How do the five top robo-advisers' offerings stack up?

robot-adviser-with-investor-and-globe

The Square Mile in the City is a funny old place these days. Oldish guys in smart suits and double cuffs sit around starched tablecloths talking uncomfortably about 'robo-advice' and hoping like hell that no one digs too deep into their digital understanding.

Yes, robo-advice is the newest bandwagon to attract the money brigade. In the US, financial planning firm Northwestern Mutual bought hipster robo outfit LearnVest for a reported $250 million (£176 million) last year.

In the summer of 2015 BlackRock acquired FutureAdvisor for a sum reported to be between $150 and $200 million. This is the big time.

Here in the UK, we estimate that the current robo-advice market accounts for about £140 million of customers' assets, compared with about $75 billion in the US. And hold on to your hats. A Deloitte figure has sized the US robomarket at up to $7 trillion by 2025.

ENTER THE ROBO

In a consumer poll Boring Money conducted in March 2016, just 1 per cent of UK adults reported using a robo-adviser (and this was by no means for all of their investments), but 26 per cent said they would consider using one in the future.

A major driver today is the desire to cut costs, and these largely passive DIY entities often clock up costs of less than 1 per cent.

Although 28 per cent of people told us they prefer the idea of face-to-face financial advice, they get a bit stingy when asked to pay for this. Just 7 per cent of respondents were prepared to pay more than £100 an hour for financial advice.

Given that most advisers charge about 3 per cent of your portfolio for the initial plan and set-up, and that there is an ongoing charge of about 0.5 to 1 per cent, there's a whopping gap between what advisers want and what we'll pay. Enter the robo, stage right.

There are two flavours of robo. One flavour differential is whether or not they give regulated advice. Investment providers tie themselves in knots about the difference between advice and guidance to avoid falling foul of the regulator.

The other flavour is the provision of execution-only services and 'ready-meal' portfolios of investments. In practice, the difference can be slight, although the charges vary significantly.

One other thing to be aware of is whether your chosen robo is delivering a cheaper passives-only portfolio - this is the norm when competing for a new, younger consumer market where cost is the easiest number to understand on a factsheet and the only predictable number around.

We've reviewed five of the main options today and list indicative total annual costs for a £50,000 Isa portfolio.

By way of cost comparison, DIY investing via more traditional fund platforms such as Barclays Stockbrokers, Fidelity or Hargreaves Lansdown would cost between £550 and £600 (including platform fees and fund charges) for a basket of actively managed funds.

Where we have opened a test account we have chosen the spiciest equity portfolios and noted how we've done.

Moneyfarm

This is a new player in the UK that's been operating in Italy for some time. It's cheap and seemingly cheerful. Set-up takes a while, as there are lots of questions to go through. There is an initial freebie deal on the first £10,000 in an Isa.

You can open an account with £100, but you'll only get one exchange traded fund (ETF) in that case; ETFs are not as flexible as funds for tiddler accounts, because you can't buy fractions of ETFs, whereas you can buy tiddly amounts of units in a fund.

Funding the account is not as smooth as with traditional investment platforms, which makes us wonder how it all hangs together behind the scenes.

Investment options: 12 passive portfolios made up of ETFs

How are we doing? We opened a test account last month and the funds have yet to land

Indicative costs: £240 a year

Minimum investment: circa £100 (£1,000 for full portfolio)

Money on toast

This firm is set up as a regulated financial adviser and will allocate you a portfolio based on your answers to a risk profiler.

It's easy enough to set up and helpful for those who are less confident, but the monies take a while to clear, account set-up is slow, and this digital solution starts to look rather paper-based and small-scale.

Also you need a microscope to see your portfolio when logging on - the website needs work. And because advice is included - there are humans available - it's relatively pricey: the all-in fee is about 1.69 per cent.

Investment options: Five active risk-rated portfolios with a mix of asset classes

How are we doing? Our portfolio is down by about 1 per cent since October last year

Indicative costs: £845 a year

Minimum investment: £500

Nutmeg

With an expensive advertising campaign under its belt, this is the best-known of the UK robos. Our recent survey showed 9 per cent brand awareness - which is great for a new player.

It's a nice enough user experience and easy to set up. The website will navigate you to a matched portfolio of passive underlying investments, and the charts and tables are clear and easy to understand.

It's a good service, it's low-fuss and it feels the most robust of all the UK robos today. All-in costs start at 0.95 per cent a year.

Investment options: 10 passive portfolios ranging from 'cautious' to 'aggressive'

How are we doing? Our portfolio is up by 6.4 per cent since August last year

Indicative costs: £375 a year

Minimum investment: £1,000

True Potential

This DIY digital service is provided by a large Newcastle-based adviser firm. We access this via an app that is nice and simple to use. It has a series of handy prompts, clear valuations and a few good 'nags' to save.

Although the 'front end' is nice, it's actually just a new-fangled way of buying a multi-manager portfolio. Using funds not ETFs does mean you can get started with much smaller amounts.

Investment options: 10 managed portfolios (blending active and passive options) across five risk profiles

How are we doing? Our portfolio is down by 2.7 per cent since July last year.

Indicative costs: £625 a year

Minimum investment: £50

Wealth Horizon

This robo offers low-cost advice over the phone and online. It's powered by Parmenion, which is now owned by Aberdeen Asset Management.

These guys are actually financial advisers, so they can talk through any specific concerns with you - but most of your 'journey' will be online. They'll ask you about 20 questions all-in and come up with a ready-made portfolio.

They assess your risk tolerance, and also a really important idea called 'tolerance for loss'. Even if you decide to invest elsewhere, we think they ask some really sensible questions that will prompt some useful thoughts.

Investment options: A discretionary portfolio built from managers including Vanguard, L&G and Threadneedle

How are we doing? We are up 1.7 per cent since December 2015

Indicative costs: £465 a year

Minimum investment: £1,000

PERFORMANCE CLARITY

The regulator is taking hesitant steps towards unleashing the beast of digital advice as - in a commission-free world - regulated financial advice is currently a luxury few choose to take advantage of.

To quote Elvis, we would like to see 'a little less conversation, a little more action' so that these robos step up from Walkman to iPod functionality. We see two immediate challenges.

First, there's a challenge about scrutinising and analysing the actual performance so that consumers aren't comparing apples with mangoes. Tracking and comparing the performance of these largely discretionary portfolios isn't easy.

They are tweaked by the provider when it wants (a dash more Japan here, a little less large cap there), so providing performance analysis based on the risk it is taking is difficult. So, lovely website, cool app but are they actually any good at investing my money?

Secondly, the advice bit. Apparently artificial intelligence is here and will work with advisers to deliver lower-cost, human-supported advice. The banks are all over this, as they spy another opportunity to make money out of Middle England (what could possibly go wrong?).

We'll see these services evolve to offer up helpful, relevant financial advice. Based on what I've seen, I'm quietly optimistic. I think robo mark 2 will blow what we've seen today out of the water.


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