Digital lender SoFi starts U.S. online wealth management service

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Social Finance Inc, the online lender known as SoFi, said on Tuesday it had launched its first digital wealth management platform, as the company continues to branch out beyond its core student lending business.

Like startups known as “robo-advisors”, SoFi Wealth will allow U.S. clients to invest as little as $500 in automated portfolios made up of low-cost exchange-traded-funds, the company said.

Unlike the purely digital model championed by some startups, SoFi Wealth clients will also have unlimited access to human advisors, via phone or chat.

SoFi, one of the largest online lenders in the United States, started out as a company that refinances student loans. Trying to retain clients as their financial needs evolve, it has begun expanding into mortgages. It also acquired mobile bank Zenbanx.

As it targets younger consumers, it also uses novel marketing tactics such as offering career coaching or organizing meet-ups for its clients, which it calls “members”.

The launch of its new wealth management platform comes as the investment management industry has been trying to strike a balance between the use of digital and the traditional in-person financial advice.

In January Betterment LLC, one of the earliest and largest robo-advisor startups, significantly shifted its strategy by announcing it would launch new services allowing clients to receive financial advice from human advisers. Broker Charles Schwab Corp launched a similar hybrid service in March.

“For those who haven’t started investing, like younger professionals who make up a large part of the SoFi member base, that guidance from a live advisor can help give them the confidence they need to start planning for a lifetime of financial success,” said John Gardner, general manager at SoFi Wealth.

The company said it was also developing financial planning services, and expects to launch them this summer. These include joint financial planning for couples and first-time home buying.

Competition has been mounting in digital wealth management, raising concerns about prospects of independent startups to grow enough to become profitable.

SoFi will not charge management fees on the new wealth management services to its loan borrowers over the life of their loan, while it will charge everyone else a fee of 0.25 percent of assets under management annually. The fee will be waived for the first $10,000 invested.

Reporting by Anna Irrera; Editing by David Gregorio