Investors Relying on Roboadvisers Are Seeking a Human Touch

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Younger investors who are navigating market volatility and trying to save for retirement are finding that roboadvisers lack the personal touch.

Breana Jones started investing in 2014, building up her retirement savings and putting aside money to buy a house. “I have youth on my side,” said Ms. Jones, a 32-year-old Los Angeles resident and project manager. “I’ve tried to remain hands-off and use my age to my advantage.”

Ms. Jones said she liked the convenience and ease of digital investment platforms for trading, following markets and monitoring her money.

But with the market in disarray, she is finding that the investment expectations she had during the bull market no longer apply. “My standards of success are no longer applicable,” she said. “As a first-generation college student, I don’t have people in my family who invest. I’m trying to figure it out on my own.”

The market volatility this year has a lot of retirement savers second-guessing where they should put their money, which in turn has exposed the limitations of technology that was supposed to democratize investing.

“The gap in the market is not access to investing opportunities — that’s what online brokerages are doing,” said Elizabeth Pennington, a senior associate at the financial planning firm Fearless Finance. “The gap in the market is access to affordable and trustworthy advice.”

These gaps can be overlooked when the market is rising. But as stock values have tumbled, retirement savers have found that online or app-based platforms that make it cheap and easy to buy and sell stocks and mutual funds have a glaring drawback: When your nest egg is shrinking and you don’t know what to do, there’s no one you can turn to for guidance.

“I do think that there is, certainly, kind of seeking out of more financial advice, whether it’s through the employer-sponsored plan or through an independent adviser,” said Michael Foy, senior director and head of wealth intelligence at J.D. Power.

A J.D. Power survey published in September found that dissatisfaction with digital retirement platforms has risen as the market has fallen. “It’s partly because of the more challenging environment,” Mr. Foy said. “They’re not as confident about being as prepared for retirement.”

The continued migration by employers from defined-benefit pension plans to defined-contribution retirement plans, like 401(k)s, means that most people today are essentially acting as their own financial advisers. Roboadvisers offered by many major brokerage firms and retirement plan administrators have stepped in to meet the demand.

The term roboadviser refers to software that creates algorithmically designed portfolio allocations, some of which will be rebalanced as a worker moves closer to retirement age and begins drawing on the accrued funds for income. Investors fill out a questionnaire — with their age, intended retirement date, risk tolerance and income needs, and other information — and the software generates a mix of investments. Some offer a human’s assistance and financial advice on an à la carte basis or as part of a higher tier of services.

Roboadvisers were developed with the goal of making personalized financial planning available at a fraction of the cost of a human expert’s fees. Traditional financial advisers charge as much as 1 percent of the assets under management, or A.U.M., annually and require a large amount of money — typically a minimum balance of $100,000 — that younger or lower-income retirement savers are less likely to have.

“They do remove barriers to advice,” Jon Cleborne, head of personal adviser services at Vanguard, said of roboadvisers. “The feedback we’ve gotten is the digital capabilities actually make advice a lot more accessible to folks and more approachable.” Mr. Cleborne said that Vanguard’s internal data showed that a little more than 70 percent of the company’s roboadviser customers were first-time users of any digital investment or financial-planning service.

Still, when it feels as though the wheels are coming off your investments, a robot can’t answer the phone and say something reassuring.

Mr. Cleborne said there were indications that at least some people were searching for a little more hand-holding during this period of turbulence. “There are certainly investors who are going to value the reassurance of a person telling them it’s going to be OK,” he said. “They’re looking for someone to be a little bit of an emotional circuit breaker.”

It’s not such a bad idea, according to the experts. Professional money managers know, and new research confirms, that individual investors tend to panic and trade out of the market at the wrong time, which can have lasting repercussions for the stability of their retirement finances.

A paper published this month showed what this looked like in practice in 2020. It analyzed data from the portfolio activity of five million retirement-plan participants in the first quarter of 2020, some who had access to personalized portfolio management and others who were do-it-yourself investors. Researchers tracked what happened in the market turmoil of the initial pandemic shutdowns of 2020 after these participants sought information from their retirement plan’s record-keeping firm (a third-party company that acts as a bookkeeper).

It found that the behavior of the two types of investors diverged sharply after they sought information: D.I.Y. investors were 10 times as likely to make trades after contacting the record-keeping firm.

Selling when stock prices are plunging only locks in losses, but investors panic and do it all the time. “The presumption is, if they’re trading after this drop in stocks, they’re trading out of risky assets,” said Michael Finke, professor of wealth management at the American College of Financial Services and an author of the paper.

“When you lose money, it triggers an emotional response. You actually process it in a different part of your brain than you process gains, and the tendency is to want to correct that loss, which is the worst thing an investor can do,” Mr. Finke said. “The big potential deficiency of a roboadviser is that there’s not a human being to talk you off the ledge.”

Elizabeth Pennington is a professional finance adviser at Fearless Finance.Amber Ford for The New York Times

New investors may find themselves in uncharted territory. In an environment where social media hands everyone a virtual megaphone, the risk that market novices will be led astray is high.

Left to their own devices, investors are likely to exhibit confirmation bias — prioritizing information that validates rather than challenges their viewpoints, said Brian Ream, a principal at CLA, a wealth advisory firm. “I think there are a lot of inherent biases that we possess as investors, and typically those things get hidden in a rising market,” he said.

“When you get into it in a historic bull run, your reality and your expectations are kind of warped,” said Kevin L. Matthews II, founder of the financial education firm BuildingBread.

Investors like Ms. Jones, who is a mentee of Mr. Matthews, represent both the potential and the pitfalls of apps that make buying stocks as easy as ordering a pizza. Mr. Matthews said that while digital investment tools had expanded access to people who couldn’t afford a traditional financial adviser, a gap remained when it came to investor education. “The limitations of D.I.Y. tools is that when the market is down, you make the wrong move and there’s no one to double-check with,” he said.

Mr. Matthews, who is Black, said he worried that a negative initial experience could turn off first-generation investors, particularly new investors of color, and dissuade them from effectively harnessing the market to build wealth over the long term.

“That’s why it’s important for me to work with a Black financial adviser, and talk about money with my friends and my family,” said Ms. Jones, who is also Black. “It was sobering. It was also kind of infuriating,” she added, as she began to learn more about how the market worked and to understand how even a modest investment, propelled by compounding returns, could generate a life-altering baseline of financial security. “It showed me what my family is missing out on, what I could be missing out on,” she said.

Advisers say that potential new clients are increasingly reaching out to ask about personalized guidance. Ms. Pennington is one of a number of advisers catering to younger or lower-income investors who charge either by the hour or use a flat-fee structure to make the cost of developing a financial plan more affordable.

“If we’re doing it right, that fiduciary component requires a human,” Ms. Pennington said. “An app is never going to have enough of the advice.”

Financial planners say the allocations they suggest for client portfolios are the endpoint — not the starting point — of an investment plan. They say that the time they spend with clients building trust and learning about their priorities pays off during times of market upheaval. “A lot of that isn’t academic. A lot of that is behavioral and emotional,” Mr. Ream said. “How do we create consistency and confidence in a client? That just doesn’t happen by assigning them an allocation based on answering a survey.”

Ms. Pennington said many of her new clients came to her after they tried to manage their investments themselves and realized they were in over their heads. “They were doing what the internet told them is a good idea,” she said. “There’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of it is conflicting,” she said, so investors have a hard time figuring out whose advice they should follow.

Some investors who relied on digital tools to stay on track with their retirement goals said that navigating the deluge of information could be frustrating. “There’s so much noise out there, and you don’t really know who to trust,” said Deanna Sassorossi, a sustainability analyst. “It’s just so overwhelming.”

Ms. Sassorossi, 28, who bought a home near Springfield, Mass., with her wife in January, is a client of Ms. Pennington’s at Fearless Finance, and pays for the financial advice by the hour. Now, she said, she couldn’t imagine going back to sorting out everything on her own.

“We’ll be with Elizabeth or someone like her for a while. I think our plan is to do once-a-year check-ins,” she said. “It’s just been so much better for my peace of mind.”

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