05.09.2016
By Rob Daly

Is ‘Robo’ Warren Buffett Coming Soon?

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‘WWWD?’ is a question some of the more ardent devotees of Warren Buffett ask themselves before making an investment decision — that is, what would Warren do?

That acronym may be expanded to WWRWD within the next decade, as people turn to a digital version of the Oracle of Omaha for wealth-management counsel.

Financial advisors of 2026 can expect to face more competition for their piece of the wealth-management pie, as so-called robo advisors gain traction and win over more customers.

The local-branch financial advisor for all but the highest-net-worth clients likely will be replaced by automated advisory platforms power by artificial intelligence, according to Grant Easterbrook, co-founder of 401(k) company Dream Forward Financial.

Mansi Singhal, co-founder of robo-advisory platform provider qplum, is seeing the onset of this. “We work with a lot of asset managers when we integrate our platform, and we see this fear in financial advisors’ eyes that robo advisors will replace a whole lot of them,” she said.

Grant Easterbrook, Dream Forward Financial

Grant Easterbrook, Dream Forward Financial

Although some people remain skeptical about artificial intelligence’s capabilities, Easterbrook equates recent advances in AI to having the industry go from playing checkers to playing chess with the technology.

“Imagine a phone application that looked like Warren Buffett,” he said. “You could ask the app any time of day: ‘Warren, what does this mean again?’ or ‘Warren, should I be doing this?’ and get a pretty good answer.”

Easterbrook also sees these platforms supporting more complex, highly personalized products like insurance and retirement planning, in addition to the support of the more basic managed accounts, remote human advisory, and trading advice that is available on today’s second-generation advisory platforms.

“These are mass industries with complex products and zero transparency” he said. “There’s a reason why they have 50-page documents written in a 10-point font.”

Third-generation robo advisors likely will not take over complex tasks, such as estate-, tax-, and multi-generational planning, since few people would be comfortable relying solely on an automated platform no matter how flawless an AI might be, according to Easterbrook.

“Tax planning alone is extremely complicated for high-net-worth individuals,” he said. “Portions of the process might be automated like filling out forms online before a human advisor reviews them before signing off on them. There are ways to make the process more efficient, but it will be hard to automate to the extent that something like portfolio investments can be automated.”

No matter what, next-generation platforms will continue to compress advisory fees, just as automated trading tools compressed trading commission beginning in the 1990s. There will be other byproducts as well. “The increased transparency that comes with automation will prevent things like advisors putting clients in certain funds, and double-dipping,” Easterbrook explained.

One thing automation will not take away is the relationship aspect between a financial advisor and their high-net-worth clients, according to qplum’s Singhal.

“All they are going to have left will be the trust that they have built with their client,” agreed Easterbrook. “They’ve built that when they’ve called and calmed down their clients Susan, Sally, or Joe when they’re freaking out about the market.”

Featured image by Beer Stefan/PhotoSpin

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