Online financial advisers edge into retirement market

For now, the service provided is advice, rather than management.

By Alessandra Malito

May 5, 2015 @ 12:01 am EST

Betterment, the second-largest robo-adviser, is providing advice for individual retirement plans and 401(k)s.

The company's new tool, a free calculator that provides personalized retirement advice that allows 401(k) holders to adjust their portfolios and offers the option of opening an IRA on Betterment's platform, is the firm's first entry into the retirement advice market — but it won't be the last. Although the attraction of robo-advice is its automation, as of now, Betterment does not have direct access to investors' 401(k) plans. The new offering, RetireGuide, will provide a recommendation for how much should be put away each year in that plan, said Alex Benke, director of advice products at Betterment.

In the future, the company would like to link users' accounts directly to the Betterment platform and eventually have control of a user's 401(k) in order to make recommendations on asset allocation automatically, he said.

“Ultimately, we'd love for a way to control your 401(k),” Mr. Benke said. “Efficiency and automation — those are the key things that make people want to use a financial product and things that have been missing in the industry.”


Robo-advisers have been focused on building portfolios for younger clients, many of whom are not advised by traditional advisers, though Betterment's new service may appeal to older investors.

Using the calculator, investors will assess themselves and their scenarios by inputting personal data, assumptions about the future — such as whether they are counting on Social Security benefits — and current retirement holdings from their accounts. The program will then determine how much money the investor should save, and where they should save it.

Prior to this new product, Betterment alerted an investor if they were off-track with their goals.

Because 401(k)s are so complicated, with company match rules, auto-escalation of a participant's contribution and special record keeping, it will take more than a retirement calculator for Betterment to make a splash in the automated 401(k) market, said John Patterson, chief executive of NextCapital, another digital 401(k) advice provider.

“It will take time for these firms to learn how to interact with those customers,” added Christopher Jones, chief investment officer at Financial Engines, a robo-adviser that specializes in advising retirement plans. Financial Engines, the largest registered investment adviser in the country with more than $104 billion in assets under management, has been in the digital retirement advice market for nearly two decades.

Where Betterment will be challenged will be in acquiring customers, Mr. Jones said. Financial Engines took the approach of working with an investor's 401(k) plan through employers, though it was a process that took time to develop.

“We've been in business for 20 years and retirement has been our sole focus as a company,” Mr. Jones said. “It's a business that's very challenging to get into.”


Indeed, Betterment has a long way to go to dive into the 401(k) market, said Chris Costello, chief executive of Blooom, another provider of 401(k) advice that started in 2013 and has $54 million in assets under management.

“To try and automate and manage portfolios in the 401(k) space, they're spread all over heck's half acre,” Mr. Costello said. “There's a never-ending supply of advice and tools and instruction manuals and online calculators for people who have 401(k)s, but at the end of the day there are not many solutions to go and get your portfolio managed for you.”

But by jumping into the market, Betterment is sending out an important message, according to other industry players.

“This is directionally significant and directionally good for the industry,” Mr. Patterson said.

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