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Talk to Hal: Schwab’s Robo

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It wasn’t too long ago that Charles Schwab & Company was inviting the investing public to “Talk to Chuck” in a series of award-winning and innovative rotoscope-animated advertisements. Boy, have times changed. Now, the company appears to have traded in their rotoscope for a robo, er, coach—and now they’re asking their clients to talk to…Hal?

Well, not exactly.

On Monday morning, Schwab President and CEO Walt Bettinger announced Schwab Intelligent Portfolios, a digital advice platform that the company plans on making available to its retail investors starting in early 2015. The firm also pledged to make a customizable version available to Schwab’s 7,000 Registered Investment Advisors—who collectively hold more than $1.25 trillion with the custodian—later in the year.

Schwab’s announcement is a breath of fresh air from the San Francisco-based firm, who some feel has ceded large portions of their technology leadership position in recent years to scrappier competitors like Omaha-based TD Ameritrade or smaller, digital-only upstarts like Betterment and Wealthfront. It also represents a bold, inspired bet—made specifically by Bettinger—at a time when digital advice is gaining both investor and advisor mind share.

“Schwab Intelligent Portfolios addresses a growing demand for affordable, objective, sophisticated and convenient advice,” Bettinger said, adding that Schwab’s new platform would “alter the investing landscape” through the combination of innovative technology and the experience, systems, and scale that Schwab has developed in over 40 years of serving individual investors.

The platform will allow Schwab’s retail clients to create diversified portfolios using Schwab or third-party ETFs representing over 20 different asset classes, and also leverages new technology to provide these clients with a completely paperless experience. Registered Investment Advisors will also be able to use this platform to deliver a fully-branded digital advice experience to their own clients, although the level of customization that advisors will have in constructing their own model portfolios remains unclear—as is the platform’s advisor release date.

While the timing of Schwab’s announcement is not an accident—after all, it was just last week that Fidelity disclosed a deal that will allow their RIAs to offer digital advice via Betterment’s innovative and consumer friendly platform—it’s been somewhat of an open secret among Schwab alumni that the company has been working on a digital advice strategy since late January. In fact, I’m told by a wide array of company insiders that it was Bettinger himself who spearheaded the initiative, issuing a decree earlier this year re-allocating a good portion of Schwab’s previously-committed project spend to build out this new platform (one former colleague likened the decision to Bill Gate’s famous “Internet Tidal Wave” e-mail to Microsoft from 1995).

It’s unclear as to why Bettinger suddenly got the digital advice religion, but his newfound passion shifted the company’s entire 2014 strategy as swiftly and fluidly as a vial of quicksilver. Schwab Intelligent Portfolios has already sucked the air out of the sails of competing corporate initiatives, and some of the company’s best and brightest have been re-deployed against the project’s delivery. This is the clearest indication that Bettinger means business: if his lieutenants can execute on his vision, he will have given Schwab a tremendous early-mover advantage at a time when a good portion of Wall Street still seems confused with how to handle the emergence of digital advisors.

While the true impact of Schwab’s foray into algorithmic advice has yet to be seen, there can be little doubt that the entrance of such a large and well-respected player—a firm representing millions of clients and over $2 trillion in investor assets—immediately legitimizes the entire category. In addition, Schwab threatens to fundamentally alter the entire environment that advisors operate in. Even with moderate adoption, Schwab Wealth Investment Advisory—the new entity that will house Schwab’s digital advisory—could become one of the largest RIAs in the nation.

As I’ve previously written, digital advice represents the next big growth engine for advisors—a platform for capturing, as Bettinger himself puts it, “a broader group of investors who are less comfortable with a traditional approach to advice and prefer the power of technology to enhance and simplify their lives.” It’s a platform that will allow Schwab—and the thousands of Registered Investment Advisors who use Schwab’s custody platform—to begin servicing the next generation of investors with a simple, consumer-friendly experience while grooming them for eventual conversion to more traditional advice models as their needs become more sophisticated.

Knowing that RIAs will be able to leverage Schwab’s digital advice platform is probably one of the few silver linings for advisors, since Schwab’s vast economies of scale will allow them to aggressively price this new offering (free, except for the customary revenue sharing arrangements that most brokerage firms have with ETF providers) and efficiently service investors of all sizes (Schwab’s minimum asset requirement for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios starts at $5,000). Additionally, Schwab’s platform will provide capabilities that are seldom found outside of traditional advisory, including automatic portfolio rebalancing and tax loss harvesting for investors with at least $50,000 in assets (this isn’t too different from the offerings of Schwab’s digital competitors, each of which provide automatic rebalancing for client portfolios and tax lot harvesting for portfolios meeting certain minimums).

Of course, none of this suggests that traditional advisors are going the way of the dodo. The RIA business has a long and storied history of providing personalized, high-touch service to affluent and wealthy investors, and these people generally lead sophisticated financial lives, have more complex financial- and tax-planning needs, and hold assets classes that often include non-traditional positions such as private equity, artwork, and other alternatives.

That said, Schwab has just fired a pretty big cannon, and there will likely be some collateral damage. Smaller advisors with low minimums may suffer, and everybody else will eventually need to raise their game. As I stated in my article from last week, “digital advice represents far more than a selection algorithm—it’s a totality of modern experiences that provides clients with the same technology-enabled conveniences that they are used to having in every other facet of their lives. The richness of these experiences represent the future table takes for our own industry.” Tax-optimized, automatic rebalancing will become the new normal, and advisors will quickly need to figure out how to provide a rich digital experience that marries their traditional high-touch service offering with interactive online reporting and client servicing capabilities that is accessible any time from any device.

The only thing left to see is the actual user experience. Can Schwab—a process-heavy organization that typically packs a lot of overhead into its development efforts—effectively compete with the small, agile startups that currently define digital advisory? Will they have the same ability to attract the kind of creative Silicon Valley talent that has created most of today’s modern, elegant, and consumer-based user interfaces? My guess is that they can—and let’s hope so on that last one, since Schwab’s brand-new site heralding the eventual arrival of their Intelligent Portfolio platform has all the charm and sophistication of a 1990’s “under construction” page (including an animated, pulsing blob that I guess is supposed to evoke a feeling of artificial intelligence à la Aurthur C. Clarke’s HAL-9000 computer).

But perhaps that’s the point—a not-so-subtle declaration that we’ve entered a new age on Wall Street: an era where both equity trading and advice delivery are slowly being surrendered to sophisticated computer algorithms—systems that can completely manage our financial lives objectively, without emotion and free of the relational complexities introduced by the human element.

Maybe it really is time to talk to Hal.

 

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