Hold Up, Not Everyone Wants a Robo Advisor (Ahem, Millionaires)
Is the world getting more automated and impersonal? I don’t know, ask Siri.
The insidious creep of technology has been accepted almost without question, including in our finances. I know the space all too well, as I build software for small and big companies alike.
Millions of Americans now use services that track their finances, give tax advice and handle their investments. Millennials might be buying into low-cost technology to manage their finances, but those with growing wealth are hesitant to give up the traditional "human touch" of complete and personalized financial services.
The number of people who might fit that profile is growing by leaps and bounds. Millionaires are being minted at a rate never seen before in history. CNBC reported that in 2016 another 400,000 individuals crossed the million-dollar threshold. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, thousands of people are stumbling into fortunes and someone needs to manage their wealth. The question is: Who?
Family offices hold a firm grasp on the upper levels of the financial industry. But that model is only viable for ultra-wealthy individuals, not your average single or low double-digit millionaire. “With bonuses, which can account for half of total pay, the average pay for a North American family office CEO totaled $631,000, the highest among geographic regions,” writes Simone Foxman for Wealth Management. “European family office CEOs made $497,000.”
These are three ways that financial services are changing to accommodate the influx of well off, but not ultra-wealthy Americans.
Wealth, tax and investing packaging is critical.
Whereas a millennial might use Mint to track their expenses and H&R Block’s online portal to file their taxes, wealthier individuals are looking to get those services under one roof. Finding a way to manage investments, taxes and assets require more than an app on a phone -- in fact, it requires more than one type of highly trained professional.
“Wealthy individuals need specialized service, which can be challenging to deliver as a single CPA or financial advisor,” explains David Miller, founder and CEO of PeachCap. “Wealthy clients expect a broad range of services in one place, and they expect them to be executed in a single, cohesive strategy. The financial industry’s response to the growing population of wealthy individuals should be to increase the availability of quality services, not force clients to choose between quality and affordability.”
Combining services in one place allows for increased coordination, which results in better outcomes. And when the amount at stake is millions of dollars, a few percentage points matter.
White glove treatment still counts.
Managing wealth is no simple task. And for the new crop of millionaires, having someone to personally walk them through complicated tax laws or investment strategies goes a long way. Claer Barret, writing for Financial Times, explains that “a personal relationship with a manager, who gets to know you and your financial priorities over many years and can anticipate your needs, is something that’s hard to put a price on.”
A recent Bloomberg study found that 210 new billionaires joined the ranks of the world’s most affluent people in 2015, and their preferred financial service providers are family offices. This is for numerous reasons, including the coordination of resources, but also because of the human touch matters. Familiarity breeds trust and trust creates assurance and peace of mind. And when you are looking to protect large sums of money, peace of mind can be hard to come by. So what is being done to offer that level of assurance to entry-level millionaires?
“The traditional family office model can be retooled to make it more accessible to more people,” Miller says. “By centralizing back office support and empowering CPAs and financial advisors with the tools they need to manage more complex tax, accounting and wealth management strategies, top-shelf financial and tax services become available to more people.”
Scaling out top-shelf financial services without sacrificing quality is no easy accomplishment. As this trend looks to gain momentum it will need to win over the confidence of CPAs and financial advisors who would partner with companies offering back office support.
A family office, but affordable.
The new sector is yet to be branded as anything in particular. It resides somewhere below the family or multi-family office, but above the traditional wealth management services and fintech applications. This trend is the democratization of top-shelf services.
Most importantly, and if it is to succeed, it needs to be affordable. Of course, affordable means different things to different people, and in this case, the standard is high. Retaining a traditional family office can cost more than $1 million annually. As such, the new sector is aiming to reduce that barrier to entry significantly.
But if trends elsewhere are any indicator, it has a chance of succeeding. Products and services available to the wealthiest people eventually trickle down to the rest of the economy. Car phones eventually became cell phones in everyone’s pockets. The same goes for private town cars (Uber), grocery delivery (Amazon Fresh) and a long list of other things. Making the family office available to less wealthy individuals is just the first step in the journey towards radically reshaping financial services for everyone.