“Robo Advisers” — Rise of the machines

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dougdahmer
Doug Dahmer

By Doug Dahmer, Emeritus Retirement Income Specialists

Special to the Financial Independence Hub 

I know Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and I love the Terminator movies (I’ll be back!).

From all this I know three things: Robots are very smart. Robots always start off to help you. Robots have a tendency to turn on you.

One of the newest crazes and buzzwords in personal finance is: “Robo-Adviser.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it refers to investment management by algorithm in the absence of human input.

With a “Robo” you are asked to complete an on-line risk assessment questionnaire. Your responses determines the prescribed portfolio of ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds) with a built-in asset allocation best suited to your needs. Once a year the portfolio is rebalanced to this prescribed asset allocation recipe.

Dynamics change as shift from Saving to Spending

The “Robo” approach relies heavily upon a basic “buy/hold/rebalance” investment strategy. This passive strategy can work to your advantage during your accumulation years. These are the years when time is your friend, and dollar cost averaging through market cycles offers the opportunity to give your returns a boost.

However, as we get older and begin to prepare for and transition into our spending years, things change. Unfortunately, too few people realize that the investment strategies that served us well during our savings years turn on their head and work to our disadvantage as the flow of funds reverses and savings turns to spending.

Dollar Cost Ravaging

Suddenly time changes from friend to foe where “dollar cost averaging” turns to “dollar cost ravaging” or what we call, the Mathematics of Catastrophe. (More about which in our next Hub blog). During the second half of your life the simplistic money management approach followed by “Robo- Advisers” can start to look like a “deed of the devil.”

Another concern is that “Robos” are unable to deal with the reality of expense variability. If you believe that in retirement, a fixed, annual withdrawal rate from a diversified portfolio will address your income needs I can with confidence suggest you are at best short-changing yourself and at worst setting yourself up for a cataclysmic financial failure.

I have been in this business a long time and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a properly constructed life plan is very important in the second half of your life. It is only when you know what you want to do, when you want to do it and what it will cost to do it, that you can start to build the financial framework to make it happen.

Only through your life plan are you able to anticipate years of surplus and years of deficits and take the steps to bend them to your benefit. You need to bring together cash flow optimization, tax management and pension style investment management to make it happen and in the process add hundreds of thousands of dollars to your lifetime assets and cash flow.

Robos ill equipped to link life to investment plan

Linking your life plan to your investment plan is the secret to success, but “robo investing” is not equipped to handle the nuances of that linkage. A Retirement Income Specialist knows that the type of money management you need is much more complex where the cash-flow demands outlined in your life plan need are linked to your investment plan. Tax planning, income optimization and risk mitigation means it is dangerous to leave your investment management running on auto-pilot.

Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics holds that: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

“Robo-adviser” firms would do well to review this law. When it comes to investors heading into the second half of their lives, “Robo Advisers” may well be about to break it.

Doug Dahmer, CFP, is founder and CEO of Emeritus Retirement Income Specialists. With offices in Toronto and Burlington, Emeritus’ C3 process is one of the industry’s most comprehensive retirement planning processes.

 

3 thoughts on ““Robo Advisers” — Rise of the machines

  1. Another case of advisors grasping at straws to try and avoid this revolution?

    Most, if not all robo-firms offer human advice and interaction – WealthSimple being the most notable with its “Wealth Concierge” service. Even ShareOwner offers advice, even though it’s not advertised.

  2. I agree with Doug the basic “buy/hold/rebalance” investment strategy works long term but as people get closer to retirement they find it harder to just leave their portfolios alone. The math matters less than the psychology. Some one close to retirement now is reading that their bonds will go down. “But that’s my safety net? Panic!!!”
    I also think psychology and apathy is why the roboadvisors will only work with a small portion of the population.
    I am in favour of more education on the pros and cons of different ways to get advice and buy product all round.

  3. Some very good points Doug. I think one critical question is, is there anything preventing robo-advisors from offering the same level of advice as a good advisor but doing it online and at a lower cost?

    In fact, Tea has done a number of decumulation plans for WealthBar clients who are closer to retirement. We’re also continuing to build better planning tools to support these scenarios.

    However, you are absolutely correct, proper retirement income planning is crucial.

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