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Robo-advisor Wealthfront is now using AI to manage over $3 billion in assets

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Robo-advisors have more than $50 billion in assets under management. And the industry saw more than 200% growth in 2015, according to Aite Group.

On Thursday, online automated investment advisor Wealthfront announced a complete redesign to its interface. The biggest change: It will begin incorporating artificial intelligence into its financial services. In addition to looking for hidden fees and cash drag, Wealthfront’s AI will track your account activity and automatically apply that behavior to the advice the company gives you. Wealthfront’s new dashboard forecasts projects your net worth if you keep investing over your lifetime, which the company hopes will motivate investors to stick with their investing and saving strategies over the long term.

Source: Wealthfront

Wealthfront is using application programming interfaces (APIs) to directly integrate your accounts on platforms like Venmo, Redfin and Coinbase into Wealthfront. And the company is using AI to analyze individual transactions on these services as they indicate how people are spending money. Users will be able to transfer funds through startups like Venmo in the future. Wealthfront provides recommendations on diversification, taxes and fees that are specific to your financial profile and risk tolerance. Over the next two months, clients will see these features roll out on the app and desktop. Users who want to try out the full experience today can opt-in here.

The booming robo-advisor space

Source: Wealthfront

This week Wealthfront competitor Betterment secured $100 million (and $205 million total) in new funding that boosted its valuation to $700 million. Wealthfront is also valued at $700 million and has raised $129 million to date.

“Robo-advice is engineered to break the logjam that used to exist where financial advice was only available to the wealthy -- the reality is people don’t have that kind of money,” says Uday Singh, a partner in the financial institutions practice of A.T. Kearney, a management consulting firm.

Despite the upward momentum, big banks like Citigroup are skeptical about just how disruptive robo-advisors will be.

"We see the advent of robo-advice as an example of automation improving the productivity of traditional investment advisors, and not a situation where there is significant risk of job substitution. Higher net worth or more sophisticated investors will, in our view, always demand face-to-face advice,” wrote Citi analysts wrote in a recent report.

With over 60% of Wealthfront investors under the age of 35, the robo-advisor is the first encounter many have with financial advice of any kind. Wealthfront doesn’t charge an advisory fee on the first $10,000 invested; customers pay an annual fee of 0.25% of assets if they have over that amount. Advisory firms typically take a 1% cut of your account balance per year. Since launching at the end of 2011, Wealthfront is now managing over $3 billion in assets for around 60,000 clients.

Singh notes that the advice component that Wealthfront is building out is key to retaining current and attracting new users. “Because the advice is available, people are gravitating toward investing. You can’t break the two pieces apart. People want to be told what to do,” he says.

The challenge, however, is how startups can differentiate themselves. Other fintech companies like Motif allow users to build thematic portfolios, while Polly Portfolio gives you the opportunity to reallocate based on macroeconomic events.

And of course, with big advisory firms like Fidelity and Charles Schwab aggressively developing their own automated arms, competition is just getting more intense.

Singh says that every major bank will have its own robo-advice department in the next few years, and startups may not endure. “We think a lot of money that goes to robo-advice will remain with traditional and existing providers. Large banks and mutual funds are well-established, known brand names, so once they offer automated services, there will be appetite. Those big banks will ultimately benefit, not the startups,” he says.

Wealthfront and its ilk, of course, are banking on drawing a younger -- and larger -- audience who might distrust big banks with its new features. (The minimum age to create an account used to be 21, they have since lowered it to 18). Wealthfront’s head of communications Kate Wauck says, “If you don’t understand Venmo then it will be hard to understand the spending habits of a young person. It’s important to understand those transactions so that we can use data to provide truly relevant and personal financial advice.”