There has been a great deal of hoopla lately in the media about the “Rise of the Robo-Advisor,” i.e., low-cost, online wealth management advice providers. Dozens of start-ups (i.e., Betterment, LearnVest, SigFig, etc.) have emerged, and now three different aggregators have launched their own robo-advisors. A recent poll showed that many industry executives are concerned about the potential “disruption” from these firms, and there has even been some talk that this new business model will ultimately make the traditional wealth manager extinct.

Driving a lot of this frenzy has been a flood of venture capital pouring into such companies, including most recently a $35 million capital raise by Wealthfront. With so much “smart” money pursuing these businesses, how can they not succeed?

All of this sounds eerily similar to a dystopic science fiction—the key word being “fiction”—that was peddled 15 years ago. Does anyone else remember how in the late 1990s technology was going to “change everything” and dot-coms were going to put everyone out of business?

Obviously, that did not quite work out as forecast, as the industry is about five times bigger today than it was then. The current narrative of the robo-advisor replacing the traditional wealth manager is equally ridiculous.

The biggest reason is that the robo-advisors’ current and future clients are very different than those of traditional wealth managers. Moreover, these platforms do not, cannot and will never be able to provide what traditional wealth management clients need, want and are willing to pay for.

More specifically, clients do not go to wealth managers for advice; rather they go to get their problems solved. When clients first show up in a wealth manager’s office, they typically do not even have the first idea of all the things they should be worried about, much less what to do. And although they have a material amount of money to invest, their finances are chaotic—you know, a shoebox full of mutual fund statements and insurance policies—many of them sold to them by a cousin Elmo who everyone in the family knows is clueless. The clients also have aging parents and kids getting ready to go to college, and they are unsure what is going to happen to their business and/or careers, etc., etc. What they are really looking for is someone to help them figure all this out.

A very thoughtful academic, Meir Statman of Santa Clara University, created the most apt description of wealth managers by labelling them “financial physicians.” And just as you don’t go to a doctor only to get medicine—rather, you go first to get a correct diagnosis and then get the right treatment—the core value-added of wealth managers is helping clients to first diagnose and then craft solutions to their problems.

Helping clients do this typically involves a grueling 18-month process that takes a great deal of the wealth manager’s time and expertise (and judgment) and is often very emotionally exhausting for clients. It forces them to make many personal decisions that they would otherwise prefer to simply defer. The good news for the advisor is that after having completed this process, most clients would rather have their teeth drilled without Novocain than have to go back and do it again.

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