Archives for January 31, 2017

Betterment Now Offers Human Advice + Flat Fee Structure

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betterment_logoThe robo-advisor evolution continues. Betterment just announced some significant changes that include the option to upgrade to a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) and a more simplified flat fee structure. Here are highlights from the new plans:

  • Betterment Digital. Their original product with digital portfolio management and guidance. Now at a flat 0.25% annually (no more tiers). No minimum balance. There is no longer be a $3/month fee if you don’t make monthly auto-deposits. The management fee on any assets over $2 million is waived.
  • Betterment Plus. Digital features above + an annual planning call from a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” You will also have unlimited e-mail access. The plan is a flat 0.40% annually. $100,000 minimum balance required.
  • Betterment Premium. Digital features above + unlimited phone access to a “team of CFP® professionals and licensed financial experts who monitor accounts throughout the year.” You will also have unlimited e-mail access. The plan is a flat 0.50% annually. $250,000 minimum balance required.

Betterment’s previous fee structure for Digital was 0.35% for balances under $10,000 with $100/mo auto-deposit (or a flat $3 a month without), 0.25% for balances of $10,000 to $100,000, and 0.15% for balances above $100,000. This means that with the new flat 0.25% fee structure, people with balances under $10k will end up paying less while those with $100k+ will be paying more. If I had a big balance at Betterment, I’d be quite unhappy with the price hike. Existing customers on the 0.15% tier will stay on that fee structure until June 1st, 2017.

Here’s how this breaks down in terms of your account size:

  • $10,000 account balance. Digital would cost just $25 a year ($2.08 a month). There is no longer any requirement for auto-deposit to avoid a $3 a month fee. Plus or Premium not available.
  • $50,000 account balance. Digital would cost $125 a year ($10.41 a month. There is no longer any requirement for auto-deposit to avoid a $3 a month fee. Plus or Premium not available.
  • $100,000 account balance. Digital would cost $250 a year ($20.83 a month). Plus would cost $400 a year ($33.33 a month) and include an annual planning call with a human advisor. Premium not available.
  • $250,000 account balance. Digital would cost $625 a year ($52.08 a month). Plus would cost $1,000 a year ($83.33 a month) and include an annual planning call with a human advisor. Premium would cost $1,250 a year ($104.17 a month) and include unlimited calls to a human advisor.

Commentary. I don’t write about robo-advisors all that often, but Betterment adding human advisors as an upgrade option signals a big change in the industry. For the investors with modest balances, the flat fee is cheaper but it has always been pretty cheap; at $50k in assets it costs the same as a Netflix subscription. Perhaps more important is knowing that as you continue to grow assets, a human advisor will become available without having to move your money elsewhere.

For those with at least $100k in assets, the upgrade cost to talk to a human advisor annually appears reasonable ($150 a year more at $100k asset level). You also get unlimited e-mail interaction for quick questions. If you go to an independent CFP and request a one-time consultation, that will usually cost a $400 to $500 flat fee. Potential concerns include that you don’t get a dedicated person but a team. However, in my experience even if you get assigned a dedicated person, they’ve often moved onto another job within a year. The wording also suggests that the pool of advisors are not all CFPs.

This move signifies both the good and bad about the current robo-advisor environment. The good is that they keep evolving and looking for ways to improve (i.e. index replication, tax-sensitive asset location, tax loss harvesting). The bad is that these can involve big changes with little notice (i.e. portfolio tweaks, fee changes). This time, the good is now you have the option to pay more for human advice. The bad is that if you already had a lot of money with Betterment, your fees got hiked by 10 basis points. This is why I prefer to DIY, because I enjoy being in control.

That said, if I had to switch I would prefer human access for estate-planning purposes (Mrs. MMB doesn’t want to manage our portfolio). Betterment says they have an advantage because they are independent. For comparison, I would look into Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (VPAS) which costs 0.30% annually and includes a team of human advisors. Possible drawbacks of VPAS include no automated tax-loss harvesting and you’ll be confined to Vanguard products.

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