In-Depth Ultimate Guide to Robo Advisors

21 Point Guide With Everything YOU Need To Know About Robo Advisors? How Do They Work? Hybrid vs AI Advisors, Returns, Safety, Fees & Costs

Robo Advisors are an exciting development in the world of investing.  Our ultimate in-depth guide to Robo Advisors is a long and detailed article.

What Is A Robo Advisor?

A Robo Advisor is a computer program or algorithm designed to automate the job of a financial advisor, by automating the buying & selling of Stock’s or ETFs and structuring an investment portfolio based on the investor’s risk tolerance. These services are provided directly to investors online or via a smartphone app.

A Robo Advisor is a digital application that offers users financial advice created by algorithms, artificial intelligence, or mathematical formulas.  The term Robo Advisor is short for robot advisor. However, the phrase Robo Advisor is inaccurate. To explain, a Robo Advisor is a digital construct, usually an algorithm or artificial intelligence (AI) rather than an actual robot.

However, the terms “robo” and “bot” are financial-industry slang terms for digital financial applications. For example, so-called trading robots or trade bots handle most of the trades on the world’s financial markets.

Interestingly, news reports indicate many financial industry professionals hate the terms “robo” and “bot.” However, those words are the standard industry technology for digital advisors at the present time.

The idea behind Robo Advisors is that software is more accurate, more honest, and less biased than human advisors. For instance, a Robo Advisor is not likely to receive a commission or kick-back on equities or securities it sells.

In addition, promoters claim Robo Advisors are less likely to make mistakes than people. Notably, algorithms are better at math than most humans.

Lastly, Robo Advisors are not going to suffer from the emotional decision making that most investors and traders try to battle against.

The History of Robo Advisors

The first known Robo Advisor was a semi-automated financial manager offered by Mint in 2006.  More sophisticated Robo Advisors appeared during the Great Financial Meltdown in 2008. In fact, Robo Advisors’ appearance resulted from the popular distrust of human financial advisors and investment bankers.

In 2010, John Stein launched Betterment; the first Robo Advisor marketed to the general public. Over the next few years, traditional asset managers like Vanguard, Morgan Stanley, Charles Schwab, and JPMorgan Chase entered the Robo Advisor market.

By 2018 Robo Advisors were managing $200 billion in assets, Barrons estimates. Notably, Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services was the largest Robo Advisor overseeing $101 billion in assets. Schwab is the second-largest Robo Advisor managing $27 billion assets. In addition, government agencies like the Nevada State Treasurer are turning to Robo Advisors to manage public investments.

Moreover, some regulatory agencies, like the Monetary Authority of Singapore, are issuing licenses to Robot Advisors. Notably, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) grants them the same legal status as human, financial advisors.

The amount of funds controlled by Robo Advisors is growing dramatically. In fact, Algonest estimates Robo Advisors worldwide could manage over $2 trillion in assets by 2020.

What Is An AI Robo Advisor?

AI Robo Advisors. Do They Really Work?
AI Robo Advisors. Do They Really Work?

New, more sophisticated Robo Advisors that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to analyze investments are entering the market. Interestingly, some of these Robo Advisors will do far more than offer financial advice. Moreover, many new Robo Advisors are also smartphone apps.

For example, Numerai is trying to build an artificial intelligence hedge fund linked to a cryptocurrency called Numerarie. Meanwhile, creators envision an app called Daneel is as a combination Robo Advisor and personal assistant you can access through your phone.

Other mobile-robot advisors include Japan’s Theo and Bamboo. In addition, companies like Infinity Partners are developing robot wealth managers for rich clients.

Will Artificial Intelligence (AI) Advisors Replace Robo Advisors?

Investment banks are working with artificial intelligence because Robo Advisors have been a hard sell to affluent clients. In fact, UBS sold its SmartWealth British robot advisor to a company called SigFig in 2018, Reuters reports. The Swiss bank sold SmartWealth because it was not making money.

Entrepreneurs like those behind Numerai, hope to succeed where UBS failed by building AI advisors that can do everything human investment bankers and fund managers can. In fact, the goal at companies like Numerai is to create an AI that manages money without human help. However, today’s AI advisors are far from achieving that goal. On the other hand, many organizations are trying to build AI advisors that “think” for themselves.

How Do Robo Advisors Work?

Robo Advisors Are Not Robots - They Ae Programs Running On Servers In Data Centers
Robo Advisors Are Not Robots – They Ae Programs Running On Servers In Data Centers

A Robo Advisor is a software algorithm programmed to perform certain functions. For example, a Robo Advisor could sell a stock if its price rises over a certain level.

In addition, a Robo Advisor can offer specific kinds of advice. For instance, a Robo Advisor could recommend the stocks with the biggest dividends or highest rates of earning per share.  Most Robot Advisors make decisions with mathematical formulas. However, a new generation of Robo Advisors that use machine learning and artificial intelligence to discern market patterns is coming online.

Specifically, solutions like Numerai and Sharpe Capital combine artificial intelligence (AI) and prediction markets. A prediction market is a pool in which people bet on the prices of equities or securities. The AI attempts to predict market outcomes by analyzing the betting patterns.

Some investors like Robo Advisors because they are faster and charge lower fees than traditional advisors. For instance, there are no bonuses or commissions paid Robo Advisor algorithms, like that paid to human advisors.

How Do Robo Advisors Make Money?

Like human advisors, Robo Advisors make money by charging fees to users. The difference is that Robo Advisors charge a much lower fee, sometimes as low as 0.15%.

However, a Robo Advisor can still make a lot of money because it can handle a far greater number of clients than a team of human professionals. For instance, a Robo Advisor could handle several million clients, enabling it to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of fees.  Moreover, Robo Advisors can sell specific services or advice to the public. For instance, wire transfers, reports on specific stocks, or access to accounts. In addition, some Robo Advisors sell apps through venues like the Apple App Store and Google Play. The Robo Advisor makes money everybody time somebody buys its app.

Interestingly, a growing class of Robo Advisors is charging customers for non-investment services. Such services can include balancing checking accounts, paying bills, billing clients, paying taxes, filing tax returns, and offering tax advice. Like banks, Robo Advisors make money by charging a fee everybody they use such a service.

Moreover, a few services, such as M1-Finance, are offering banking services like lending to clients. Hence, advisors like M1 Finance make money from the interest they charge and the fees on the leverage provided.

What Types Of Robo Advisors Are There?

Today there are many Robo Advisors on the market. Additionally, new Robo Advisors appear almost daily.  The most popular Robo Advisors are in the form of simple investment apps like Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services. In detail, these simple investment apps manage accounts and make trades under specific conditions. For instance, an investment app could sell a stock if its price-earnings ratio (PE Ratio) is too high.

Automatic investment apps like M1 and Robin Hood offer instant, low-cost access to investment markets. For instance, M1 allows users to pick their own stocks or ETFs or access to 80 managed portfolios.

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence-powered apps, like Numerai and Sharpe Capital, use cutting edge mechanisms like machine learning and prediction markets to make complex decisions. For instance, Numerai will try to predict market outcomes and bet against the markets.

In addition, next-generation Robo Advisors are controlling hedge funds, mutual funds, and even bank accounts. Hence, Robo Advisors could soon manage your money and offer financial advice.

Hybrid Robo Advisor Is A Mix Of Human & Machine Advice
Hybrid Robo Advisor Is A Mix Of Human & Machine Advice

What Is A Hybrid Robo Advisor?

A hybrid Robo Advisor combines a digital algorithm with a human investment advisor. To explain, the idea is to add a human touch to robo investing.

The hybrid Robo Advisors exist because many customers will feel better if there is a person to talk to. In addition, some people are uncomfortable with machines managing their finances.

Specifically, the average Robo Advisor combines a standard package of algorithms with a person. In fact, the robot advisor will handle most of the investment chores. However, customers can talk to a human whenever they want to.

An obvious use for hybrids is to get people comfortable with Robo Advisors. Asset managers often use hybrid advisors to deal with older customers and people who know little about finance.

How Do Hybrid Robo Advisors Work?

A human financial advisor could recommend Robo Advisors or algorithms to customers. Additionally, the human advisor could interview a customer and decide which Robo Advisor is right for her.

Interestingly, hybrid financial advisors are becoming popular. Notably, an Accenture survey estimates 68% of affluent investors prefer hybrid advisors, Investment News reports. Moreover, hybrid advisors could manage 10% of the investment wealth in the United States by 2020, MyPrivateBanking claims.

Under those circumstances, hybrid advisors could be the future of wealth management in the United States. An obvious advantage to hybrids is that they will enable human financial advisors to keep their jobs.

On the other hand, some investors could be more comfortable with Robo Advisors rather than human financial advisors. To clarify, many people distrust financial advisors because they view them as salespeople.

Moreover, younger people who grew up playing video games, surfing the internet, and using apps could prefer Robo Advisors. In particular, people under 35 could view a Robo Advisor as simply another useful app rather than a threat.

Hybrid Advisors vs. Robo Advisors

Hybrid vs Robo Advisors
Hybrid vs. Robo Advisors

In fact, some wealth management firms like Wealthfront refuse to use human financial professionals. Instead, Wealthfront uses algorithms and bots for everything. For example, Wealthfront advertises Automated Financial Management.

However, traditional investment firms like Morgan Stanley and mutual fund managers like Vanguard prefer hybrid advisors. Such organizations use hybrids because they work with customers of all ages and backgrounds.

Notably, those unfamiliar with the financial markets and investing are less trusting of innovations like Robo Advisors.  However, Robo Advisors are more efficient and work better with large numbers of customers.

Strangely, Robo Advisors can provide a higher level of customer service. For instance, Robo Advisors can instantly respond to phone calls and emails and operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, a Robo Advisor can instantly fulfill simple requests such as selling or buying equities or providing a balance.

Finally, smartphones and the internet can provide instant connectivity to Robo Advisors. Thus, Robo Advisors are perfect for people who want constant control over their investments.

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.

Understanding Robo Advisor Performance

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 ordinary 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.

Evaluating Robo Advisor Performance

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.

How Can You Judge Robo Advisor Performance?
How Can You Judge Robo Advisor Performance?

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.

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 Emperor Investments, Wealthfront, and M1 Finance offered any detailed reporting of performance.  All three of these funds claim to have significantly beat the S&P 500 over the longer term.

[Related Article: Do Robo Advisors Beat The Market?]

Are Robo Advisors Safe?

Security and Transparency Matter for Robo Advisors.  There are some other areas of performance you must evaluate, including security and transparency.  Strangely, transparency is one of the most important areas of Robo Advisor performance, but many people ignore it. Transparency means the advisor clearly lists all features, capabilities, and strategies.

For example, the manager lists all the equities in a portfolio and explains every strategy used. Management should tell you when they make a change or add a feature. In addition, they should provide clear explanations and justifications for any feature in plain English.

Hence, you should avoid a Robo Advisor with a low level of transparency. If you do not have at least a rudimentary grasp of what is going on, you should stay away from a robo advisor.

Are Robo Advisors Secure?

Robo Advisors - Are They Safe & Secure?
Robo Advisors – Are They Safe & Secure?

Finally, transparency is doubly important for security. For instance, an advisor should tell you about any security breach as soon as possible. They should warn you so you can change accounts and passwords before crooks get into your other accounts.

The advisor must clearly explain all security features and protocols. Moreover, security features should work quickly. For instance, there should be an easy but secure way to access your account if you lose your password.  A good example of such backup access is an algorithm that sends a text to an encrypted phone if you change your password. They usually call such features as 2-step authentication.

Plus, the advisor should list all the security protocols and features and explain them. If an advisor does not provide a clear picture of the security, you should avoid it.

The bottom line is that a Robo Advisor that does a poor job of security and transparency will cost you money. Thus, avoid any Robo Advisor that is lacking in either security or transparency.

Are Robo Advisors A Good Idea?

The answer to the above question depends on what you want in a financial advisor.

If you want fast responses to requests, quick access to accounts, and fast answers to questions, Robo Advisors are a good idea. In addition, a Robo Advisor is a good idea if you plan to conduct most of your financial research yourself. For instance, a Robo Advisor can help a person who likes to evaluate and pick his own stocks.

Moreover, a Robo Advisor can save a person with a very simple portfolio and strategy money. If all you plan to do is put a little money in an investment account; or buy a few stocks each month, a Robo Advisor can save you money. Algorithms can perform simple tasks, such as the buying or selling of stocks, faster and more accurately than humans for a lower price.

Are Human Financial Advisors a Good Idea?

On the other hand, a person with a poor understanding of the markets and little time to devote to investments could benefit from the human touch. Beginning investors will usually learn a lot from a human advisor, particularly one willing to explain the process.

Conversely, the human touch is hard to quantify and value. For instance, a human advisor can make you feel better. However, a dishonest human advisor has a strong incentive to lie or exaggerate to make money from commissions or fees.

Notably, one of the Robo Advisors’ greatest strengths is their honesty and impartiality. For instance, a Robo Advisor makes no commission on sales. Thus, a Robo Advisor has no incentive to recommend a particular investment or withhold negative information.

Are Robo Advisors Worth It?

In addition, a Robo Advisor has no emotional attachment to a particular investment. Thus, it could sell a money-losing favorite faster. Hence, the lack of a human touch can be a good thing for investments.

In contrast, many people value a relationship with an advisor and the insight he or she can bring. Therefore, your investment style can determine if a Robo Advisor will work for you.

Strangely, both persons with a hands-on investment style and laid-back investors could benefit from Robo Advisors. For example, a hands-on investor will value the quick response and fast access. Meanwhile, a laid-back investor will like the idea of an automated system taking care of everything for her.

Thus, there are many advantages to Robo Advisors. In particular, Robo Advisors can offer small investors a higher level of service at a lower price. On the other hand, robo investment is a new field with many risks. Thus, research Robo Advisors carefully before you entrust one with your money.

Should I Use A Robo Advisor?

Only you can answer that question, but the benefits are less effort to manage your portfolio and usually lower trading fees.  If you select an Advisor with excellent transparency of reporting, holdings, and a good reputation, you should do well.  If you prefer to manage every aspect of your investing, then Robo Advisors are not for you.

You may want to read our review of the Best Brokers in the USA.


List of Robo Advisors – Advantages, Disadvantages & Fees

Robo Advisor NameProsConsAnnual % Fee AUM FromPerformance DetailsPerformance Rating
M1 Finance★ Commission Free automated investing.
★ Allows you to buy fractional shares of any stock or fund.
★ American accounts are insured up to $250,000 by Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
★ M1 Securities are insured for up to $500,000 by SIPC.
★ Military grade 4096-bit encryption and two-factor authentication for security.
★ Offers lines of credit.
★ Low minimum accounts balance of $100.
✘ Focused on US customers Only.
✘ No hybrid advisors available.
0%M1 claims its funds offer a 9.87% rate of return. Typically within 2% of the comparative benchmark★★★★
Betterment★ Offers hybrid advisor services.
★ No minimum investment needed.
★ Offers a variety of products including Trust Accounts.
★ Special services like tax-loss harvesting and socially responsible investing available.
★ Focused on smaller investors.
★ Focuses on retirement.
✘ Focuses on index funds rather than individual stocks.
✘ Could place some serious limits on investor choices and behavior.
✘ Claims to use “guardrails” to protect investors from themselves.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.25%Betterment claims it offers 5% higher returns than the average US investor receives.★★★★
 Wealthfront★ Offers free financial planning.
★ Easy to Use App
★ Allows Passive Investing
★ Offers tax-loss harvesting and other loss-mitigation strategies.
★ One low fee.
★ Low $500 minimum investment required.
✘ No hybrid advisors available.
✘ No human financial planning advice available.
✘ Completely automated strategies.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.25% Typically 1% lower than comparative Benchmark★★★★
Vanguard Personal Advisor Services★ Offers both hybrid investors and robo advisors.
★ Clear fee schedule
★ Custom Financial Plans available.
★ Low Fees
★ Phone support available to US customers.
✘ $50,000 minimum investment required.
✘ Charges higher than average fees.
✘ Owned by a mutual-fund operator. So Vanguard has an incentive to push mutual funds.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.30% + Fund FeesDepends on the funds. However, Vanguard’ claims its US stock funds offer a 7.51% rate of return - in line with S&P 500 avg returns
Schwab Intelligent Portfolios★ No advisory fee and commissions on some accounts.
★ Hybrid advisors available.
★ A portion of the funds is held in an FDIC insured account at Schwab Bank.
★ A variety of accounts including IRAs, custodial accounts and trust accounts are available.
★ Schwab claims its robo advisor can automatically re-balance accounts to lower risks.
✘ $5,000 minimum investment required.
✘ Tax-loss harvesting only available on portfolios over $50,000.
✘ Schwab admits to making money off sales ETFs and other investment products.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
ETF FeesNo comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
Fidelity Go★ No Minimum balance required to open accounts.
★ Hybrid advisor services available.
★ Open to any US resident over 18 years of age.
★ Fidelity will offset some additional fees with a variable fee credit.
★ You can start investing with as little $10.
✘ Higher than average fees.
✘ The day-to-day investment trading decisions are made by 3rd party "Strategic Advisors LLC"
✘ May automatically invest in fee charging accounts like the Fidelity Government Reserves Fund.
✘ No banking services available.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.35% + Fund FeesNo comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
TD Ameritrade Essential Portfolios★ Hybrid advisors available through professional Portfolio Management.
★ Socially aware investing available.
★ Personalized portfolios available.
★ Free tax-loss harvesting on all accounts.
✘ $5,000 minimum deposit required.
✘ No banking services or insured accounts available.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.30%No comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
Ellevest ★ $0 Minimum investment
★ Claims to be designed by women for women.
★ Female CEO Sallie Krawcheck
★ Claims investment algorithms are designed for women.
★ No penalty for withdrawals.
★ Offers algorithms that are supposedly tailored for a customer’s salary, gender, and lifespan.
★ Some hybrid services available on all accounts.
★ Private wealth management services available.
✘ Charges additional fees for hybrid advisory services.
✘ It is not clear if tax-loss harvesting is available.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
✘ Does not reveal the actual costs of the private wealth management services.
0.25%No comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
Robinhood★ Offers cryptocurrency investment.
★ Offers option and ETF investment.
★ Claims to be commission free.
★ Offers Stock Investment.
★ No minimum investment required.
✘ No hybrid advisors offered.
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
✘ Robinhood shut down its cash management services in 2018 after critisicm accounts were not insured.
✘ Serious lack of transparency.
✘ Claims cash management services are coming soon
0%No comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
Morgan Stanley Access Investing★ Offers a detailed investment plan.
★ Bases portfolios on an investors’ risk tolerance.
★ Algorithm runs thousands of simulations to forecast portfolio performance.
★ Hybrid advisors available.
✘ Higher than average fee.
✘ $5,000 minimum investment required.
✘ Simulations could offer unrealistic pictures of market performance
✘ No details of security arrangements available.
0.35%No comparison to the S&P available because of the variety of portfolios offered.Not Available
Table 1. List of Robo Advisors 2019 - Advantages, Disadvantages & Fees

Note: there are many other Robo Advisors out there and more coming online every day. Hence, it is always a good idea to shop around.


Learn More About Robo Advisors With Our 12 Part Q&A Series

1★ What is a Robo Advisor & How Do They Work? 7★ Are Robo Advisors A Good Idea? 8 Advantages Uncovered
2★ Hybrid vs. AI vs. Robo Advisors 8★ Are Robo Advisors Worth It? What Are The Alternatives?
3★ How Do Robo Advisors Really Work? In 7 Steps 9★ Do Robo Advisors Beat The Market? Fund Performance Uncovered
4★ A Hybrid Robo Advisor- What Is It & How Do They Work? 10★ Are Robo Advisors Safe? Security of Assets Examined
5★ Robo Advisors vs. Human Advisors 11★ Top 10 Best Robo Advisors [160 Point Review & Comparison]
6★ Top 20 Best Robo Advisor Returns & Fees Comparison 12★ Review Winner M1 Finance


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