(In the 4th paragraph, clarifies that users of Personal Capital’s free tracking software have collective assets of $35 billion; users of its premium service have collective assets of $280 million.)
By Beth Pinsker
NEW YORK, Nov 20 (Reuters) - One of the first things you usually do when meeting a new financial adviser is to answer a series of questions to determine how much risk you can stomach.
The same thing happens when you sign up for one of the new online investing advice platforms such as SigFig, Personal Capital and FutureAdvisor, which have risen up in the last two years. But their process is a little different: You’re filling out an online questionnaire rather than talking to a human being with a financial planning license about your hopes and dreams.
And after evaluating thousands of customer accounts, what the online platforms are finding is that individual portfolios are often wildly out of whack with their stated risk tolerance. As a result, many of their investors have too much money in cash.
Personal Capital, one of the larger online wealth advisers, says users of its free tracking software, who have a collective $35 billion in assets, hold three times more cash in their accounts than they need.
SigFig, which tracks over $100 billion in client assets, says a large percentage of customers hold a lot of cash, and a large percentage are overly invested in stocks. Very few clients skew to the middle with balanced portfolios.
Overall, cash allocations for investors averaged 17 percent of assets, according to an October survey by the American Association of Individual Investors of its members.
SigFig co-founder and Chief Executive Michael Sha says the real grief for investors comes from the wide gap between where they are and where they want to be. “People think they’re risk averse and then find out that they are in a really risky mix,” he says.
The online firms crunch your accounts using their proprietary algorithms, then point you in the direction you want to go. Now they’re trying to figure out how to deal with human inertia, which is much trickier than applying mathematical formulas.
It is too soon to tell if they’ve cracked the code. And the jury is still out on whether the online services will elbow out the humans.
When FutureAdvisor designed its questionnaire about risk tolerance, it went through many iterations before the company’s launch in September - from 13 questions down to three basic ones on its free service: your age, when you plan to retire and whether you consider yourself a conservative, moderate or aggressive investor.
The algorithm does the rest.
“It’s the most you can ask people and expect them to complete it,” says Bo Lu, FutureAdvisor’s CEO.
For premium customers, who pay $19 per month for more than $50,000 in assets, the firm will take care of details like transferring an account to trading securities.
SigFig and Personal Capital also ask only a few questions, but plan to roll out more sophisticated offerings that seek additional input and give more advice.
Personal Capital’s upgrade, Investment Checkup, is free and evaluates income and total net assets, but the data is used in other ways besides with its algorithm. Clients are told where they are off-balance.
For instance, if a customer has 15 percent of holdings in cash when the algorithm decides 5 percent would be better, “we try to show how that impacts people over time and quantify it,” says Craig Birk, vice president of portfolio management. “They understand if you tell them it will cost them $250,000 in retirement.”
SigFig’s forthcoming upgrade, which will involve a fee that is not yet specified, is designed to make sure clients do not leave too much cash on the table. It will be able to take the next steps to rebalance and manage accounts.
Venture capital dollars have been flowing into online investing platforms, and partnerships are flourishing, making them a success from a business standpoint, says analyst Grant Easterbrook of New York-based research firm Corporate Insight.
But success with consumers has to be measured in terms of whether the algorithm-driven services provide good advice and customer service.
For now, Easterbrook does not think the firms get to know you well enough. “That’s the big problem with the algorithm-based services. They aren’t detailed enough,” he says.
With risk tolerance considered the Rorschach test in the investment world, it is hard to capture the right information with any kind of questionnaire, says Eleanor Blayney, the consumer advocate for CFP Board, a non-profit trade group for certified financial planners.
"I prefer online tools that ask financial planning questions - not investment questions - to determine what might be needed in retirement and then suggest a portfolio allocation," she says. "That makes more sense than leaving it up to a slider button." (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here. Editing by Lauren Young and Jeffrey Benkoe)