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Positioned as the elephant in the room at Invest West, Ric Edelman (Edelman Financial Services) and John Bunch (Financial Engines) discussing how they have joined forces to build the USA’s largest RIA advice service. Self-proclaimed as the first of the robo solutions in the market, the proposition was built to help shift workplace 401K pensions from DB to DC plans and to help with fund selection and rebalancing. 330 registered financial advisers are currently serving more than 10million clients with an impressive 36 billion held in assets. With some advisers serving up to 500 clients each (which includes a diverse mix of low investors and millionaire clients) they have had 150,000 potential new clients reach out to them for help this year. The financial planning element is based on automated “robo” algorithms which are not standardised or off the shelf like some others. They currently have 883,000 personalised portfolio algorithms available which have been developed over the last 20 years. Their view is that they are still a few years off being able to deliver a fully automated holistic advice service. However, from what we are seeing currently being developed in the UK market, we may disagree. Ric and John have a great ethos which states that everybody deserves financial help. Although they typically have a $5,000 entry AUM per household, they will take clients who have less to invest and will often work on a pro-bono basis. They state that these may not be the ideal or best client today - but might be in future. What a refreshing approach to offering affordable financial planning to all. All clients are treated the same regardless of the amount of money they have to invest. There is a flat fee of $800 for the financial planning, and all clients go through the same financial planning process. They do not run TV adverts or structured marketing plans. They do have financial planning education though, which they offer through all channels - which is free to all consumers. Ric has just published a children’s book to address financial literacy aimed at 4-8yr olds (The Squirrel Manifesto, which is available on Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Squirrel-Manifesto-Ric-Edelman/dp/1534441662/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1544153861&sr=8-1&keywords=the+squirrel+manifesto
Today’s purchase by Aviva of a majority stake in Wealthify has significant implications for the whole UK robo advice community and wider personal savings market. This move by the world's 12th largest insurer and a major asset manager is far more significant than the previous investment by LV= in Wealth Wizards and other UK robo deals. Aviva have a far greater degree of scale and partnerships that can be leveraged to the advantage of both businesses. Aviva have been a real leader in the digital revolution with the London digital garage having set the trend now being followed by many of their peers. While the deal keeps Wealthify as an independent business located in Wales it provides Aviva with an opportunity to open many doors for the company and harness a slick platform designed to appeal to a constituency that thinks and behaves in very different ways to previous generations. From the Wealthify perspective they no longer have the constant worry about access to capital to grow, no small benefit. Aviva already have a Direct to Consumer platform, built on FNZ technology for investors who are looking to go the DIY route to invest in a diverse range of funds. What they did not have up until now was a simple solution for those customers who do not want to spend large amounts of time managing their finances, but are seeking an easy way to invest for their future. It would be natural to expect Wealthify to move into pensions and Aviva’s knowledge in this area should be a major benefit. Whilst they would be wise to let Wealthify develop their own pension product, using Wealthify technology to support their substantial workplace pension and auto enrolment proposition would also be a smart move. As I have identified elsewhere this week (a link to the column will appear here on Monday) there is a compelling argument for focusing the Pensions Dashboard project around millennial auto enrolment customers in the short term. Adding the sort of execution capability Wealthify have to an Aviva Dashboard could deliver a powerful and compelling proposition to young savers. I am not at all surprised by this move; the US market typically runs two to three years ahead of the UK in the digital wealth arena. With this deal Aviva are emulating BlackRock’s 2015 move for Future Advisor and Invesco’s 2016 Jemstep buy by acquiring robo firms early rather than build their own in order that they could quickly partner with other financial institutions and distribution businesses. We have recently seen Blackrock make a substantial investment in Scalable Capital, the Anglo German robo firm, so Aviva are right to secure one of the more attractive firms available. There has been much debate of late around the cost of customer acquisition for start-ups with perhaps too much focus on the amount of money burned by Nutmeg who really had to break entirely new ground as the very first player of its type in the UK. If you happen to have 9,000,000 consumers, as there are on My Aviva, you do not actually have to hit too high a conversion rate to start achieving some very worthwhile numbers This move will cause Aviva’s peers to question if they are now at a commercial disadvantage particularly when trying to build partnerships with building societies and other savings institutions. It could also have a substantial impact on the asset management community. Do Aviva Investors have a significant advantage over their peers with an innovative new route to market? In my view the UK asset management community is for the most part failing to recognise the opportunity to leverage simple robo solutions which whilst a tiny percentage of the market today will have obvious appeal to the next generation of savers. There are unlikely to be enough robo advisers to supply demand from all the institutions who will wish to acquire one so they can maintain their competitive position. Primary players in this market will not want to be reliant on robos owned by competitors or others who may not always priorities their development agendas when it matters most. Unambiguous ownership will always settle such issues. Personally I can still see room for some Robo 3.0 start-ups emerging over the next year. Buyers will however need to have a clear understanding of what represents the good, the bad and the ugly in this sector if they are to spend their cash wisely. There are some that are very attractive targets and a few I would not want to go anywhere near. This deal may also provide significant opportunities for Aviva to deliver other products such as life and personal lines insurance to the attractive Generation X and Millennial demographics targeted by Wealthify. While the deal opens many opportunities the hard work is yet to be done and it will be at least 2 to 3 years before we can see the benefits reflected in Aviva results.