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Robo-advice is proving increasingly popular, but can investors get the same thing elsewhere for less?

Recent research from Boring Money shows that robo-advice has grown by 133% over the past 12 months. Admittedly, this is from a small base, and total assets of £1.7bn pale next to, say, Hargreaves Lansdown’s £82bn, but it suggests that robo-advice is finding resonance with a lot of people. The question is, do they need it?

Nutmeg has been the trailblazer and has now hit £1bn of assets under management. Average account sizes for robo providers are £20,500 compared to an industry average of £52,500. The premise of robo-advice is that investors get some risk-profiling, and are guided into risk-managed solutions appropriate for their age, lifestyle and level of wealth.

It’s a reasonable idea and the portfolios have done OK. Boring Money found that robo-advisers are generally doing a good job of diversifying risk for retail and novice investors. They use passives, so the solutions tend to be relatively cheap – at a little over 1% in most cases. People like the simplicity and some, such as Nutmeg, have a good support structure to help consumers understand their money.

My problem with the robo market is whether it is truly different from simply logging onto Hargreaves Lansdown, Fidelity Funds Network or The Share Centre, and buying, say, the Legal & General Multi-index 5 fund (an actively managed fund of passive funds). The ongoing charge is 0.3%, Hargreaves – or whoever – will take a bit on top, but investors are still ahead in terms of fees and the outcome doesn’t look very different.

Aha, but what about the advice element? Yes, robo-advisers have some whizzy tools to help people understand their risk. Many of them have worked hard to make sure this is intuitive and not too ‘finance’. However, these type of tools are also available on the Fidelity Funds Network platform and can also give people a good idea of the level of risk they should be taking, and appropriate investments.

More importantly, funds like those from Legal & General have a lengthy track record, with the reassurance and investment expertise of a large company supporting the process. Some robo-advisers don’t yet have a long enough track record to support detailed performance analysis. There may also be consolidation in the robo industry as it beds down. While investors’ assets will be safe, it may be disruptive.

With this in mind, I’m not sure robo-advisers as they stand will be as disruptive as they first appear. They need big brands to appeal to consumers. Nutmeg has done this well, but the others are some way behind. Don’t get me wrong, I applaud what they are trying to do – the investment management and platform industries could still do with a shake-up. It’s just that robo needs to be more disruptive, to be doing something really different, and I’m not sure it does yet.

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