Do you want to invest with a robo-advisor, but are scared of the risks?
Maybe you are afraid that the robo-advisor you use might close down like Smartly in March 2020.
So, is it really safe to invest in a robo-advisor?
Here’s a breakdown of what happened to Smartly, and what you can do to make sure you invest with the right robo-advisor.
Table of Contents
Why did Smartly close down?
The decision to close Smartly down was made by VinaCapital, who bought over Smartly back in 2019. VinaCapital realised that the competition in the robo-advisory industry was too intense. Moreover, the operating costs were increasing.
They were no longer willing to invest money into Smartly just to compete with the other robo-advisors. As such, they decided to shut Smartly down.
This decision was made just 9 months after they acquired Smartly!
Here are the 2 main reasons why I think Smartly closed down:
- Intense competition from other robo-advisors
- Smartly may have too small of a customer base to become profitable
Intense competition from other robo-advisors
The robo-advisory scene is extremely competitive. Every firm now wants to have their own robo-advisory platform.
With millennials being more tech savvy, these firms want to capture their attention with low cost investing services.
Banks and brokers have entered the market too, making the already saturated market even worse.
In Singapore alone, we already have 12 different robo-advisors!
Do we really need that many robo-advisors?
This means that robo-advisors would either merge together, or close down like Smartly.
With so many robo-advisors available, you will likely choose the most attractive option.
Higher fees charged vs other robo-advisors
Smartly charged these fees to use their platform:
|Amount Invested |
|Up to $10k||1%|
|Over $10k and below $100k||0.70%|
This is the highest fees being charged by a robo-advisor, especially for amounts below $10k.
Most of you would have heard that keeping costs low is one of the most important things in investing.
Although fees alone should not be the deciding factor when choosing a robo-advisor, it may play a role in your decision.
Would you want to pay that extra fees, even though the returns you earn may be similar?
As such, Smartly may not have been as attractive as their competitors.
Smartly may have too small of a customer base to become profitable
Robo-advisors mainly earn their revenue by charging you management fees.
The fees they charged are based on an asset under management (AUM) model.
The more assets you have with the robo-advisor, the higher the fees you’ll have to pay.
Moreover, they are in an extremely competitive industry. As such, they will try to lower their management fees to attract you.
This greatly lowers the barriers to entry. You are able to start investing with very low costs incurred!
However, this comes as a catch.
A MorningStar report estimated that for a robo-advisor in the US to be profitable, they will need to manage somewhere between $16-40 billion worth of assets!
Although the companies studied were from the US, the idea still holds true.
If a robo-advisor firm is unable to manage a large amount of assets, their low fee structure will not be sustainable.
We do not know the size of Smartly’s customer base. However, Statista estimates that robo-advisors in Singapore will manage US$1.062 billion worth of assets by 2020.
VinaCapital must have decided that it is not worth fighting over this market share with their competitors.
The costs of advertising can be really high, especially with so many robo-advisors in Singapore.
As such, VinaCapital decided to shut Smartly down, as they no longer saw them as a profitable service.
What happened after Smartly close down?
VinaCapital made the decision to shut Smartly down, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
If you were a customer of Smartly, you would have been forced to liquidate your assets.
This means that you had to sell your assets under Smartly. As Smartly was winding down during the COVID-19 pandemics, the prices of assets were plunging.
As such, you would have most likely sold your assets at a loss!
Once the you’ve sold your assets, you were given 2 options:
Withdraw your funds
If you had chosen this option, your funds would have been transferred to your bank account.
The amount that you received may have been lower than your initial capital, as your assets were sold at a bad time.
Transfer your holdings to StashAway
Smartly also gave the option of transferring your holdings to StashAway, another robo-advisor.
You could continue to receive wealth management advice using StashAway’s platform.
However, your holdings could not be transferred directly to StashAway.
Instead, you had to:
- Sell your holdings that you have with Smartly
- Transfer your funds to StashAway
- Reinvest your holdings with the StashAway platform
Here’s how this process was carried out, as explained by StashAway’s CEO, Michele Ferrario:
This process seemed pretty inconvenient. It may have caused you a lot of stress as well.
As such, the way that Smartly closed down was less than ideal.
How safe are my assets with a robo-advisor?
You may be worried that you will lose all of your money when the robo-advisory firm closes down.
However, the funds that you invest with the robo-advisor are separate from the firm’s accounts.
Your funds are usually stored in a custodian account with one of the brokerage firms.
Even if the robo-advisor closes down, they are not able to touch the money that you have invested with them.
This is a requirement by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS). Your assets will have to be in a custodian account, before the robo-advisor can be licensed.
The MAS issued 2 types of licenses to robo-advisory firms:
Capital Markets Services (CMS) License
The CMS license has very strict requirements before MAS can issue it to you.
Here are the 4 robo-advisors that have this license:
So what does the CMS license actually mean for these firms?
Here’s an explanation by Syfe’s CEO, Dhruv Arora.
If you invest in a robo-advisory firm that has a CMS license, you can be assured that the firm has a good financial standing.
Licensed Financial Adviser
There are 2 robo-advisory firms that do not have the CMS license. Instead, they have a financial adviser licence:
These 2 companies do have their own custodian accounts as well. As such, you can be sure that your assets are safe with these companies too.
What types of custodian accounts are there?
Even though custodian accounts means that your assets are safe, they way they work may be different.
There are 2 main types of custodian accounts that firms will use, and this will affect the fate of your assets:
Co-mingled custodian account
A co-mingled account means that your funds are mixed with the funds of other users of the platform.
As such, the robo-advisor will only have one custodian account.
Examples of robo-advisors that use this structure include:
Benefit of a co-mingled custodian account
The benefit of having a single custodian account is that you are able to own fractional shares.
A fractional share means that you own a fraction of a whole share.
For example, if a share costs $100, and if you only invested $10, you will own 0.1 of that share.
This is because the robo-advisor uses the funds in that single custodian account to purchase the different assets.
After purchasing these assets, they will then split it up to different customers. The amount of units you receive depends on the amount that you had invested.
This is great for beginner investors as you are able to invest with any amount!
Even if you can’t afford to buy a full share, you are able to own a fractional share.
This makes investing really accessible for you!
Problems when the robo-advisor closes down
However, things get tricky when the robo-advisor closes down.
The assets of all of the firm’s customers are under the same custodian account. As such, your assets will be mixed with the assets of other customers.
Moreover, both Syfe and StashAway invest in the US and Singapore stock markets. Here are the minimum number of units you can purchase in each market.
|Stock Market||Minimum Unit Size|
This means that you will no longer be able to own your fractional shares!
You also do not have full control over the fate of your assets.
Here’s the clarification given by Syfe when I asked them about this issue:
Similar to what happened to Smartly, you will be given 2 choices:
- You can sell off your assets and receive the cash value
- You can transfer your assets to a fund manager that Syfe has partnered with
From this explanation, you are not given full control of what happens to your assets as:
- You are forced to sell your assets even if you wish to hold onto them
- You can only transfer your assets to Syfe’s partner fund manager, and not the fund manager of your choice
As such, you will have to weigh the pro and con of investing with a robo-advisor that has a co-mingled custodian account.
|Able to invest using fractional shares, so you can invest with any amount||You will have lesser control over the fate of your assets if the robo-advisor closes down|
Custodian account under your own name
Some robo-advisors will help you to create a custodian account under your own name.
There are 4 robo-advisors that provides this service:
|Endowus||UOB Kay Hian|
Having your assets under your name gives you greater control.
Even if the company you invest with closes down, your assets are still under your name. Your assets are not co-mingled with the assets of the firm’s other customers.
As such, you get to decide what you’d like to do with them.
You can choose to either:
- Hold onto your assets and sell them off at a later date
- Sell your assets and receive its current value
No fractional shares for Kristal.AI or AutoWealth
However, your funds are not co-mingled with other customers. As such, you are unable to purchase fractional shares.
You may purchase Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) using Kristal.AI or AutoWealth. The minimum number of units you can invest is 1.
This can be seen in AutoWealth’s FAQs,
and on Kristal.AI’s platform:
As such, the minimum that you can invest is the value of one unit of that ETF.
If you have a smaller capital, you will not be able to invest in an ETF that has a larger value than your capital.
Fractional units are possible for Endowus and MoneyOwl
However, Endowus and MoneyOwl do not have this problem.
As such, both robo-advisors still allow you to purchase fractional units for each funds.
Here’s the pro and con of having the custodian account under your own name:
|You have greater control over your assets||If you invest in ETFs, you are |
unable to purchase fractional shares
What can we do to ensure that our assets are safe?
There are many risks that are involved with investing in a robo-advisor.
However, here are 3 things that you can research on to determine if the company is safe to invest with:
Look at the company itself
There are 3 main types of robo-advisory companies out there:
Investing with these companies usually comes with the most risk.
These companies mainly rely on their robo-advisory services to provide them with revenue.
As such, if they do not have enough assets under their management, they may be operating at a loss.
One notable exception is MoneyOwl.
Besides their investment service, they provide other services such as:
- Financial planning
- Will writing
MoneyOwl’s services are rather diversified. As such, they do not need to rely solely on their investment services for revenue.
Banks and Brokers
I’ve combined these 2 together as both of them have relatively lower risks.
These banks and brokers are already well-established. As such, robo-advisory services are just one of the many services these companies provide.
However, there are some cons when you use a bank or broker robo-advisor:
- They usually charge higher fees
- Their user interface may not be as sleek as the FinTech startups
- They may require you to have a larger initial amount to invest in their platform
As such, you’ll need to consider these tradeoffs if you wish to have better security.
Look at the funding of the company
Robo-advisor firms may not solely rely on the revenue they earn from customers.
Instead, they may try to raise more capital through external funding.
These firms will have to pitch their ideas to potential investors. If these investors like the prospects of the firm, they will invest an amount of money into the firm.
In exchange for the funding, these investors will receive a stake in the company.
To find out more about the funding of the company, you can refer to Crunchbase.
This platform provides you with financial information about these companies.
However, not all of the robo-advisors are listed on Crunchbase.
Finding financial information on Crunchbase
You are able to see how much the robo-advisor firm has raised in each funding round.
To maintain neutrality, I will be using Wealthfront as an example.
Here is a brief description of the meaning of each round:
|Seed Funding (Angel Round)||Funding a startup to implement their idea|
|Series A||Companies should have a business model that can generate long-term profits|
|Series B||Companies are trying to expand their market reach|
|Series C||Companies are trying to scale and grow even more|
Most companies usually stop their funding at Series C. They will have Series D and E funding if they want to stay private for longer.
You can also look at which investors have invested in the firm.
It really says something if reputable investors decide to invest in the firm!
However, even if companies do not receive funding, it doesn’t mean they will not be successful.
Nevertheless, their CEO, Tai Zhi, mentioned that they will become profitable by 2020.
As such, the information on Crunchbase should not influence your decision entirely.
It is just meant to be a reference to get a glimpse of the firm’s financials.
Alternatively, you can also look out for press releases on the robo-advisory firm. If they are successful in their funding round, there will be news around it.
These methods will help you to understand the health of the firm’s financials. This allows you to choose firms that have strong backing from their investors.
Look at the exit route of the company
If you are worried of the risks of investing with one of these companies, you may want to look at their exit strategy.
Their strategy depends heavily on what type of custodian account they use.
To get better clarity, you can always drop an email to the customer service team of the company. They will be more than happy to answer your queries.
This will help to give you the reassurance of how your assets are managed, in the unfortunate event that the company you invest with closes down.
I would suggest that you should invest in a company that has an exit strategy that you’re comfortable with.
Smartly closed down as the robo-advisory scene in Singapore is extremely competitive. VinaCapital decided that it was no longer profitable and decided to stop funding this venture.
In the ultra-competitive robo-advisor scene, there is a risk that smaller firms may close down.
However, I believe that what happened with Smartly will be a one-off. Most of the other robo-advisors seem well equipped to stay sustainable in the long term.
Moreover, there are some benefits of investing with robo-advisors. Convenience is one huge benefit you’ll receive.
If you are afraid of investing with a robo-advisor, I would suggest to research a bit more on the company first. This will give you more confidence that your funds will be safe when you invest them.
To be on the safer side, you may want to invest in a robo-advisory platform that is offered by banks or brokers. These platforms are generally safer as robo-advisory is not their sole source of revenue.
As such, the chances of banks and brokers closing down are extremely low. However, this comes with a price as the fees that they charge are usually higher.
In the end, you will have to find the balance between risk and reward to see which robo-advisor is right for you!