The Future of Investing, Startups, and the $11,000,000,000,000 Question

Online finance lags

The news of personal finance tool Wesabe shutting down last year made it pretty clear that Mint.com is on its way to fully owning the online personal finance space.  The company’s port-mortem pretty much capitulates that.  But personal finance is just a small part of a much larger, overarching problem that affects all of us: planning for a financial future.  While this certainly includes managing household cash flows, it also involves buying a home, choosing 401(k) plans, putting money into the stock market and fixed income investments, and planning for retirement.

This begs the question: with so much money at stake, why does online finance continue to trail other industries like travel? When planning an international trip online, I know exactly whom to trust for advice and why they’re trustworthy, where to look to compare similar products, and have transactional platforms into which to submit my order.  But in finance, most people still don’t even know where to begin.

Hedge fund traders are using supercomputing high-frequency trading tools to make money in good markets and bad while we still can’t even decide which mutual funds are right for us. We require truly comprehensive solutions instead the current piecemeal, silo-based approach in online finance.  At stake is our future and over $11 trillion of mutual fund assets in the U.S.

Current Players

You can look at the way competition is shaping up online in various silos:
  • Personal Finance: Startups in this space are focused on developing value-added services to help users track and manage money flows.
    • Tracking/Tweaking: Mint.com has done really well capturing new users to adopt web/mobile tools, just as Quicken was a similarly powerful force on the PC.  Intuit, which now owns both products, is positioned really well for future expansion.   Personal finance is a huge problem to tackle and it’s really early in the game.
  • Investing: The investing process involves researching various options, transacting, and ongoing portfolio management with analytic tools.
    • Researching: Investors begin the investment process with idea discovery, bubbling up ideas to populate their portfolios.
      • Piggybacking investment ideas: New services like AlphaClone not only make easier tracking of the investment activities of storied investors like Warren Buffett but also provide portfolio development tools to backtest and manage entire portfolios made up of piggybacked ideas.
      • Long tail of financial content: As the costs of publishing have been pushed to zero, we’re enjoying a bull market in investment content.  Sites like Seeking Alpha and StockTwits provide great tools to plug into the collective tradestream. Wikinvest has taken more of a collaborative approach with its content and data.
      • Screening 2.0: Smarter tools like Validea help investors filter through large numbers of stocks using algorithms and artificial intelligence to identify worthy portfolio prospects.
      • Crowdsourcing stock picks: Sites like Piqqem allow investors to tap the wisdom of the investment crowds.
      • Expert networks: SumZero is an online investing club of super-smart people sharing really good analysis on stocks.  Other Q&A tools like those at LinkedIn and Quora and even Facebook are enabling the sourcing of ideas from domain experts.  With the FBI/SEC’s crackdown on offline expert networks, investors will look more towards these tools for help in sourcing and validating investment ideas.
    • Transacting: Once an investor knows what action he would like to take, execution comes next.
      • Online Brokers: E*Trade, TDAmeritrade, and Schwab still dominate the online brokerage space (with recent news that Merrill Lynch is getting back into the game).  It’s interesting to watch as online brokers woo existing traditional brokerage clients with automated, professional-grade services delivered online, blurring the line between full-service and DIY investing.
      • Hybrids: Covestor and kaChing (now Wealthfront) are the eBays of investment advisory services — marketplaces of investment services.  Users synch their online brokerage accounts to mirror the portfolio models managed by advisors on these platforms.  In a move to the mainstream, Covestor’s tradestream now includes the real time audited trades from participating investment managers.  This is a big fuckin’ deal and it’s freely available through Yahoo Finance’s Market Pulse.  Newer entrants like Tech Crunch Disrupt finalist Betterment provide automated investment services.  Other investment advisors like Formula Investing provide a mixture of full service and DIY tools.
    • Managing:
      • Ongoing monitoring:  As markets undulate and investors’ financial health changes, tools help automate changes that should be made in portfolios.  A number of new professional-grade, automated tools are helping head this cause.  Firms like MarketRiders help with ongoing changes in asset allocation and services like Goalgami help address life’s incessant barrage of financial goals that need planning.
      • New asset managers: Fusing the low-cost distribution model that social media affords with new methodologies to manage funds for clients, both old and new asset managers are launching all kinds of new securities in an attempt to capture part of a huge pie.  With actively managed ETFs in the infancy and good comps for successful exits, new asset managers like GlobalX are growing AUM and positioning themselves well for future growth.
      • Analytics:  Like Google’s Urchin/Analytics acquisition, analytics are core to the effective management of any platform.  TC Tear Down star, Steve Carpenter founded and sold Cake Financial to E*Trade earlier in 2010.  Cake helped investors make more sense of the activities in their portfolios. With Cake Financial bowing out, the market is wide open.  Look to Wikinvest’s recently launched Portfolio tool to take off where Cake left off.

Why there is still a huge window of opportunity

In spite of the flurry of activity, most of these startups haven’t even begun to dent the market for financial services.  Some of these verticals are so narrow that participants need to expand horizontally  into other silos, which both incumbents and startups are racing to do.

Some firms have advanced product-based approaches, trying to build better mutual fund mousetraps and have enjoyed a modicum of success. Next-generation mutual funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) have almost $800 billion in assets, an increase of 34% over 2009 levels, but that’s still only 7% of all invested assets in the U.S.  In spite of all the high quality content, investors still struggle with basic financial concepts, portfolio management, and continue to make bad decisions.  The flurry of activity has unleashed a bull market in financial content; We’ve gone from scarcity to too much content.  We now require tools to cut through the data smog and help us with comprehensive solutions to make better decisions.

The $11,000,000,000,000 Grand Prize goes to…

The market size of the investment industry is so big that there is room for multiple players to establish hugely profitable businesses.  Look for large incumbent players, most specifically Bloomberg, to expand their businesses through acquisition in an attempt to capture more marketshare.  Bloomberg’s multi-billion dollar empire of financial hardware and data recently purchased BusinessWeek in an attempt to move downstream toward retail investors.  The giant investment expert network, Gerson Lehrman Group, may get deeper into online expert Q&A sourcing as the firm continues to enable person-to-person expert research for professional investors.

Real-time transparency is making  its way to the online brokers.  E*Trade joined TDAmeritrade in recently announcing upgrades to its own API to allow 3rd party software developers and services to reach investors through their brokerage logins – the holy grail for the entire value chain.  Investors get access to new apps, software developers can finally tap online brokerage clients through trading platforms, and the online brokers can provide value-added services without having to develop them.

The fact that we’re beginning to seeing ivory-tower asset managers make their way onto Twitter is, in fact, a good sign of things to come in the future.  But the field is still wide open for comprehensive solutions.

photo courtesy of frankblacknoir

E*Trade rolls out Android app, gears up for big push in mobile

crowdfunding

E*Trade announced the launch of a mobile application — the E*Trade Mobile Pro for Android.

E*Trade account holders can

  • View real-time streaming stock and options quotes
  • Access real-time news and information
  • Trade stocks during regular market and extended hours sessions
  • View orders, alerts, news, charts, watchlists, and portfolios
  • View a “Complete View” of all E*TRADE brokerage and bank accounts

This app launch for Android rounds out E*Trade’s mobile applications which include products for iPhone and Blackberry.  As of November 2010, customers have moved close to $1billion dollars via E*TRADE Mobile Pro since its launch.Like E*Trade, the brokers seem to be focused on continuing to push out offerings for mobile.

Barron’s gets Tradestreaming’s evolution of the investing app store (but doesn’t admit to knowing me)

I’m a pretty easy going guy.  I never wanted to use this platform to vent or say anything hurtful about anyone or anything.  It’s just not my style — Tradestreaming is a resource to help investors, journalists, and industry professionals make better informed decisions.

So, it’s got me a little ticked off that the venerable Barron’s has been taking some of my ideas and repurposing them — without referencing this site.  I’m all for using my ideas and expanding on them.  I don’t have a monopoly on ideas.  Just tell your readers the source of your thoughts.  I do it.  C’mon.

This week’s Electronic Investor article entitled “Here Come the Third-Party Apps” is a direct reference to my July 6th piece, “Inching towards an investing app store“.

For most of us, this “open” collection of obscure programming utensils and standards—including, for example, a programmers’ tool kit with the memorable name SDK, or files tagged with the extension .XML—will be close to meaningless. But you may already be using some kind of trading app or plug-in that customizes your connection to E*Trade, and there’s no question that, with the proliferation of gadgets and third-party Websites, more such customizing and control programs are on the way. Like other online investment outfits, E*Trade doesn’t want to restrict its customers’ interface and functionality options to its in-house offerings.

The theme of brokerage platforms morphing into exchanges where 3rd party application developers can reach investors has been a common there here and on my other blog, New Rules of Investing.

Starting in July 2008 (on New Rules of Investing) and continuing a year later (with E*Trade further blurs the line between full-service and DIY investing), I’ve been writing about this trend– no one else really has. I’ve even included a section on it in the last chapter, Future of Finance, in my new book, Tradestream your Way to Profits.

Again, I have no problem riffing off my ideas.  That’s why I write: to engender some thinking and discussion.  Just link back.  Listening, Barron’s?

How to make Betterment better (Hint: truth in marketing)

Sometimes, it’s worth reading the fine print — especially, when it comes to financial products.

I was interviewed by Mint.com recently about my thoughts on Betterment, a startup that performed pretty well at recent tech conference, TechCrunch Disrupt (see, Betterment wants to be your new, higher-yield savings account).

What is Betterment?

Well, it’s really an investment advisory service that masquerades as being a better savings account.  By removing much of the jargon (the site doesn’t even mention securities by name), Betterment removes many of the barriers to putting money in the market.  As I said in the Mint interview:

For most people, opening an online trading account and figuring out what to buy and who to listen to, there’s so much noise out there.

And that’s true: how many individuals really understand asset allocation, diversification, risk when professionals have such a hard time defining them?  It’s kind of like I know it when I see it.  Betterment provides a usability layer that requires only one decision point: what percentage of my money do I want in the market?  That’s it.

Removing the confusing jargon and the pain points associated with complicated concepts is ultimately a good thing.  I can just picture my grandparents trying to navigate an E*Trade account trading screen.

Oops, it’s not actually a bank account

While pursuing a noble end (making investing easier for the mass majority), Betterment stumbles when it positions itself as an alternative to a savings account.  It is most definitely NOT a savings account.  Money in Betterment is split between Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), one of which will include U.S. Treasury Bonds if you allocated to that.  That means, an account holder

  • risks losing some, if not all, his money
  • will see fluctuations in the account
  • will have investment-level taxes on gains

I was quoted in the interview:

“They took a process that’s inherently scary and overwhelming for people and used technology to simplify it,” says Miller. “I think that’s an honorable thing. But to market it again and again, to talk about a savings account, is just disreputable. It’s scary, actually.”

Though it appears that they’ve toned it down recently, there’s still just too much talk/discussion on the Betterment website about safety and savings.  Betterment may be a great product to *invest* spare cash just sitting in a savings account (much like ShareBuilder used to be).

Just don’t compare it to the savings account.  At 90 basis points (.9%), it’s also expensive.

—> Like what you see? Hey! Don’t forget to subscribe to the free Tradestreaming newsletter for updates, tips, and special offers.

Source

A Better Savings Account? (Mint.com Blog)

Will Merrill Lynch’s new online brokerage offering make a difference?

There’s been a lot of speculation about what or what not Merrill Lynch (now owned by Bank of United States of America) intends to do with its re-launch of Edge, Merrill’s online brokerage offering.  Here’s a quick summary of what was punted around post-announcement:

  • MorganStanley: We do not view Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s new online brokerage product, Merrill Edge, as a serious competitor near to medium-term to Schwab and TD Ameritrade. Bank of America and Wells Fargo/Wachovia have had online brokerage products for some time and they haven’t impacted TD Ameritrade and Schwab’s ability to grow assets – clients choose to use one product over another and don’t easily switch. — Analyst, Celeste Mellet-Brown
  • FBR Capital Markets: Bank of America will need to invest hundreds of millions in technology, customer support, and branding to truly compete for new customer assets. — Analyst, Matt Snowling
  • Raymond James: It’s “highly unlikely” that Merrill Edge will cause a significant number of existing clients to leave Schwab, TD Ameritrade or E*Trade. We believe this is simply a re-branding of Bank of America’s existing online brokerage .– Analyst, Patrick O’Shaughnessy
  • RIABiz: Such access could take the form of a team of advisors who handle inquiries up to some form of a hand-off plan where customers being handled by call centers could get referred to a full-service broker as their assets grow and their needs for advice become more sophisticated. In this hand-off endeavor, Merrill Lynch could have – in one respect – an edge over Fidelity, TD and Schwab, which have been successfully handing off billion of dollars of assets from their branches to RIAs for several years.
  • Registered Rep: The idea is to convince current clients to give them the “play” money they have parked at the discounters, which can amount to substantial sums, and to capture the hearts and minds of young people who have yet to amass their wealth. We’re talking serious dollars here. At stake is a coming intergenerational transfer of wealth—the evolving wealth of today’s 87 million-strong, 20-something “millennial” population, born between 1979 and 1999. This wealth is projected to grow from $172 billion today to a staggering $13.4 trillion in investable assets (liabilities reaching a shocking $16.2 trillion) by 2030, according to internal Merrill research.

My Take

All of the reasons that Merrill Edge shouldn’t work (technology and service investments, channel conflict with Merrill’s financial advisors, incumbent leadership) are valid. Merrill’s 15,000 member strong advisory unit is/was a driving force for the firm and many of them view this launch as a threat to their core businesses.

But here’s the thing: I’ve written repeatedly that wealthy and soon-to-be-wealthy investors employ a combination of full-service and do-it-yourself investment tools.  In fact, many of the brokerages are courting these types of investors with automated, professional-grade services, like E*Trade’s Online Advisor.  As the future unfurls, these types of investors will continue to use tools and services that satiate the comfort of control and the need for professional advice.  Merrill Edge plays right into this.

This isn’t about getting a $25k minimum account and praying the account holder brings more.  It’s a foothold, but it’s also a way to hold onto wealthy clients with a lot more money under management as they oscillate moving their funds in into and out of semi self-directed tools and professional money managers.  Edge gives that money one home.

Additional Resources

—> Like what you see? Hey! Don’t forget to subscribe to the free Tradestreaming newsletter for updates, tips, and special offers.

Inching towards an investing app store

Service and product providers in the financial field have always lamented how hard it was to reach investors.

Sure, we could market to the investing public in a large, splashy way but it would be so awesome if we could just do a deal with the online brokers and offer our services through an investment account login…

I know this sentiment well.  When I was running business development at Seeking Alpha a few years back, it was so clear that the best/easiest/cheapest way to reach investors with our content was directly through the likes of E*Trade ($ETFC), Schwab ($SCHW), and TDAmeritrade ($AMTD).

This hasn’t been completely lost on the incumbent online brokers (but boy, do they move slowly!).  I’ve riffed previously on how everything is moving towards the creation of investment app stores.  Much like Apple’s famed AppStore, 3rd party service providers would be able to develop their services and products for delivery through the brokerage platform.  TDAmeritrade has a short, but growing  list of providers who are currently doing this here.

The investment app store concept is huge and extremely valuable for everyone in the value chain:

  • Investors: Online brokerage clients no longer have to wait for the walled-garden brokers to develop their own tools and services.  Brokerages are notoriously slow in rolling out new functionality or they typically acquire it (a-la TDAmeritrade’s purchase of ThinkorSwim).
  • Brokers: No need to swell the ranks of the product dev teams.  Now, they just have to manage the API and partnerships and they get a new revenue stream.  Sweet.
  • 3rd party solutions: Wham, investment newsletters, black box trading strategies, content aggregators and others have just been invited to the party.  You can know actually technically reach the end user investor.  Don’t expect the brokerages to promote you though 🙂

So, just like the tit-for-tat we’ve witnessed for years, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that E*Trade just announced the introduction of its API and partnerships with three external firms.

“Open API presents a world of opportunity to customers looking for a more customized investing experience and to software developers looking to create the next great investing app,” said Michael Curcio, President, E*TRADE Securities. “Our main objective is to facilitate innovation and ideas that empower customers — ultimately creating a richer investing experience.”

Source: E*Trade Bolsters Trading Innovation with Open Application Programming Interface (MarketWatch)

—> Like what you see? Hey! Don’t forget to subscribe to the free Tradestreaming newsletter for updates, tips, and special offers.

Photo credit: Jurvetson photostream

Cake Financial sells and bows out to E*Trade

Cake Financial made analyzing stock portfolios fun and enriching.  I’ve written about the startup on a variety of occasions (see here and here) and generally liked how Cake approached their business.  By providing login information to trading accounts, Cake users received enhanced performance metrics and idea generation for current and future investments.

Cake had downsized recently and seemed to be struggling to get its financial ship in order, while enjoying a community of users and analysts who typically lauded the firm’s progress.

So, it wasn’t totally surprising to see that late last week, Cake had shuttered its doors.  While the Cake website makes no mention of of why, what and how, it appears that the site and services were closed immediately and all monies returned to paying clients and private records erased.

Only after digging further, VentureBeat reports that they’ve sold to powerhouse E*Trade.  Hmmm, I assume given the skittishness of broker/dealers like E*Trade to appear in the news caused Cake to remove mention of the online broker.

Wait — it gets better.  While Cake is still mum, TechCrunch reports that The Motley Fool was also in the running to purchase the technology.  TC also has the full text of the original announcement citing E*Trade as the buyer, as well.

While everything appears sketchy and light on numbers, it appears from the circumstances that this was a fire sale with E*Trade incorporating some technology and team into their firm and purging the rest.