E*Trade Enters the Robo-Advisor Wars

Global Markets Continue Last Week's Steep Decline
CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 24: Stock prices are flashed across a screen in the lobby of an E-Trade branch on August 24, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. Uncertainty among traders after big losses in the Asian markets caused a sharp selloff in stocks today in the U.S.. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Photograph by Scott Olson, Getty Images

So-called robo-advisors—bare-bones digital services for managing investment portfolios—have been catching on with millennials and eating away at traditional brokers’ market share. On Tuesday, online broker E*Trade became the latest legacy company to jump into the robo-fray, announcing the launch of its Adaptive Portfolio tool.

E*Trade (ETFC) didn’t commit entirely to the technological Singularity, however. Compared with “pure” robo-advisor competitors like Wealthfront or Betterment, Adaptive Portfolio will be relatively tightly integrated with help from flesh-and-blood human advisors. And some of its portfolios will also involve active investment management, rather than relying solely on index funds and ETFs. Those two factors, together, make the service a bit more expensive than some of its startup rivals.

Also read: Brokers and Advisers Fight for Millennials’ Money

E*Trade, one of the pioneering discount brokers during the day-trading era of the 1990s, has been pivoting to offer more hand-holding and other advice as its clientele ages, while at the same time trying to keep up with newer tech rivals. As CEO Paul Idzik recently told Fortune, “People want to engage [digitally] with media, with their friends, with their finances. But they also want you to be there when they need you.”

The Adaptive Portfolio effort mirrors that balancing act. It assigns customers to one of six risk profiles based on a short, relatively jargon-free questionnaire. Once those customers sign on, their assets are allocated among stocks and bonds in a portfolio that automatically rebalances to stay in line with that target. Those clients will have regular access to an E*Trade account team: “If they want someone to validate what they’re doing and look at their risk profiles, those advisors can do that,” says Rich Messina, SVP of Investment Product Management.

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Basic accounts will be invested only in ETFs; customers who choose a “hybrid” approach will have a small percentage of their portfolio invested in actively managed funds, typically in fixed-income or international stocks—areas where, according to Messina, “some good managers can still outperform.”

Adaptive Portfolio accounts will be charged annual fees of 0.3% of account value, plus the expense ratios of the underlying funds, for a peak of around 0.55% for ETF-only funds and 0.8% for hybrids. That compares with costs of between 0.25% and 0.5% for Wealthfront and Betterment.

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