What exactly is a robo-advisor and how can you benefit from it? Is investing via a robo-advisor really wise especially during this pandemic? In this article, you will learn what robo-advisors are, how they actually work, the list of robo-advisor platforms available in Malaysia, as well as the pros and cons of investing via robo advisors. Read more to find out!
There’s really no way of escaping robots – we see it in complex tasks like precision agriculture with drones to more mundane daily tasks like Alexa or Roomba. In fact, society has progressed so much to the point where robots can even help you with your finances.
So it wouldn’t be surprising if an image of robots rummaging through your finances was the first thing that sprang to mind when thinking of robo-advisors.
But robo advisors are not really robots.
Instead, robo-advisors are software products powered by algorithms that allow one’s portfolio management to be automated.
A by-product of the rise of Artificial Intelligence and automation, robo advisors are a relatively new concept in Malaysia – they first landed on local soil in November 2018, in contrast to more established robo-advisors like Betterment and Wealthfront in the United States, that have been taking the market by storm since the latter’s launch in 2008.
The first ever robo-advisor, Betterment, has managed a total of RM92 billion in assets under management (AUM), while Wealthfront is not too far behind with RM83.3 billion in AUM.
So it’s clear that a lot of people are utilising these platforms globally.
Surprisingly, though the technology behind robo-advisors sound revolutionary, they are not exactly that new as human wealth managers have been using automated portfolio allocation software – and were the only ones who could buy the technology – since the early 2000s. It wasn’t until 2008 that the software became more accessible to the masses.
We spoke to leaders from three robo-advisors (StashAway, MYTHEO and Wahed Invest) in Malaysia to understand how robo-advisors work, and get a better grasp of their platforms and the general landscape in Malaysia.
Understanding robo-advisors – what are they?
Robo-advisors, according to Investopedia, are digital platforms that provide automated, algorithm-driven financial planning services with little to almost no human supervision.
In other words, you get to manage your investments digitally without the need to consult a financial advisor because, in a way, they are the digital equivalents of traditional advisors.
The key difference between robo-advisors and traditional financial advisors is that they utilise data and technology to deliver automated and personalised portfolio management.
“I would say we’d prefer to be referred to as a digital wealth manager, but we do use technology to deliver automated, personalised portfolio management for each client's individual portfolios,” Wai Wen Wong, Country Manager of StashAway told CompareHero.my.
Other accompanying services like asset rebalancing or reporting monthly statements are also delivered digitally through the app, Mohd Izzat Fadhli, Executive Director of Wahed Malaysia, told CompareHero.my.
“Usually back in the olden days, you would have a person as a financial advisor and that person would understand your needs and risk tolerance, and would then recommend a certain type of investment for you to invest in,” Mohd Izzat said. “Now take everything out of that equation and think of it being done digitally.”
How is it possible for robo-advisors to recommend certain portfolios over others?
Most robo-advisors would recommend portfolios using passive indexing strategies optimised with some variant of the modern portfolio theory (MPT), a mathematical framework of assembling a portfolio. This method allows risk-averse investors to maximise returns based on a given level of market risk.
The methodology of most robo-advisors follows an index fund or takes a passive investment approach, because research tells us that it’s difficult for actively managed funds to beat market indexes anyway. The goal of passive investing isn’t to beat the market but to replicate a specific benchmark or index in order to match its performance.
For instance, StashAway uses the proprietary investment strategy, ERAA® (Economic Regime-based Asset Allocation), an enhanced version of MPT, Wai Ken said, as it also addresses external economic forces, which ultimately drive asset class’ returns, volatility, and correlations.
When combined, Wai Ken said, ERAA®’s three pillars: Economic Regimes Determine Asset Allocation, Risk Shield, and Valuation Gaps, can deliver a macroeconomic portfolio management strategy that minimises risk and maximises returns for personalised portfolios across any economic environment.
Wahed Invest uses MPT and optimises the investor's portfolio with Shariah-compliant investments while MYTHEO uses a proprietary algorithm to analyse the investment needs of each customer.
Most robo-advisors stay away from engaging in securities selection, and refrain from using actively-managed funds as several long-term studies conclude that asset allocation is responsible for between 80% and 96% of a portfolio’s return profile.
The opposite of passive management is active management which involves frequent buying and selling of stocks in an effort to outperform a specific benchmark or index – these portfolios tend to target superior returns but take greater risks and incur larger fees.
“The way traditional investment managers work – and even current – is by offering active funds to investors, and they then try to beat a certain benchmark. Active management means the fund managers would always try to pick the best stocks,” Mohd Izzat said.
“But safe investment simply means you’re growing your wealth according to the market and not trying to beat it because – beating the market isn’t easy. Studies have shown that only 20% of active managers beat the benchmark, and they are not consistent about it. So what this is telling you is that it’s probably better to invest alongside the benchmark,” he added.
The latest SPIVA U.S. Scorecard shows that 70% of domestic equity funds lagged the S&P Composite 1500® over the one-year period, the fourth-worst performance since 2001, this clearly shows us that active management is difficult because it’s hard to beat the market.
Robo-advisor landscape in Malaysia and its potential
What sparked the birth of robo-advisors in 2008 was the global financial crisis, and the plunging of the stock market – this prompted investors to consider passive investment vehicles, and it was the bull run of 2009 that led to the birth of the first ever robo-advisor, Betterment, a year later.
Today, there are around 200 robo-advisors in the established and mature United States market – compare that to the burgeoning market in Malaysia, there are only a handful of licensed robo-advisors.
“We definitely have seen many Malaysians become more aware of robo advisors. In most APAC countries, people with less than US$1 million have no cost-effective solution to invest intelligently,” Wai Ken said. “One of the outcomes of this situation is that Asian households have unbalanced portfolios with too much cash.” Robo-advisors like StashAway, he said, solves these issues and makes it simple and cost-effective to invest intelligently.
“With a direct B2C approach, we empower our customers to reach their financial goals sooner by making investing more accessible and enjoyable,” he added.
The robo-advisor market is expected to grow even further – a report by Infosys predicts that assets managed by robo-advisors are projected to increase to US$16 trillion by 2025 from US$0.3 trillion in 2016.
In terms of the Malaysian market, Wai Ken said they do foresee more players entering the market, especially as more Malaysians start becoming more accustomed to the various offerings. “We will continue to focus on improving our clients’ experience with us. It is natural that the industry will consolidate in the coming years and we think we are well placed to lead the push for the industry to evolve,” he said.
The growth of robo-advisors in Malaysia, Mohd Izzat of Wahed Invest said, is also expected to grow in tandem with the shift towards digital alternatives.
“This shift (to digital) is not just happening on the investment side. Bank Negara, for instance, released a framework for digital banks, so you’ll see a convergence in financial institutions, a hybrid between digital and traditional, especially in terms of onboarding and getting clients, it will shift more towards digital,” he said.
But more importantly, the growth of robo-advisors in Malaysia is part of the country’s overarching aim to promote financial inclusivity among its citizens, and to allow investing to be more accessible to the masses through digitisation, particularly to those who can’t afford traditional investors because of the high fees, Ronnie Tan Tai Ngee, CEO and Managing Director of MYTHEO told CompareHero.my.
“According to research, 1 in 3 Malaysians are low in financial knowledge, and there are about eight million millennials in Malaysia – a lot of them who don't understand investment yet,” Tan said.
“Only the fortunate and rich can afford a wealth manager to guide them – but how many people can afford such services? And how many financial advisors can actually reach out to all Malaysians to ensure financial inclusiveness? That’s where robo-advisors come into the picture. And the credit goes to the authorities and the Securities Commission (SC) for having this far-sighted vision.”
One way to achieve financial inclusion, Tan said, is to make investing more affordable and to be convenient for people – exactly what robo-advisors aim to do.
So how do robo-advisors work?
Well first, you’ll need to download the mobile application either through Google Play or the Apple Store.
Upon entering the app, the user will be asked a series of questions about their resources and financial goals, then the robo advisor will decide how to invest the client’s money.
To better understand you as an investor, these questions will usually touch on subjects like investment timeline, risk tolerance, and savings. Then the answers are run through an algorithm-based AI to determine the asset allocation and build a portfolio of diversified investments that are most aligned with the investor’s goals. Different platforms would have different methodologies but most are based on MPT.
The software can also automatically rebalance a portfolio to ensure that it remains close to the target allocation, regardless of asset performance or if the investor makes tweaks to his or her portfolio.
Regular contributions in the form of small weekly or monthly deposits are encouraged to make sure the contributions can maintain their target allocation and keep the investor on track to achieve their goals. The portfolio would also be monitored to ensure that the optimal asset class weightings are maintained.
Unlike traditional advisors, robo-advisors depend on the algorithms to create, diversify and rebalance an investor’s portfolio. The asset allocation will heavily depend on the type of robo-advisor you’re using but most would typically include exchange-traded funds (ETFs), cash and gold.
“ETFs are good instruments (for passive investing) because they are well-diversified – similar to mutual funds except they are listed on the stock exchange and the liquidity is there so you can get in and out,” Tan of MYTHEO said. “So you’re investing in a pool of stocks rather than an individual stock.”
About 6,000 ETFs are currently listed on stock exchanges all over the world and they are widely used by institutional and individual investors, with most ETFs being linked with indexes such as stock price indices and many ETFs correspond to specific asset classes, according to a whitepaper by MYTHEO.
These features of ETFs make it possible for investors to invest in a diversified range of assets such as stocks, bonds, REITs (real estate investment trusts) and commodities (goods) at low cost.
“We build our customers’ portfolios with a carefully selected assortment of highly diversified, liquid and low-cost ETFs,” Wai Ken said. “These index-tracking investment tools enable our customers to gain diversified, long-term exposure to a variety of asset classes and geographies.”
List of robo-advisors in Malaysia
Founded in and based in Singapore, it is the first digital investment advisory platform (or commonly known as robo-advisor) that got a license from the SC in November 2018 to operate in Malaysia. Unlike other platforms, there are no minimum deposits to start investing with StashAway.
Other key features include generated annualised returns ranging from 11.6% for its highest risk portfolio and 4.3% for its lowest risk portfolio since it launched in July 2017, according to Wai Ken.
He also pointed out that all core growth-oriented portfolios have outperformed their respective same-risk benchmarks.
They are backed by Eight Roads, the global investment arm of Fidelity, as well as Square Peg, one of the largest venture capital funds in Australia, in a recent funding round.
Their products include their flagship global portfolios, income, StashAway Simple (cash management product), and a 50% Shariah version of their global portfolio.
Image source: StashAway
Image source: Keflah
We tried it out using a 10% risk portfolio, considered relatively conservative, and the assets we were recommended included ETFs from the United States, international ETFs, bonds, commodities (gold) and cash.
- iShares Core S&P Small Cap ETF
- Health Care Select Sector SPDR Fund
- KraneShares CSI China Internet ETF
- Vanguard Total International Bond ETF
- iShares J.P Morgan USD Emerging Markets Bond ETF
- iShares International Treasury Bond ETF
- iShares TIPS Bond ETF
- iShares Floating Rate Bond ETF
|Minimum Investment||No minimum|
|Fee structure||First RM50,000||0.80%|
|RM50,000 to RM100,000||0.70%|
|RM100,000 to RM250,000||0.60%|
|RM250,000 to RM500,000||0.50%|
|Next RM500,000 to RM1,000,000||0.40%|
|RM1,000,000 to RM3,000,000||0.30%|
2. Wahed Invest
Image source: Propfessor
Founded by American Junaid Wahedna, it was the world's first automated Islamic investment platform (robo-advisor) when it launched in 2017.
It then launched its first ETF, the Wahed FTSE USA Shariah ETF (HLAL US), in 2019. Listed on Nasdaq, the fund provides exposure to U.S. large and mid-cap firms that comply with Shariah principles. Some of the notable stocks in this ETF include Apple, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Adobe Inc.
Unlike StashAway, the assets in Wahed are more limited – right now investors can only get exposure to Malaysian stocks via the MyETF MSCI Malaysia Islamic Dividend, U.S. stocks via Wahed FTSE USA Shariah ETF, cash and gold.
A fully-shariah compliant platform, it is suitable for Muslim practioneers and those who would prefer to engage in ethical investing.
|Fee structure||RM100 to RM499,999||0.79%|
Image source: MYTHEO
MYTHEO is operated by GAX MD Sdn Bhd, a joint venture between Silverlake Digital INX Sdn Bhd and Japanese fintech player Money Design Co Ltd.
The name is a portmanteau of Malaysia and Theo, the younger brother and confidant of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh.
The first Malaysian company, they are the second platform to be approved by the SC.
Their algorithm customises an investor’s portfolio by combining weight from three functional sub-portfolios, which are Long-Term Growth, Income and Inflation Hedge portfolio.
Then, each functional portfolio is constructed using another set of algorithms consisting of over 25 ETFs covering different asset classes across multiple global regions.
It’s through this two-stage portfolio construction method that the platform is able to help investors indirectly own a portion of more than 10,000 securities. This method, MYTHEO states, allows it to be well-distributed in the event of a market downfall as it will have little impact on the overall portfolio.
|Fee structure||First RM30,000||1%|
|RM30,000 to RM100,000||0.9%|
|RM100,000 to RM300,000||0.8%|
|RM300,000 to RM500,000||0.7%|
|RM500,000 to RM1,000,000||0.6%|
Image source: Raiz
If you want to invest your small amounts of money or changes, you can consider using micro-investing platform Raiz.
Just recently launched in July 2020, it allows users to automatically invest their loose change from everyday purchases in ASNB’s variable price funds (unit trust).
It’s an incredibly efficient way of making the most of every cent being spent, so rather than waste your cents away, why not stretch your Ringgit and have it saved and invested instead?
But Raiz also allows users to invest via lump-sum investments and recurring investments.
The app is a joint venture between PNB’s subsidiary Jewel Digital Ventures and Raiz Invest Australia. It is initially only available for Maybank account holders.
Raiz optimises six diversified portfolios and implements the MPT – the same methodology used by most other robo advisors.
|Minimum Investment||No minimum but you need RM5 to start|
|Fee structure||First RM6,000||RM1.50|
The case for robo-advisors – why invest in robo-advisors?
With so many other alternative instruments to choose from, you may be wondering why would it be an attractive option to invest in robo-advisors instead? We break it down below.
1. High quality research (Nobel Prize-winning investment models)
Research tells us that a portfolio made up of low-cost index funds gives investors an 80% to 90% chance of outperforming anything else.
And robo-advisors heed, and internalise, this fact – most robo-advisors in Malaysia create portfolios using low-cost, index-based ETFs.
On top of that, many of the robo-advisors’ algorithms rely on the Nobel Prize-winning investment theory, MPT, of creating an investment portfolio with the greatest return for the smallest risk, to drive their models.
In return, you’re getting an investment portfolio that relies on substantial and proven research.
Unfortunately, the thing about investing is that returns are not guaranteed, but at least it’s a good place to start.
2. More exposure to other markets
Due to how it's created, robo-advisors generally give investors more exposure to various markets, from the United States to Asian markets. Investors also get their money invested into gold and cash.
“What robo-advisors give investors are more diversified portfolios. Compared to stand alone investments, robo-advisors give you a mix of asset classes,” Mohd Izzat of Wahed Invest said.
“It gives you enough diversification for your risk tolerance so that you get a certain return or expectation of return. You could also get more exposure if you, let’s say, invest in robo, and also invest in another asset class that has overlapped with your portfolio, like for example another gold app.”
3. Low fees
Robo-advisors generally charge significantly lower annual management fees than traditional advisors do.
Traditional investors are usually associated with high fee structures of 1.25% and 3% annually, costing a range of RM1,000 to RM20,000 a year depending on asset size. In contrast, robo-advisors are way cheaper with an annual management fee that costs less than 1%.
You can also invest for a minimum of only RM100 — a stark contrast to many traditional mutual funds which require a minimum portfolio value ranging from RM500 to RM10,000.
Refer to the tables in the above section for a more detailed fee breakdown.
Note: The listed figures may or may not be the full complete fee structures. We advise you to check out their websites for full details because on top of the annual fees charged by the robo-advisors, investors may also need to pay non-robo charges like annual investment costs and annual market spread.
But why does having lower fees matter to investors? Well, the compounding effect of said fees, especially higher fees, would eat into your returns over time, and eventually you’ll accumulate less money in your portfolio.
Conversely, the lower your fees, the more you’ll earn overall.
StashAway argues that robo-advisors’ smaller fee structures give investors overall higher returns on the long run. (Image source: StashAway)
4. Democratises investing
Due to its low fees and accessibility (just via a mobile app), robo-advisors make it easier for younger investors or those with lower net worth to participate in investing especially if they may not have considered, or be able to consider, professional financial advice.
For instance, Malaysians who want to invest their small amounts of money or changes can consider using micro-investing platform Raiz, which allows users to automatically invest their loose change from everyday purchases in unit trusts via its app.
Robo advisors are seen as better alternatives compared to a regular savings account or even fixed deposits because of their higher projected returns.
5. Intuitive and straightforward
Its hassle-free approach makes signing up and setting up accounts with robo-advisors an easy and secure process.
With just a swipe of your finger, you can easily sign up, track your assets’ performance, and withdraw money.
In contrast to traditional mutual or unit trust funds where you will need to wait for your monthly statements to track your asset’s performance. It also requires you to go through your fund manager for withdrawals or portfolio adjustments.
6. Hands-off and low-maintenance
If you’re always busy and rarely have the time to check your investments, it would be good to know that your money is kept in safe hands.
The “set it, and forget it” approach, according to StashAway, used by robo-advisors is meant to make them quick, simple, and comprehensive.
You won’t have to update your financial advisor for any portfolio adjustments as trades happen automatically on your behalf, and you’re still able to check the status of your portfolio by just connecting to the app. Understandably, some investors, however, prefer being more involved in the decision-making process with advisors.
Ultimately, robo-advisors take out the human emotion when determining financial plans and managing portfolios, which has been said to benefit investors as it avoids misreading the market.
Drawbacks of robo-advisors
The relative nascency of robo-advisors and its capabilities, and the minimal involvement of humans have led to some critics saying robo-advisors lack empathy and sophistication.
And of course, the biggest loss with a robo-advisor is the human element, a criteria that gives traditional financial advisors its irreplaceable features. Because beyond just managing your finances, often, advisors do more than that – they also educate and are coaches to their clients.
Relationship-building makes up the core element of a financial advisor’s business and is something that clients look for, too, especially those who prefer more human interaction and involvement in decision-making.
For all the fees that robo-advisors save and the seamless user-experience that it gives, it will never be able to take you out for lunch or to go over some financial concerns or unusual financial circumstances that you have like complex tax situations. It's that personal touch that gives financial advisors their defining feature.
Besides that, the algorithms – and in essence, its recommendations – in robo-advisors are limited to what information you give them. And such info is usually limited to age, financial goals, and risk level. Algorithms also work best with black and white data, which doesn’t always work with humans whose lives are more nuanced than that. For instance, an algorithm wouldn’t be able to evaluate or provide advice when investors face real subjective, difficult and emotional scenarios in life.
In other cases, many clients find great value in having a professional sounding board to guide them through their money and assets. Financial advisors can help manage assets beyond what’s offered in the app such as properties and other illiquid assets, activities that are often difficult to standardise and automate, according to research we found on robo-advisors, which makes it difficult for robo-advisors to offer them in their app.
Though a robo-advisor is able to assess one’s financial situation, financial knowledge, and financial goals, they are not able to assess more complex situations. This is where having a financial advisor may come in handy as they would be able to assess your financial situation and figure out what’s the best approach to take.
In response to the critique of not being personalised enough, Wai Ken of StashAway argued that the technology within robo-advisors makes it more personalised.
“We disagree with that. In fact, we’d argue that we’re able to provide even more personalised and tailored portfolios by leveraging technology to deliver this to everyone. We ask questions about your risk appetite, financial goals, current financial situation and do a financial knowledge assessment before recommending a portfolio to you,” he said.
The goal of robo-advisors, Mohd Izzat of Wahed Invest said, is to recommend the best portfolio possible for investors from all the available funds in the market. “At the end of the day, we just want to give investors the best risk-adjusted return portfolio. Let’s say in the future, something happens to one of the funds, we can always change it. It's not a big deal for us because it’s about giving customers the best exposure.”
Additionally, he said, scalability and technology would be the current challenge for robo-advisors if they were to make portfolios even more personalised, to the cents.
“I think at this point, since we are a super nascent industry, it's not super personalised, but it can get there,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s still personalised to you, and your risk, because you choose it to be so. Also what does personalisation really mean to investors – does it mean tweaking the percentage or is it having more say on the type of assets?”
If you want a fully personalised experience, financial investors offer more specific investment options
The big difference between traditional financial advisors and robo-advisors is that the former provides investors with the flexibility to choose which securities and allocations that they prefer – a stark contrast to robo-advisors that usually have a predetermined investment strategy with pre-selected securities, depending on the investor’s financial goals and risks.
This means using robo-advisors won’t allow you the freedom to choose how much money you want in a particular stock, for instance. Which is what, many robo platforms argue, is the basis of robo-advisors – recommending portfolios that work best for clients.
Additionally, you won’t be able to choose your personal security or stock preferences. The reason behind this is because robo-advisors are meant to expose investors to an optimal portfolio with minimal work.
The flipside is you would be able to select securities with a financial investor. Additionally, any opinion or queries related to asset allocation or securities, could be addressed by a traditional financial advisor.
There’s no harm in trying both at the same time to get a fully-optimised experience.
Are robo-advisors a safe and secure platform?
Question marks over the security of robo-advisors were brought to the forefront particularly after the auto-debit incident by StashAway recently. So are they safe?
The short answer is yes.
“As part of the SC requirements, we need to always have a significant capital base; it is therefore unlikely that StashAway will start bankruptcy procedures. We’ve published a detailed tech post-mortem explaining the root cause of this and how we intend to prevent this situation from happening again,” said Wai Ken of StashAway on the recent incident.
“In the unlikely event that StashAway is declared bankrupt, following SC strict regulations, StashAway has ensured that customers' funds are protected by Citibank Trust Account for when we first receive your deposits and a Custodian Account via Saxo Capital Markets for your securities, such that those funds are kept separate and un-mingled with StashAway’s finances,” he added.
All robo-advisors we researched on are licensed by the SC requirements, and it’s only good practice to invest via platforms that have received full approval from the SC.
All platforms we researched are also backed by some of the most reputable advisors in the industry like Eight Roads Ventures, the proprietary investment arm of Fidelity International.
MYTHEO, on the other hand, is equipped with expert fund managers who manage the algorithm in the background, said Tan of MYTHEO.
“Behind the scenes, the people who designed these algorithms are humans and in MYTHEO’s case, we have experienced and professional fund managers who are ex-Blackrock, Nomura professionals and professors from Kyoto University who are knowledgeable on fund management. So they put the algorithm in place that tries to capture the essence of a fund manager,” he said.
So should you invest via robo advisors in today’s COVID-19 world?
Traditional investments can require a lot of money up-front, but you could start investing via robo-advisors with just RM100. However, like any other investments or platforms, robo-advisors don’t come without its limitations. The key is to really weigh the pros and cons and figure out if it works for your own circumstances.
So if you do decide to give it a try, we advise you to go with a robo-advisor that provides the best transparency – meaning the app clearly lists all features, capabilities, and strategies.
It should also list all the equities chosen in a portfolio and explain the strategy behind it. The last thing you want is to invest in something that you have no understanding about.
Good luck and we hope you found this piece to be informative!
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