Delivering investment advisory services solely through the online channel is a game changer. But getting it right has eluded even the biggest of investment managers.
Join Rob and me as we discuss the genesis of Personal Capital, how the online advisor intends to scale, and the future of online investing.
Announcer: You’re listening to Tradestreaming Radio with your host Zack Miller. Expand your mind. Become a better investor with tools, tips, and technology from the smartest investors on the planet.
Zack: Thanks for joining us at Tradestreaming Radio, I’m your host Zack Miller, and this is the place where smart investors come to learn directly from experts. Today’s expert guest on our program is Rob Foregger. He’s the Chief Strategy Officer of Personal Capital, which is an online RIA. We’ll talk in depth about what that is, and what their aspirations are. Rob’s got an awesome background. He co-founded EverBank, one of the nation’s first and most successful online banks with over $10 billion in assets today.
He was also the president of Fidelity Investment Personal Trust Company, responsible for all of banking services at Fidelity. He’s got 20 years building direct consumer financial service experience, and just very, very smart. Very, very on the ball. Thanks, Rob, for joining us today, hope you guys enjoy the show.
I’m Zack Miller, I’m your host, and this is Tradestreaming. You can find our archives of this program, and of all of our shows, on my website Tradestreaming.com. You can also find the archives of the show on iTunes. Feel free to come leave us a comment, a rating, a ranking, anything. We’d like to hear from you, we’re here to help you become a better, smarter investor.
Come back to Tradestreaming.com, sign up for the free email as well. We’ll keep you posted of all of our events, any new programs we have out there, and any new coursework that we release to our audience. I appreciate your listening, I know you’re busy, and it means a lot that you’re coming and spending some time learning from us. Hope you enjoy the show.
Rob: I’m Rob Foregger, the Chief Strategy Officer and co-founder of Personal Capital. I’ve been in the direct consumer financial services industry and space for about 20 years. Started out in the direct consumer mutual fund industry, started Signet Banks, directed business banking pre-internet age. Then I went on to write the business plan for and co-found a company called EverBank, which is one of the first and definitely one of the most successful online banks that still exists out there today. I then went on to run Fidelity Investments Personal Trust Company as well as their retail banking strategy at Fidelity. Then I left at the end of 2009 to start Personal Capital with Bill Harris, who is the co-founder and our CEO and chairman of Personal Capital.
Zack: Wow, your resume reads like a who’s-who in terms of online finance, and offline finance as well.
Rob: It’s not about me, but our team is really an exception team. Bill, our CEO, was the CEO of Intuit as well as the CEO of PayPal. Our CIO was the CIO of E-loan for five years. We have the fellow who was in charge of product management at Quicken, and the list goes on. It’s a little bit like chocolate and peanut butter. We think that we have really amassed a great team that has a great blend of experience, both in financial technology, and the delivery of remote financial services.
Zack: Can you share with us the genesis? Was this an idea that you had been tossing around? Can you talk about how this all came together?
Rob: Bill Harris, my business partner, was obviously instrumental in the vision for this. With myself, we really both believed that there was a fundamentally different way, and a more personalized way to deliver financial services than what’s been done in the past. It took us awhile, quite honestly, to articulate what that was. Probably driven by a few key trends.
One was really around personalization, and essentially moving from the notion of a large model of institution delivering and pushing down products to the client, and really changing that perspective and landscape and building from the ground up a financial services platform and business around the individual client, and then from the client out into the world as opposed to from the institution out to you. I think that notion of the personalization is really critical.
Another key trend that pushes in this direction is the notion of being in a post product world. For example, mutual funds have obviously been a fantastic tool for the individual investor over the past 30 to 40 years. However, we believe there’s fundamentally better ways to deliver, for example, investment advice than through a mutual fund product today. So that’s also a key driver of what we’re up to, and essentially developing open architecture platform that’s conflict free and really driven and focused on delivering what’s best for the client.
Lastly, connected to that is this notion around being a fiduciary and really operating and aligning the business around being a fiduciary for the client. I would argue that about 90 to 95% of the U.S. population wants investment help and investment advice. Many don’t know where to go to get it, and don’t know where to get it in a low cost manner, and don’t know where to get it in a way that’s free of conflict. So operating that fiduciary platform was also very important to us.
Those three trends were quite critical in terms of the creation and ultimate execution of what we’re building at Personal Capital.
Zack: I guess that last trend of the fiduciary is somewhat connected to the first trend of personalizing. You have to be on the same side of the table in order to do that. Do you see it that way?
Rob: Absolutely. It’s really interesting, and obviously with the regulatory sparring that’s going on in Washington, and the brokers trying to stay out of the fiduciary model, our perspective is quite simple. We’re okay with brokers being brokers, and RA’s being RA’s, that’s fine. But if someone is delivering advice, there should be one rule for that, and we think that should be under the fiduciary rule.
Zack: Amen. I hear that. Part of the issue is, and this is something I work with on Tradestreaming and with my clients, individual investors don’t even have the tools to be able to differentiate the two. You have these hybrid models where you have brokers who are also in the fee business as well, and everything’s so confounded.
At the end of the day, your average investor can be a smart person, he can go do his work and do fine and have a nice I.Q., but some of these basic ideas and incentives, and just the way the system works is foreign to them. Even today. Is that a failure in investor education? Is that something that…? I don’t know, it almost seems like we’ll never be able to get over that hump.
Rob: That’s a great question, and there’s probably the long answer and the short answer. I think there’s a lot to be done, in probably, opposed to a few thousand pages of Dodd-Frank, but actually in a couple bullets or lines. Essentially, if you’re a broker, you should have to call yourself a broker.
Zack: What’s a financial advisor, right?
Rob: Exactly. That’s the confusion point, if every broker is deemed to be a financial advisor then the client has no way to discern between the two. It gets down to the advisor with an O, versus the adviser with an E.
Rob: And obviously, no one can discern that. I think that simple notion of what you call yourself, or what you can call yourself based on what you do would be a great start, and would take probably one line of regulatory change.
The second is really around disclosure. In simple disclosure, if you’re not acting in the best interest of the client, or may not be, then that should be disclosed in your dealings with the client. I think that those two concepts would push the industry a long way, as opposed to new owners, new rules.
Zack: It’s funny, I’m actually one of those hybrids. I believe in the fiduciary, given the way I’ve set up my business. I reside overseas, I’m duly licensed in two different countries. I needed to have the Series 7 as well.
When I pitch them, I’m sitting across the table from them, I’m saying “I will do everything in your best interest.” That’s my credo, that’s what I want, that’s what I believe in. Every broker you speak to would say the same thing as well, it’s just underlying all that is the idea that the transactional model is clearly different than the fee based model. There’s a lot of wiggle room there. I’m not even sure you can make it so black and white at the end of the day.
I mentioned something else. Personal Capital sounds like an idea, a concept that is perfectly timed for now. In fact, it seems like it’s perfectly timed for a few years ago. Is there something specific about the financial industry that — I wouldn’t say preventive, because that sounds like too active but — that would just make it hard to bring something like this to life?
Rob: Clearly, technology and the acceleration of technology is critical. I guess I would start the answer, Zack, from the perspective of the notion that I brought up before around personalization. If you think about it from that perspective, if you look at how technology has driven personalization in so many industries across the United States and across the world in the past five years, look at what has happened in music. With the notion or concept of personalized radio, in the form of Pandora.
Zack: Spotify, yeah.
Rob: Exactly. Look at news media, look at what you’re doing. The ability to fragment news media is really astounding in what we’re able to do with technology today. Look at social networks, what are those? Those are personalized networks that are essentially built on a technology container, for lack of a better word, and around personalized data. Same with the professional networks in the form of LinkedIn. Even the notion of being able to get a tailored shirt online.
So a lot of this has been driven around the ability to harness data and drive a level of customization truly down to the individual level. That is something that has been around for the last 10 years, but really only in the last few years has that really started to accelerate. And that’s the fundamental premise about what we’re doing in our notion of driving towards a personalized financial service.
Zack: You don’t think there’s anything fundamental about the… Let me put it this way. Travel has been disintermediated. Music has. Why hasn’t the financial industry until now?
Rob: From my perspective, the fee only independent RA is a great business model. We think that’s perhaps the best business model. That’s what we are. Essentially, what we’re trying to do is bring that into the digital age. That’s the core notion.
If you look at the primary distribution modes for financial services today, look at what has happened in, you have for example, banks, brokers, and I would say advisors and managers. If you look at the shift from traditional to online banking that has occurred over the past 15 years, and that’s an industry that I was personally involved in, electronifying. When I was writing the business plan for that business, I was put in touch with the vice chairman of one of the largest banks in the country, and they said “No one will bank online.” That was the quote from them when I was 25 or 26. Then you looked at the shift from traditional to online brokerage, and that shift didn’t just drive down price, it also empowered the investor class. You expect more transparency, to get more choice, and to take more control over what they’re doing.
Lastly what we’re doing, what Personal Capital is up to, is really trying to be a catalyst for, and a shift to, a new category of advisor. Essentially, that shift from traditional wealth manager or advisor to a personalized next generation financial advisor, delivering wealth management for the internet age.
Zack: Let’s drill down now into what the offering is. When somebody comes to the website, they encounter an aggregation tool, an analytical tool where you can tie up all of your accounts and get some really robust information about all of your holdings. Is it a premium model, is that fair to say?
Rob: We don’t look at it as a premium model, but I think that’s a fair way to characterize it. The service has two components, a free financial dashboard, and our paid personal portfolio management service.
Rob: Any person in the United States is able to sign up for our free financial dashboard, it takes less than three minutes. We encourage the client at that point, as you stated, to start linking and aggregating their accounts. They can aggregate their bank accounts, credit accounts, investment and 401K accounts.
Zack: How do they do that? They do that by inputting their passwords and usernames?
Rob: Correct. Exactly. And what we do is, we pursue a complete view for the client. Once we do that, we provide a holistic view of the client’s entire financial picture both from the short term perspective, from daily gainers or losers in their stock portfolio to bills that are due or transactions that have occurred that day, to the long term, a holistic long-term view of what their asset allocation looks like in their long-term investment picture overall.
The next piece is, again, also a part of the free service. We provide free advice to anybody who opens up a financial dashboard account with Personal Capital.
Zack: What kind of advice?
Rob: We provide advice pertaining to client’s asset allocation, potential risks in their portfolio, as well as cost reduction opportunities in their portfolio. Our mantra is, and we’ll continue to build this over time, is to give clients insight that their bank or broker either can’t, or won’t tell them.
Zack: That’s great.
Rob: Once we do that for clients that have aggregated more than $100,000 with Personal Capital, we automatically assign them to one of our dedicated advisors. The advisor will generally call them within 24 to 48 hours.
Zack: Those advisors are in-house? They’re employees of Personal Capital?
Zack: Okay. Before we drill down into the asset management piece, can we talk a little bit about the aggregation tool, the analytical tool. Let’s talk about the advice that you give them there. If you can find a similar fund with cheaper management fee, similar asset holdings, that makes sense. That’s based off a database. Are you providing any network effect type things, where you’re looking at the aggregate whole and making advice based on that? Did that make any sense?
Rob: Could you ask that again?
Rob: Maybe there was… Could you ask it one more time? Maybe there was two different thoughts in that question.
Zack: Could have been. I’m thinking at the same time. I’m thinking of Cake Financial, what Cake was doing before they were acquired by E- Trade, where they would look at the aggregate whole of holdings amongst all their users and be able to make, I almost call them crowd-sourced suggestions based off of that. Or is the advice based solely from the top down?
Rob: It’s actually just the opposite from that. There clearly is some interesting things to consider around a network effect, or be able to provide aggregate comparisons for a client of other portfolios.
What we’re trying to do is get very personalized, and get to a level of personalization that most clients do not have today. We can only do that by getting a complete, universal view of all the client’s assets and liabilities, and offline and online holdings that they have, and then drive to a very personalized portfolio from there. It’s actually very technology driven and data intensive, but it’s really driving from a notion of a personalized . . . sort of the notion that no two people are alike.
Zack: Right. And the truth is, I don’t even know what value that the aggregate has, because most people are poor investors in general. The fact that 40% of the people own a particular stock, I don’t know how indicative that is of anything.
To me, it makes so much sense, because one of the hardest things for advisors, to provide really comprehensive service is to get a view of all the assets. I can’t tell you how many times I’m sitting with a client, and this just happened to me again yesterday, where they’re like “Oh yeah, by the way, we have X somewhere else.” I’ve been working with the client for two years already.
Immediately, the client’s going to get a view of their entire net worth, as well as you guys getting that panorama. Right from the get go, you’re talking about understanding exactly what that client is made up of, and the advice you can give them is really comprehensive.
Rob: We agree with that, and that’s a fundamental approach to what we’ve done. Essentially, we’ve built a very personalized advice engine for our clients to be able to tailor very specific and customized advice that most people, even in an ultra high network structure, can’t get today. We think that’s exactly the right way to go, and it’s really the fundamental building block of how we think we’re differentiated in the market place.
Zack: So, I sign in to Personal Capital, I link up my accounts, I’ve got over $100,000. I get the call from an advisor there within 48 hours. What are they trying to sell me on then?
Rob: Well, nothing, is the short answer.
Zack: I guess I used the improper word, “selling.”
Rob: It’s okay, but it’s truly not how we go about it. Selling is not a dirty word, but that’s not what we’re up to. We’re really looking at a very consultative approach. Our primary objective is to help the client point out where they have potential deficiencies or areas for improvement in their portfolio. We do that as a free service. If someone never wants to use us for the paid service, we’re very transparent and open to that notion.
For those that are interested, we do reach out to them. The first thing we do is, because we have a holistic view of our client’s finances, we think we can provide a level of advice and be able to build a strategy that is truly personalized.
The first thing is around understanding holistic view of the client’s finances in those discussions, if they’re interested in having the discussion. The second is around building a personalized strategy for the client, that’s essentially a global asset allocation strategy. We believe in hyper- diversification is the way I put it.
Zack: Okay. What does that mean?
Rob: Hyper-diversification is really around being broadly diversified across multiple asset classes, and also geographically as well. So that, I think, is very critical to us. That includes, obviously, having U.S. and international and emerging exposure and equities. It means having corporate, treasury, inflation protected, international exposure and fixed income. Having alternative exposure whether that’s in REITs, in gold, commodities and cash.
So that’s what that means from our perspective. We’re definitely not an active shop. That’s not our approach to investing. We think that most people are going to be much better suited not trying to essentially change to alpha and really just create a, I won’t say a bulletproof, but a more highly diversified portfolio strategy.
Zack: Is there a target turnover rate that you have for the holdings? I guess I’m trying to understand that process a little better. You talk about personalized funds, that everybody’s getting something different. The advisor calls him. It’s a consultative approach. They work to develop the appropriate allocation for that person. Is there any top down, like all the brokerage houses have, like here’s our target allocation? Is there any of that going on? Or everything’s done at the grass roots level?
Rob: Well, there are, based on risk profile and timerizing of a client, there’s going to be a general outline for what a portfolio looks like for the individual client. But from there, we also get into personalization. For example, if Zack has heavy exposure to the financial services industry . . .
Zack: I hope not.
Rob: . . . we can detune your portfolio from financial services. If you want to have more exposure to green investments, socially responsible investments, we can do that, or we can cut out sin stocks. We have a high level of ability to customize for the client.
If you, for example, were a former Apple employee, and you have invested Apple stock, we can build a portfolio that is built around Apple being a core part of your overall portfolio. We have a tremendous amount of personalization that we can utilize in our portfolio construction process with our clients, and that’s very important to us.
Zack: That’s so cool. In terms of compensation, the advisors are on salary internally?
Rob: Correct. If you don’t mind, a couple other quick points on portfolio management service. A couple other key points are obviously around tax optimization, so we do tax loss harvesting for the client for taxable accounts, and that’s a service that’s generally not available until you get to a higher end client in the traditional world. Our minimum is at $100,000, with the advisor fee, which includes trading custodial costs at 95 BPS, going down to 75 BPS.
Zack: Super competitive.
Rob: Yeah, if you look at the… and this gets to my comment before about a post product or post mutual fund world. If you look at the average long term mutual fund, you can see different quotes from different sources, but long term equity, anywhere from 125 to 135, 140 basis points of expense. Our all in cost is 95 BPS plus a weighted average cost on the ETS we use, because we also use individual securities in our portfolios. You may be looking at another 12 basis points. So all in, maybe 110 basis points or less, versus a mutual fund that’s well over that.
If you look at a lot of the programs that are out there, most clients when they say “Oh yeah, my advisor is charging me 100 or 125 BPS, or 150 BPS,” they don’t actually know what type of vehicle that their advisor has placed them in. As you know, often those are high cost mutual fund vehicles and your cost can easily be at 200 basis points to 250 basis points.
Zack: One thing that struck me that you guys did so well, obviously this idea of personalization resonates throughout the website and throughout all of your offerings, even just the way you’ve taken a consumer approach to describing part of the investment process. We talk about separately managed accounts, I assume you’re using some type of separately managed account structure.
That term is so confusing, to me, to anybody. Instead, you’re calling these things personal funds, right? It’s exactly the type of portfolio I should be in, me, Zack Miller. I think that for so long, we’ve been trained to take this product approach. Both people pushing the products and people buying the products. I feel that sort of changing with what you guys are introducing.
Rob: We appreciate that, and that’s clearly where we’re attempting to go in this post product world, and really making things approachable. Even if someone has a lot of money, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want complex. They want smart, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they want complex.
We’re attempting to really simplify the nomenclature and make it much more approachable than it has been in the past. I guess the big ah-ha for us is, our experiences with our prospective clients is, they do want to talk. They want someone they can trust, and they really do want to talk. They don’t know where to go, generally they don’t know who to turn to, and are really looking for someone that can speak their language and can give them trusted advice.
Zack: Just one thing I was noticing, is there a Chief Investment Officer position in the firm? Or you don’t have one?
Rob: We have an investment committee, and we have a Director of Portfolio Management, yes.
Zack: Okay. Just sort of a different approach. When you look around . . . I have two final questions I guess. Let’s start with as you’re looking towards the future, I’m not looking for any insider information but, where’s the service headed, in line with some of the credo that you’ve laid forth here?
Is it just a matter of doing what you’re doing well, and doing it really well and scaling, or is there a larger vision also?
Rob: We want to do what we do very well, but we do have a fuller vision as a wealth management provider. We want to be your personal finance hub, and our credo is “View and Do.” So we want you to be able to view all your financial services holdings and information from one place, Personal Capital. Then we want you to also be able to do it from one place, and that means providing additional services.
So in addition to our very competitive and personalized portfolio management service, we want to be able to offer certain cash management and bank-like services, transfer and bill payment services, and maybe even into the credit side. We do have a very holistic view of what we think our clients want, but this is the first step out in our long-term road map.
Zack: Ultimately, you have to own all those other pieces if you want to standardize service levels across somebody’s entire financial life.
Rob: Some you do, and some you don’t.
Rob: It really depends on the service. Some of the services are commodity like, and are transaction like in nature.
Zack: Can you hear me okay? It just sounded like you were breaking up. You’re breaking up. I don’t know if you can hear me. Can you say that again? Hello?
Rob: Zack. Can you hear me?
Zack: Now I can. Can you hear me?
Zack: Sorry about that. I’ll try to edit that out.
I guess my last question is I think you guys are onto something. It’s very innovative. Do you look around at other startups that you think are in the financial sphere, are onto something as well?
Rob: I think there are others that are out there as well, not necessarily with the same business model that we are attacking this with, but we like the notion of other startups that are out there really focused on trying to deliver better advice and a holistic approach to the end client.
We think that it’s a very large market, and quite honestly we benefit from having more awareness in the market place of what we’re doing. We think there’s multiple folks that really want to take advantage of this movement to electronic advice.
Zack: Can you name names there?
Rob: There are different folks that are out there in the space. For example Covestor or Wikinvest are a couple that come to mind. Then obviously you have some from the traditional space that, for example in the online brokerage space, that really know that the future of their business doesn’t lie in brokerage, it actually lies in advice. So you’ll see the competition coming from both sides, both the developed as well as the new entrants into the marketplace.
Zack: Awesome. I guess I have one question I should’ve asked previously. As an RIA, you don’t clear your own securities, do you?
Rob: Correct, that’s correct, we do not.
Zack: Can I ask who you clear through?
Rob: We clear through Penson, and we expect to go to a multi-custodial platform.
Zack: Makes sense. Rob, thanks so much for telling us about the Personal Capital story. It’s very compelling, and I appreciate your time today.
Rob: Thanks for having me, and thanks for your time.
Zack: I’m sorry about that little snafu where it went out, but do you think it went okay?
Rob: Yeah, that’s fine. The other question that, if your audience is really around the advisors, the other point that I wanted to bring up was how we are electronifying the advisor experience.
Zack: So let’s talk about that for a minute then.
Zack: So you’re electronifying the advisor experience. What does that mean?
Rob: As we said, we definitely believe in a high tech, high touch approach. So for the clients in moments of truth in terms of, for example, understanding the client’s goals, construction of portfolios, talking to the clients during life events and changes, we think that’s the time for a very robust live interaction with the client. However, there are many parts of the experience that really should be electronified.
So here are a couple key examples. In the traditional advisory experience, one of the first things that an advisor does when they sit down with a prospective client, is the client takes their shoebox full of confirmations and statements and shoves it across the table to the advisor and says “Here you go, clean this up and make sense of this for me.”
Zack: Lucky if it’s only a shoebox, right?
Zack: Four years worth of statements.
Rob: A few shoeboxes. Maybe a trunk. In the electronified space, we’re doing this through an online dashboard. So in just a few minutes, we’re creating an online financial dashboard for the client as well as for the advisor that is not just a one time view of their finances, but also a real-time ongoing view of their finances.
Another example is around limited versus complete data. In the old world, it’s really about what types of limited information do you have to work with from the client to build out a portfolio or advisory relationship as opposed to this holistic view.
Another example is in the traditional manual process for an RA and their client to open up the RA relationship, then also the relationship with the custodian. For us, that’s a one time single online experience that takes less than five minutes for the client.
Another example is around a quarterly report, which is a standard in the industry versus what we’re delivering, which is a real-time transparency for the client, as opposed to just something that comes every 90 days.
Lastly is around the interaction with the advisor. It would not be uncommon to have every other month or semi or annual meeting at the country club with the client versus what we’ve built with video chat, chat, and integrated email access in our site, anytime access to the advisor. It’s really using technology to create a more personalized experience than what’s traditional done in the “Personal advisory space.”
Zack: So interesting. Do you think given that the communication channels are going to be primarily online, whether it’s a phone or through video chat or email, do you think your initial client base is going to skew younger? Are older investors as comfortable with these tools?
Rob: I think that it will skew older than one would first suspect. If you think about it, the entire U.S. population has been trained on what I call direct consumer financial services over the past 20 or 30 years, whether that’s starting with a simple notion of a credit card, or online banking and bill pay, or whether that’s– in the old days–buying a direct mutual fund through, for example, T. Rowe price, or even having an online brokerage relationship.
So I think the client is actually well versed. Many of the clients, even the older clients, are well versed in having a non face-to-face relationship.
Zack: And ultimately, I guess, at the end of the day, a client needs somebody to go to with their concerns, their fears, or when they’re angry, right? So there has to be a point of call at the end of the day, and you’re providing that given that you’re assigning them to a specific advisor.
Rob: Exactly. Each client has a named and dedicated advisor. We think that’s very critical. In no way are we trying to replace the human interaction when the human interaction should exist. We’re essentially trying to replace human interaction when it’s actually better done in an easy to use electronified interface.
Zack: So the fact that the investor at the end of the day won’t see his advisor at the country club or play tennis with him, does that in some way change the nature of the relationship? It becomes much more, I would say in some way, more businesslike.
Rob: It could, it’s a great point; it certainly could change the nature. I think that more and more people do want to be in control of the relationship and I think that’s fundamentally what we’re trying to do is put the client in control, and we are a service that the client can reach out to at any point whether that’s through technology means, or through their advisor.
Zack: Rob, thanks again for being here today.
Rob: Thank you. Great to be here.