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Knowing When It's Time to Switch to a Robo-Advisor

Author: Jacob Jackson

I recently had a conversation with my mother about her firing her financial advisor and switching to a robo-advisor.

For many years, she's enjoyed a friendly relationship with her advisor. She gets baseball tickets, theater seats, and an elegant holiday party every year. Mom has access to the advisor and his two assistants at any time. Their office has a robust staff of well-schooled financial advisors, three regional offices, and an investment team that creates investment portfolios for clients. When there's a need, there are legal and tax experts available either in the office or a phone call away. All these services cost between 0.70% to 1.0% of assets under management plus commission fees.

We decided that after many years of excellent service, there were things she wasn't happy with: her annual returns weren't reported on the statements nor compared with appropriate market indexes. The fees added up. But Mom liked the personal touch, so we found another financial advisor with lower fees and simpler index fund investment portfolios. She'll forgo the fancy party and tickets in exchange for more transparent investment reports and lower fees.

The time was right for my mother to switch from one side of the advisory landscape to another; here are some general tips on when to know if the time is right for you. (For more, see: 3 Top Reasons Why Financial Advisors Get Fired.)

Pros, Cons of Sticking with An Advisor

There are many reasons to stick with your financial advisor. He or she can help you overcome your behavior biases which may cause you to make poor investment choices, such as selling after a market drop. There's a flesh and blood individual to talk you off of a ledge when the markets tank. You receive personalized guidance for your individual situation — not a template prescription from a digitized formula-based computer service.

In Michael Kitces' Nerd's Eye View blog, guest author Bob Seawright extols the virtues of using a financial advisor. He or she can help you formulate financial hopes and integrate them with your life goals. Advisors can bring in the appropriate insurance products or other solutions to help you meet your goals.

But then there's the dark side of the advisor landscape: some are paid based upon a commission structure, which means you run the risk of overtrading your account. Fee-only financial planners can also rack up higher fees with charges of 1.0% and more of assets under management (AUM). There's research which discourages an active management investment approach used by many financial advisors. Your returns may suffer if the advisor chooses high-fee active mutual funds or makes poor investment choices. (For related reading, see: Robo-Advisors and a Human Touch: Better Together?)

Pros, Cons of Going Robo

First off, most robo-advisors (or digital advisors) have lower fee structures than those of traditional financial advisors. Betterment's low fee for assets greater than $100,000 is a paltry 0.15% of AUM. Many robos subscribe to the Modern Portfolio Theory that states it is nearly impossible to beat the investment market returns over the long term. Robos that follow this well-regarded theory have hired investment scholars to design portfolios offering the greatest returns for the lowest risk. Combine the low AUM fees with the excellent index fund selections and you have an excellent investment alternative.

There are additional benefits of automated investment advisors. The robo-advisors have joined many financial advisors by offering sophisticated tax-loss harvesting approaches which may increase overall portfolio returns. Further periodic automated portfolio rebalancing keeps volatility in check while possibly increasing returns a small amount.

Yet, just as it's difficult to discuss all financial advisors as if they all fall into one basket, robo-advisors are not all the same. Some have higher fees than others. Additionally, there are robos with high entrance fees of $50,000 to $100,000. Another robo disadvantage is that your interests may not fit into a one neat portfolio category.

The Bottom Line

If you decide on the personal touch that comes with a human financial advisor, be sure to understand the fees you're paying. Also, seek an advisor who's governed by the fiduciary standard which requires him or her to place your interests above his or her own. In general, a fee-only or new subscription-based financial advisory may offer a more transparent fee structure. The robo-advisor side may be a better fit if you want a research-supported, low-fee investment template. And if you're looking for a combination of both, there are some robo-advisors that offer access to human counterparts. (For more, see: Robo-Advisors: Should Human Advisors Partner with One?)

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