P 500, because “it doesn’t take risk into consideration,” according to Rachleff. “A well-managed, diversified portfolio should have a slightly lower return than a U.S. stock index and significantly less volatility.” In other words, you’re not holding all stocks in your portfolio – you’ve got some percentage in bond ETFs, too – so it’s like comparing “apples to oranges.”

Stein with Betterment agrees but is willing to claim that “our tax-efficiency and rebalancing mean that Betterment accounts should, on average, and over the long term, outperform indexes by a small margin, approximately 0.5% to 1%.”

That might not sound like such a big deal, unless you bet the farm on financial and European stocks over the past five years.

In that case, it’s Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.

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