Do Robo Advisors Beat The Market?
The short answer is that most Robo Advisors fail to beat the market. The goal of most Robo Advisors is not actually to beat the market but to automatically invest your money based on your requirements and risk tolerance. If you have a low tolerance for risk, your portfolio will be more heavily weighted in favor of bonds which would inhibit the ability to beat the market.
What Is Beating The Market?
In the USA the most common definition of beating the market is that any given fund should be able to perform better than the S&P500 Index. Depending on the date range selected the S&P 500 Index of the 500 largest companies by market capitalization returns between 7.5% and 10%.
How does Wall Street really make Money?
Wall Street Investment banks make money from:
- Initial Public Offerings -- helping companies get access to capital markets
- Mergers, Acquisitions & Spin-Offs -- helping companies buy other companies, merge with other companies or even splitting up large companies
- Fund Management -- Administering Funds such as Exchange Traded Funds (ETF’s) or Mutual Funds
- Derivative Investments -- establishing innovative ways to enable high net worth (HNW) individuals or money managers to invest in exotic financial instruments -- see Financial Crisis
Contrary to popular belief Wall Street Investment Banks, Financial Advisors & Brokerage Houses do not make their profits from having super talented money managers that beat the stock market returns. In fact, most fund managers cannot beat the market.
92% of Fund Managers Do Not Beat The Market Video
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Investment Banks and Brokers actually make money by:
- By taking a slice of your total investment with them -- e.g. Management Charges, whether or not they make you a profit
- Charging you per Stock Trade -- e.g. a trading commission
Robo Advisor Performance Metrics
Evaluating Robo Advisor performance is difficult because there are vast differences between advisors. For instance, different advisors keep different levels of the customer’s money in cash.
Notably, Charles Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolios keep 6% of a customer’s investment in cash. To explain, a high level of cash lowers the exposure to market losses. Unfortunately, a high percentage of cash increases the exposure to inflation and lowers potential market gains.
On the other hand, most Robo Advisors keep less of a client’s money as cash. In addition, some Robo Advisors could allow you to choose the level of funds in cash.
For instance, cash is a poor investment for a younger person saving for retirement or an individual with a high income. However, cash is a good investment for a person with a limited income such as a retiree.
To explain, a person with a limited income is more likely to use his or her investment as an emergency fund. Hence, that person could lose money from buying and selling costs by trying to access extra cash.
Uniquely the speed at which a Robo Advisor follows the market can help you make more money. For instance, a Robo Advisor can quickly sell stocks or funds ahead of a loss or buy right after a drop in price. In fact, Robo Advisor will instantly react to market trends.
The advantage of a quick reaction is that losses can be prevented. The disadvantage is that Robo Advisors’ decisions could be based on short term trends. For example, a Robo Advisor could sell a stock when a price drop is temporary.
Finally, Robo Advisors can implement complex and hard-to-understand strategies like tax-loss harvesting. In fact, Robo Advisors can allow average people to take advantage of complex investment strategies formerly reserved for hedge funds or investment bankers.
Unfortunately, such complex strategies can be hard to understand and evaluate. In particular, it can take several years or longer to see the gains from complex investment strategies. For example, it can take several years to determine if you are making money from a tax loss strategy.
The easiest way to evaluate Robo Advisor performance is to compare advisors’ one or two-year rates of return with the fees.
Determining an advisor’s rate of return is easy. You can figure out the actual rate of return by subtracting the fees the advisor charges from the advertised rate of return.
Robo Advisor vs Index Funds S&P 500
If you want to compare Robo Advisors, the best method is to compare their rate of growth to the popular stock market indexes like the S&P (Standard & Poors) 500 or the Dow Jones. However, such comparisons only work with specific funds or portfolios. Hence it is often impossible to tell when comparing the performance of a platform to that of the S&P 500.
Generally, a good rule of thumb is that a portfolio should be proven to beat the S&P or Dow Jones, the best Robo Advisors portfolio’s rate of gain should significantly exceed the S&P by at least 5% per year.
However, rates will vary from year to year and outside factors like inflation and taxation can eat up your returns. Notably, some high-income people could lose money if they earn a high rate of return without implementing a tax-loss strategy.
Thus, you will need to do research when you go looking for a robo advisor. To complicate matters, the technology is new and changing all the time.
Performance can change quickly because some firms will constantly add new features and capabilities to Robo Advisors. Hence, you should visit your advisors’ website regularly and check out the new features.
Robo Advisor Fund Performance
As previously stated many Robo Advisor funds are not completely transparent with their reporting of their fund’s performance, due to possible to the complexity of options on offer not being directly comparable to the underlying index or more likely because they do not beat the market and do not want to make false claims.
Here is a listing of our reviewed Robo Advisors and their self-stated performance, so you can make your own mind up.
M1 Finance Fund Performance
M1 provides so many different expert portfolios to choose from and depending on when you open an account and choose to invest, the returns on your investment can vary. Suffice to say, M1 claims that on average their expert portfolios (pies) are within 2% or slightly above the underlying market return.
M1 Finance is the only Robo Advisory service in our review that offers commission-free trading for their customers. This means your account will have no management fee whatsoever. This is very positive for the service, but the question is, how do they make money? They essentially make money from short-term lending of any available cash funds to the overnight inter-bank market, if you utilize their borrowing facility or if you invest in an M1 Plus account. Finally, they will receive some small rebates from liquidity providers for their order flow. This is all quite normal and used throughout the industry.
Another great bonus of this mature service from M1 is that tax-loss harvesting is automatically integrated into the account. This means that when you choose to withdraw funds from your account, the algorithms will consider which securities to sell giving priority to those that are incurring losses, so they can offset future gains, clever.
On top of this, M1 promotes the purchase of fractional shares as a unique selling point, this means that if the portfolio you are invested in dictates a purchase of a share with a high price, you can still be fully invested with a purchase of a fraction of the share.
Betterment Fund Performance
Betterment’s proven past returns according to its literature equates to a 5% higher return than the average US investor attains per year. This if course varies depending on your percentage of stocks versus bonds allocation you select in your account. One contributor to this solid return is the highly efficient approach to tax-loss harvesting.
Betterment Performance vs S&P 500
Betterment suggests that it beats the return of the average invest by 5%, but this is avoiding the question. Betterment does not reveal its track record of performance vs the S&P 500, which is essentially a marketing message design for the potential client.
It seems to work as Betterment is currently the third-largest Robo Advisory service in the USA with over $13.5 billion dollars in assets under management.
Wealthfront vs S&P 500
Wealthfront, to their credit, does not claim to be able to beat the market, instead, they are a safe and effective pair of hands to trust your money with. So, do not expect outsize fund performance, expect performance under the S&P 500. Many people have bought into this ethos as Wealthfront clients entrust them with over $20 billion dollars of their money, making them the fourth-biggest Robo Advisory Service in the USA.
However, they were charged by the SEC for claiming to perform effective tax-loss harvesting for clients but failed to do so.
Ellevest Robo Advisor Performance
Ellevest does not promise to deliver performance better than the benchmark indices, instead, it counters that notion by suggesting that it is reaching your financial and personal goals that are more important than great performance. The typical Ellevest portfolio will include US stocks, international stocks, currencies, bonds and real estate, some of which includes socially responsible impact funds.
Morgan Stanley Access Investing Robo Service Performance
Again as with many of the robo advisor services, there are no claims about returning market-beating percentages to customers, instead, the service is focused on enabling an automated and balanced portfolio recommendation. So do not expect to beat the market. One thing I like a lot is that they offer you the flexibility to also select topics that you feel passionate about and they will skew your portfolio in favor of companies in line with your values or beliefs. For example, if you prefer your investments to tilt in favor of companies or funds that promote gender diversity, climate action or even robotics & artificial intelligence the Morgan Stanley Access Service will have you covered.
TD Ameritrade Investment Results
Like many of the other Robo Advisor services, TDA will recommend a selection of exchange-traded funds (ETF’s) based on modern portfolio theory, which seeks to minimize risk and optimize reward. The ETF selection is essentially based on the research performed by Morningstar analysts.
It is nice to see that tax-loss harvesting and automatic portfolio balancing is included and available for all accounts. Finally as a socially responsible and environmentally aware person myself, I am glad to see that TDA offer a selection of five socially aware portfolio options so you can invest in alignment with your beliefs.
Vanguard Investing Methodology & Performance
As Vanguard is one of the largest providers of ETF’s and Mutual Funds, it, of course, selects its own funds to be part of your suggested portfolio. This earns them fund management fees in addition to the 0.6% AUM fee for your account. Vanguard does not claim to provide outsized returns it is really more focused on a higher level of customer service and the personalization of your portfolio based on your life goals. Do not expect stellar profits, but do expect good customer service.
Schwab Investing Methodology & Performance
Schwab makes no claims to portfolio performance, so you can expect performance to be lower than industry benchmarks like the S&P 500. Typically a Schwab portfolio will consist of US stock ETF’s, international stock ETF’s. emerging market stock ETF’s, and Bonds.
In Summary: Do Robo Advisors Beat The Market?
Robo Advisors should beat the market, otherwise what is the point. Out of the 10 Robo Advisors we investigated in our research only 5 offered any historic performance details.
In fact, only M1 Finance & Wealthfront offered any detailed reporting of performance.
Only none of the funds claim to have significantly beat the S&P 500 over the longer term. M1 Finance claims that its funds are typically within 2% above or below of the underlying index.