schwab reviews

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The Sophisticated Digital Investor

Expert insight on investing, the markets, and startups from the viewpoint of the most sophisticated digital wealth manager Hedgeable

Schwab Intelligent Portfolios Review

Compare Hedgeable vs. Schwab Intelligent portfolios HERE

Charles Schwab has been promising to revolutionize the robo-advisor industry with its new Intelligent Portfolios program — see CEO Walter Bettinger’s and new retail chief Terri Kallsen’s assertion that the service will draw an astounding $400 Billion in assets over the next few years. Now that the time is almost here (and the cat is out of the bag) let’s review what Schwab will be offering people when it launches in the near future.

The premise of Intelligent Portfolios, as they will call it, is to give people automated investing portfolios with no advisory fee. Here is a general list of features:

– $5,000 minimum account size

– No direct advisory fees

– Account types: individual taxable, IRAs, and revocable living trusts

– Diversified ETF portfolios

– Periodic rebalancing based on a Modern Portfolio Theory approach

– Tax-loss harvesting ($50,000 minimum account size)

The actual user interface of the platform is still unknown (other than the fact that their emblem seems to be some sort of mysterious mirrored hallway), but at its core this is quite similar to the other players in the “Robo 1.0” space.

Schwab reviews

Schwab does follow a Modern Portfolio Theory approach, but the portfolios they are building are a bit more diversified than those offered by the Robo 1.0 players such as Wealthfront and Betterment — including allocations to ETFs that track metals, MLPs, REITs, etc. While this is a good addition, the tiny percentages that Schwab will allocate to some of these more non-traditional assets will struggle to make any impact (if the sample portfolios that Schwab posted on its website are any indication):

Schwab reviews

Schwab stresses that clients will not pay any advisory fees for its program. At Hedgeable we are very supportive of innovation and disruption, so a free automated service from a reputable firm like Schwab would definitely be a good thing for Americans. But is this too good to be true?

Unfortunately, to truly answer that question you’ll need to pour through documents filled with tedious legal language and marketing spin (such as this 12 page disclosure). This is one of the shortcomings of the financial industry and it is in full force here, partially because there are so many different Schwab affiliates pulling strings on the back-end. SWIA, CSIA, CSIM, Schwab Bank, OneSource — if you’re a regular person, do you know what any of this means?

From a legal and marketing perspective, it is technically correct to say that there are no direct program fees. However, Schwab is certainly earning a lot of revenue from client assets — by our estimates up to 1% of an account’s value in a good interest rate environment — because they own a whole slew of affiliate companies that make money from different parts of the value chain, from the cash that is held in the account, to underlying ETFs that are purchased. Of the over 50 ETFs that will be available for purchase in the program, many are either owned by Schwab, or participate in a fee sharing arrangement with Schwab, meaning Schwab will make money from the ETFs on the backend, even if they are not charging an explicit “advisory fee” on the frontend. This can be quite confusing to the end customer.

The biggest red flag is that the Intelligent Portfolios algorithms are biased to allocate a large chunk of your money to cash, and that cash is swept into a Schwab Bank account. Schwab Bank will then lend your money out or invest it (as with any bank deposit) and earn a profit. Here is the wording from a disclosure dated January 22, 2015:

Each investment strategy involves the Sweep Allocation to the Sweep Program. The Sweep Allocation will generally range from 6% to 30% of an account’s value. The Sweep Program is a feature of the Program that clients cannot eliminate. In most of the investing strategies, the percentage of the Sweep Allocation is higher than the cash allocation would be in a similar strategy in a managed account program … This is because, as described below under ‘Fees,’ clients do not pay a Program fee.

Despite some of the glossy marketing language used elsewhere, Schwab explicitly acknowledged in the above passage that it is over-allocating to cash in order to compensate for the lack of fees in the Intelligent Portfolios program. In response to the inevitable criticism, a Schwab representative recently wrote:

A 43-year-old who signs up for Schwab Intelligent Portfolios saving for a college education for his child and needs the money in just a few years — how much cash do you think he should have? We say about 30%. Sounds perfectly reasonable, wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s take that statement at face value and say they are interested in acting as a non-partisan fiduciary. Why not invest the 30% in a cash vehicle that Schwab does not own, such as a third-party money market fund? If an investor needs the money in a few years, why are they holding it in cash now, and why that much? Even wealth firms that have massive private investment exposure for clients don’t hold nearly that much cash in portfolios, let alone in a liquid ETF based portfolio. Any wealth manager will tell you that Schwab’s reasoning in this regard is full of holes. Another retort we are sure to see from Schwab spokespeople is that the cash will be used as a way to lower the volatility in accounts. Once again, this reasoning is rather silly. If this was the case, then why don’t Schwab’s other programs like the Windhaven Portfolios or their high-net-worth services hold that much cash?

The fact is, Schwab has built Intelligent Portfolios such that a significant part of portfolios is held in cash — and there’s nothing clients can do about it, Schwab has explicitly stated that clients cannot opt out of the high cash holdings in the accounts.

So, in other words, you might not be paying advisory fees, but up to 30% of your account might also be sitting in cash and you might earn a much lower return than a fully invested portfolio would. This feature may end up costing Americans more than a typical robo-advisor 1.0 fee, because of the opportunity cost of not being invested. The higher that opportunity cost is for you, the better it is for Schwab.

Just look at the chart below. When we look at the average robo-advisor return in 2014 of 4.2% (by comparison, Hedgeable’s net client return was 7.4% in 2014) and project that return forward with the various levels of cash, you can see what happens to portfolio growth.

It turns out that this is just one thing on a long list of biases and tilts that are built in to Intelligent Portfolios — a list that Schwab points out in a lengthy “Conflicts of Interest” section. Regrettably, this promising program has turned out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors — fittingly reminiscent of its logo. Other negatives of the program? The biggest might be the lack of any true downside protection in the portfolios. Yes, there is much more cash held than traditionally is seen in wealth management, and if we take Schwab at face value, this was a risk management technique.

A 25% allocation to cash is fine when the markets lose 56% of their value, as they did in 2007-2009, but clients would miss 25% of the upside in markets in 2009-2014 as well since there is no dynamic asset allocation. What exactly do we mean by dynamic asset allocation? At Hedgeable, we dynamically react to market conditions, protecting capital on the downside and attempting to realize capital appreciations on the upside. This risk on/risk off approach is more sound from an investing perspective, versus the risk off/risk off profit-skimming approach that Schwab is taking. In a year like 2013, a static 25% allocation to cash would have meant upwards of 8% in upside missed by the average investor.

If 25% of my money will be permanently invested in cash (irrespective of market conditions) and I have $100,000, why would I not simply open a $75,000 account with Schwab? What would I possibly have to gain from allowing Schwab to set aside a chunk of my portfolio and sweep it away for its own profit, in a near 0% returning asset? The answer is simple — I have nothing to gain, but I do have something to lose. There is a significant opportunity cost involved with holding a high cash allocation, both in terms of the potential return my portfolio could be earning and the various productive ways I could use that cash myself.

The bottom line is that there are some good parts about Schwab’s Intelligent Investor program, and some things that need a lot of work:

When Hedgeable began in the wake of the financial crisis, millions of investors were clamoring for a firm that brought transparency to the market, a firm that ended the good ‘ol boys Wall Street club that is based on conflicting interests, hands in each others’ pockets, and marketing wizardry that is intended to mislead the average investor. Schwab’s product here has certainly not met that standard we hoped to set, and this is disappointing.

How does this product fit in to the digital wealth management movement? More than anything, it signals that the customer is winning. The large entrenched players are scared of the innovation that is sweeping the country, not only in wealth management, but payments, lending, banking, and other parts of the financial services ecosystem. Fees for commoditized products will continue to compress, transparency will continue to increase in the industry, and startups like Hedgeable will continue to push new boundaries with innovative features like tactical asset allocation, hedging, downside protection, bitcoin investing, and private equity investing — all of this is a win for the customer.

As the innovators of the 70’s and 80’s try to combat the evolutionary change being brought to the market by the players of the millennial generation, it will only hasten their demise, as they become the imitators and the insurgents like Hedgeable become the innovators.

If you are a current Schwab Managed Account (Windhaven, Managed Strategies, Private Client) or Schwab Intelligent Portfolio customer, come try Hedgeable 3 Months Free , with code SCHWAB on signup!

Be sure to also check out Part II of our Intelligent Portfolios Review for a more detailed look at what Schwab is offering.