It's become gospel: The financial crisis decimated not only investors' portfolios, but also their confidence in the advisers running them.
Now companies are taking that sentiment to its logical extreme, creating online investment programs that take human advisers completely out of the picture.
MarketRiders, for example, allows individual investors to type in their age, time horizon, investment experience and risk tolerance, and then sit back while a computer algorithm analyzes the information and tells them what to buy and sell. Alerts are sent when it's time to rebalance. The cost: $9.99 a month.
"There's not a lot of hocus-pocus to this," said Mitchell Tuchman, the founder of MarketRiders and a former hedge fund manager. "Financial advisers and Wall Street want you to think there is a lot of magic to investing … but it's just not that complicated."
The biggest problem investors have is not what advice they get, but the cost of it, Tuchman said.
For example, if an investor enjoying an average rate of return of 7.5% is using a traditional financial adviser such as Merrill Lynch or Charles Schwab, they are paying 1% annually for the adviser to allocate assets and give financial advice, plus another 1.5% to place the money into mutual funds. The 2.5% in fees would be one-third of the return in this particular case.
MarketRiders isn't the first firm to stake a claim in the Web-based advisory space, and for good reason: a recent Aite Group study shows online discount brokers have taken 25% more assets from advisory companies than advisory companies have taken from them in the last two years. But MarketRiders takes the idea of a discount, online broker one step further, by shifting the paradigm to a do-it-yourself computer program model. MarketRiders' offering is completely self-directed, unlike E-Trade's Online Advisor platform, which uses an algorithm to figure out an investor's asset allocation and then refers the investor to a team of online advisers who review and select different investments. The self-direction concept is key for investors who have lost trust in their advisers.
Doug Dannemiller, a senior analyst at Aite Group, says that Web-based advisory services will beat traditional advisers every time on price, but he also notes that a person on the other end of the line can provide a kind of return that no computer program can.
"When you're facing divorce and emotionally distraught, those are the sorts of things that a professional relationship can guide you through," he says. "And a professional can convince you to take action when you might not be inclined to do so."
But Dannemiller said there is room a place in the market for Web-based, do-it-yourself advice as well as professional advisers. Many consumers are not do-it-yourselfers, "they're do-it-yourself with some of their portfolio and pay-for-advice with other accounts. I think there's space in the market for a full spectrum of cost levels."
For those investors, E-Trade offers two options: Online Advisor, which requires a minimum investment of $10,000 to $250,000 and charges advisory fees starting at 0.5% of portfolio value; and a self-directed portfolio, which requires no minimum investment, and the investor only pays for trading fees. Tina Martineau, a spokesperson for E-Trade, said the company has seen a trend: disenchanted investors who have moved from full-service investment firms to online because they want to take a more active role in managing their investments.
TD Ameritrade offers a similar software system called Amerivest, which tailors a diversified portfolio to an investor's goals, risk tolerance, time frame and budget. Amerivest requires a $25,000 minimum, and annual fees start at 0.75% of the first $100,000.
Another site, Hedgeable, uses an algorithm to design portfolios for investors, but does so using a dynamic asset-allocation model, which advises shifting an investor's portfolio moves based on stock market movements.
Two sites that investors are turning to are those operated by kaChing, of Palo Alto, Calif., and Covestor Investment Management, which has offices in New York and London. These online registered investment advisory firms allow investors to create a managed account that mimics the investments of a pre-selected manager.
Some critics of do-it-yourself Web advisers say that the only real service they provide is rebalancing alerts, which isn't worth the cost, in MarketRiders' case, of $9.99 a month.
But Dannemiller said most people have a tough time figuring out the basics of "What should I do with my money?" For those investors who don't have the capital to warrant a professional financial adviser but still need advice, "$10 a month to break through the clouds is a good value."