Op/Ed By Gerard Michael/CEO of Smartleaf
Robos — more precisely, robo technology — pose a threat to a key player in the industry, but it’s not advisors. It’s mutual fund companies. The threat comes in the form of what we’ll call “robo SMAs” — customizable, tax-optimized separately managed accounts managed at low cost using automated account setup and rebalancing technology.
We’ve previously posted on why SMA’s are better than mutual funds for most assets (A Guide to Mutual Funds vs. SMAs). We’ve also posted on the special case of direct index SMAs and why they’re better and potentially cheaper than ETFs (Direct Indexes are Better than ETFs and Direct Indexes: Cheaper than ETFs?).
You can read more in these previous posts, but the basic idea is that SMAs are more tax efficient, and unlike mutual funds, they’re customizable. With SMAs it’s also easier and faster to launch new products — no new registrations or legal documents are needed — you just have to create a new model portfolio. And under the right conditions, SMAs are also less expensive to operate. What are the right conditions? You need two things:
- Fractional shares and AUM-based trading costs (e.g. no $4.95/share commissions): When you’re buying a basket of 100 stocks for each client, even $4.95/share adds up. And having to both buy whole shares and own the stocks in the right proportions means you need high account minimums, putting SMAs out of reach for many investors.
- Automated tax-optimized rebalancing of customized accounts: One of the main advantages of SMAs over mutual funds is that they’re customizable and more tax efficient. If SMAs are to replace mutual funds, these services need to be delivered at scale.
The scary thing for mutual fund companies is that these technologies already exist:
- Custodians like Apex and FolioFn support fractional shares and AUM-based trading costs, meaning investors with as little as $100 can invest in SMAs.
Technology like, well, ours supports automated tax-optimized rebalancing of customized accounts, at least for highly liquid securities like US large- and mid-cap equities.
- This should worry mutual fund companies. What’s their response? It’s to move into the SMA business. And they won’t stop there. In addition to individual SMAs (the direct equivalents of mutual funds), they can expand their service to include asset allocation, customization and tax management. To top it off, once this infrastructure is in place, they’ll be in a position to roll out new strategies literally overnight — even offer custom “dial-a-smartbeta” customized models (see Asset Managers Pivot to Sell Solutions, Not Just Product).
To make all this happen, the mutual fund companies will have to do one more thing: make account setup and onboarding easy. Really easy. Being an outsourced overlay manager is a subadvisory service that requires the signoff of the investor and the custodian. But robo advisors have demonstrated the viability of automated, real-time setup of advisory accounts.
Gerard Michael is CEO of Smartleaf, a leading fintech provider of automated portfolio rebalancing and tax optimization for wealth managers, RIAs, TAMPs, broker dealers and banks.