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Robo-advisors are coming to take Wall Street out of 'the Dark Ages'

One wealth manager says disruption is coming to the asset-management industry.

A tried-and-true Wall Street business is in "the Dark Ages," and it's being threatened by big disruptors, one of its own executives says.

Joe Duran, CEO of United Capital, sat with start-up executives at a New York conference Friday and acknowledged wealth managers' upper hand is starting to lose its grip as digital disruptors take hold. The next generation of clients is less eager to engage with traditional money managers' staff, and gravitates more toward automated options for investment management needs, panelists said.

"Most of our industry is not good enough," Duran said. "Our industry is in the Dark Ages in terms of engaging consumers."

Wall Street, dark, reflection
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

His comments came Friday at the SourceMedia In|Vest conference in New York, where he joined SigFig CEO Mike Sha and Betterment founder and CEO Jon Stein to talk about how the business of managing trillions of investors' funds is shifting away from people and toward algorithms.

Online wealth managers, also nicknamed robo-advisors, represent the biggest disruption to the space since the 1970s, which is when Charles Schwab emerged as a competitor to banks that for decades dominated the wealth-management space, Stein said.

Still, adoption of financial technology is only in its infancy. A recent GfK study showed 10 percent of respondents favoring an algorithm to provide financial advice over a human, while 50 percent of its respondents disagreed.

But the long view doesn't favor traditional advisors. There is a $30 trillion generational wealth transfer set to come over the next several decades, according to a Deloitte study. And the GfK survey noted that millennials and younger consumers are more friendly to robo-advisors than are older individuals. The survey, published Thursday and conducted among 1,000 individuals, showed that the level of trust toward robo-advisors is 17 percent among people aged 25 to 34 years, compared with just 6 percent among those 65 and older.

Robo-advisors will advance the "death of geography," Duran said, as traditional wealth managers who operated brick-and-mortar operations may be phased out of the industry.

"That competitive advantage is disappearing," he said.