First, the ETF holdings of both robo-advisors do show a focus on core building blocks such as total market solutions and capturing entire asset classes in a single ETF.  Such an approach is a simple and inexpensive way to deliver market exposure.  Both robo-advisors show a willingness to use an emerging markets debt ETF for exposure to that asset class.  And interestingly, both choose the same ETF for exposure to municipal bonds.  The large AUM which each robo-advisors hold in a muni bond ETF reflect widespread use of indexing as the method to deliver diversified and national exposure to munis.  Key differences are seen in some of the ETFs used, which may reflect different trading costs due to custodial relationships.  Wealthfront also shows Commodity, TIP, and REIT holdings at a higher level than Betterment.  Wealthfront, in the large number of different ETFs that they hold for clients, also demonstrates difference in breadth of choice or perhaps in their willingness to customize portfolios for clients.

How these two robo-advisors have defined core portfolios and strategic asset allocation with ETFs is not only interesting now, but may serve as an interesting source of data and insights for the future.  Structurally and philosophically, I assume from what I have read that the robo-advisors will not encourage frequent trading and will educate investors to stick with their algorithmically-determined investment strategy.  Will the robo-advisors eventually publish “cohort” results over time and over business cycles?  If so, it will be interesting to see how effective these strategic asset allocation portfolios are in wealth accumulation and preventing the type of actual investor results which have been documented in years of DALBAR Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior studies.

This article was written by Shaun Wurzbach, global head of financial advisor channel management, S&P Dow Jones Indices.

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