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What BlackRock's shift to stock-picking machines means for ordinary investors

BlackRock is ditching human managers in some of its actively managed funds in favor of technology-driven strategies.

"Its traditional active funds have struggled and it recognizes that it is difficult for traditional stock selectors to consistently outperform," said Alex Bryan, director of passive strategies research at investment analysis firm Morningstar. "These changes should help cut costs and allow BlackRock to be more competitive on price."

You may benefit from BlackRock's move even if you aren't a client of the world's largest asset manager. Many industry analysts anticipate other fund companies will follow BlackRock's lead.

"We expect other firms to bring down fees both in response to active BlackRock products coming down in cost but also in acceptance that lower-cost products are being favored by advisors and investors," said Todd Rosenbluth, director of ETF and mutual fund research at CFRA.

BlackRock's change in strategy comes as investors are abandoning actively managed funds at a rapid clip. Active U.S. stock funds held $3.6 trillion in assets while their passive counterparts held nearly $3.1 trillion as of January, according to Morningstar. All classes of passive funds saw $563 billion in new contributions over the past year through January while active funds suffered $325.6 billion in withdrawals.

"Creating another S&P 500 or Wilshire 5000 fund is not where the money is." -Denise Valentine, a senior analyst at Aite Group

Index funds have lower fees than their actively managed counterparts. Morningstar found the asset-weighted average expense ratio for passive funds is roughly 0.18 percent compared with 0.78 percent for active funds.

Even hot-hand managers, who best a benchmark in one year, struggle to stay at the top of the heap. Recent research from S&P Dow Jones Indices finds only 5 percent of mutual funds that invest in large U.S. companies and that had a winning three-year record against the S&P 500 continued to beat their benchmark in the three following years. (See table below.)

As self-driving cars may hurt taxi drivers and truckers, automation "just hit asset management people who make a half of million dollars a year," said Laura Varas, founder and CEO of financial research firm Hearts & Wallets. "What BlackRock is doing is huge and there will be more to come."

Financial services firms need to "re-invent what role humans should play," Varas said. Her research into consumer behavior has found that people are comfortable with automated investing services, like robo-advisors, as long as they can talk to a human when they need help.

Some see BlackRock's overhaul as a wake-up call to the rest of the asset management industry.

"It makes good business sense in an industry that often doesn't move fast enough," said Denise Valentine, a senior analyst at financial services research firm Aite Group. "Creating another S&P 500 or Wilshire 5000 fund is not where the money is."