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Should you use a robo-advisor? You might need less robo and more advice

June 07, 2018

From the simplest of circumstances to the most complex, everyone can benefit from financial advice. After all, money management is the means of getting to your point B, those big life goals like buying a home, funding a child’s education or retiring comfortably.

So, where do you go for financial advice? Some people turn to traditional and social media – handy sources of information that are also susceptible to biases and inaccuracies. As for the opinions of family or friends, can you really trust Uncle Ned’s hot stock tip or your neighbour Sally’s latest get-rich-quick scheme?

Talk is cheap but good advice can be golden. The challenge is knowing where to get that advice. In recent years, technological advances have led to the advent of the “robo-advisor,” basically web-based, automated platforms that use sets of complex mathematical rules (known as algorithms) to calculate how and where to invest your money.

How robo-advice works

With a robo-advisor, you typically complete a questionnaire that identifies key aspects of your financial situation, including your investment objectives, time horizon and risk tolerance. The algorithm recommends what investment products make sense for you and how to allocate money in your portfolio. The process is simple and automatic portfolio rebalancing is part of the package. With minimal human interaction and convenient online access, investing can be as easy as ordering a pizza.

However, while you’ll eat your pizza and move on to the next meal, investing is a longer-term commitment with greater implications than the potential for heartburn. Your future depends on making the right moves – or avoiding the wrong ones.

A trusted advisor contributes to your success

That’s where professional advice comes into play. The straightforward cases for which a robot might be suitable are the exception. Is your life free of complexity? An advisor takes a holistic view of your financial situation to address your unique needs. Advisors can also engage other professionals – such as a lawyer, accountant and/or estate specialist – to offer services that work together as part of your customized plan.

Another notable advantage of human advisors is their ability to keep you on track. An advisor helps you institute a saving discipline where you regularly put aside money to cover expenses and minimize debt, while also investing on a consistent basis so you can take advantage of compounding growth to effectively build long-term wealth.

“Discipline” is the key word here. Left to our own devices, many of us are irrational with money. We can be tempted to spend when we should be saving. When times are tough in the markets and the value of our investments starts shrinking, we might panic and sell at a loss. On the other hand, when we see the markets rising higher and higher, we often join the party too late and invest just as they start declining again.

When the going gets tough, your advisor can help

The robo-advice model has only been around for a few years and is unproven during periods of extreme market volatility. Meanwhile, your advisor has likely seen firsthand the ups and downs of investing and can keep your emotions in check when fear abounds. They can provide valuable context and insights into disruptive economic or market events while keeping you focused on the big picture. Since your advisor understands the principles of investor psychology and behavioural finance, they can help you stay on a disciplined path to achieving your long-term goals.

Maybe robo-advice has its place, especially as robo-advisors continue to evolve and as technology allows them to expand their offerings. Until then, they can do one job: use their algorithms to manage money. Real-life advisors wear many different hats, from coach to consultant to therapist, so their overall value proposition encompasses both tangible and intangible benefits. Most importantly, their guidance is based on lived human experience, something impossible for a machine to outdo.