Your Money

How to make sure you're investing with the right robo-advisor

Key Points
  • The evolving robo-advice market, which is projected to grow to $7 trillion by 2025, lets you manage your own investments online.
  • Look to see if your robo-advisor is right for you, as existing platforms add new features and additional competitors enter the market.
  • Evaluate whether you want access to a human financial advisor, how much you will be charged for the investments and if they come with any conflicts of interest.

You may want to take another look at your robo-advisor to make sure you're investing with the right platform.

As existing robo-advisors switch up or add new offerings and new entrants come into the market, the choices for where to invest and why are changing.

Colin Anderson | Photographer's Choice | Getty Images

That comes as Betterment recently announced the addition of a new tool to let investors control how asset classes are weighted in their portfolios.

Wealthfront, a competing platform, recently added its own fund to its investment lineup that aims to mimic a hedge fund's strategy at a lower cost.

Betterment's tool, which is also accessible to financial advisors, and Wealthfront's fund, a move toward active investing, are departures from the strategies those companies started out with, said Grant Easterbrook, a former robo-advice analyst and currently co-founder of Dream Forward.

Those changes come as new entrants — including big names such as Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo — make their way into the market.

Here's what you need to keep in mind when deciding which robo-advice platform is right for you.

Robo-platforms have yet to weather big storms

Because robo-advice platforms largely have evolved during this decade, they have yet to face their first big market event.

February's market downturn, which marked the first major dip in some time, resulted in slower service or full outages at several investment websites. Those temporary snafus could point to bigger challenges if there is a more significant event.

"There's a question mark as to how it will all play out," Easterbrook said.

Access to human financial advisors varies

Your robo-advisor may or may not offer human financial advice with the services it provides.

Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, the investment management giant's online advice offering, provides access to an advisor for all investors during the onboarding and portfolio construction process.

Those who have $500,000 or more invested in the platform continue to work with one advisor. Investors with less assets — starting from the platform's $50,000 investment minimum — have access to advice provided by a team of advisors. All investors on the platform have access to advice by phone, email and video.

There's a question mark as to how it will all play out.
Grant Easterbrook
co-founder of Dream Forward

Those one-on-one conversations can help when you face situations that are more complicated, such as a job loss or planning for how to draw funds for college tuition payments or retirement, said Frank Kolimago, head of Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, which had about $101 billion in assets under advisement as of December.

"The advisor can serve as an emotional circuit breaker to help coach you through a period where you're feeling a little bit stressed," Kolimago said.

Wealthfront, another online platform, does not work with human financial advisors saying that its clients, who are mostly in their 30s and 40s, do not want to talk to someone.

The company's offerings eliminate the advisor as the middleman, and instead let the investor build plans based on their goals — and how they are related to each other — on their own.

"It's just a very different consumer attitude," Kate Wauck, head of communications at Wealthfront, said of the self-directed platform which oversees about $10 billion in client assets.

Keep in mind that you may need more guidance depending on the complexity of your personal financial situation.

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"Be honest with yourself about what you need," Easterbrook said. "For high net worth planning needs, you probably need at least a hybrid."

Watch for investment conflicts

As with all investments, you should look out for how much in fees you are paying and conflicts of interest with any proprietary funds.

Those potential clashes are one of the reasons why Betterment said it has stayed away from offering its own funds.

"We believe that independence from the funds that we recommend is an important part of being a fiduciary, being aligned with our customers and doing what's in their best interest," said Jon Stein, CEO of Betterment, which manages about $13.5 billion in client assets.

Other robo-advisors want to put you in their own funds "because that's how they make money off you," Stein said.

In addition to fees, you also want to watch out for getting upsold to buy other products or services from the company, Easterbrook said.

You should also take stock of what specific features your robo offers and how they align with your goals.

Some offer tax-loss harvesting features and socially responsible investment options, for example, while others do not, said David Goldstone, a research analyst at BackEnd Benchmarking, which publishes a quarterly report on robo-advisors.