In the business world, as in much of life, the ability to be self-critical is praiseworthy. This skill is especially prized in the area of technology. Successful hardware and software firms need to be humble. They must identify their weaknesses not only against the competition, but against an ideal of what their product should be.
I'm happy to report that Rob Major, CEO of AssetBook, is a self-critical executive. Major began working on the technical side of the advisor business in 1992; before founding AssetBook, he was probably best known as a co-founder of TechFi, the developer of an SQL-based portfolio management and accounting system.
Advent Software purchased TechFi in 2002 and terminated support for TechFi products in 2004. By 2005, I was taking my first look at Major's new product: AssetBook. Since then, Major and his team have made important incremental upgrades to the platform to better meet the needs of independent RIAs. The classic AssetBook system is successful enough that it continues to be offered.
But Major told me recently that he felt his firm was losing some sales because of perceived product weaknesses in three areas: graphics, usability and flexibility in altering the screen view.
Radar, AssetBook's new software as a service portfolio management system, was built to address those weaknesses. And it includes some new features that advisors are sure to like.
The home page dashboard provides immediate evidence of attention to the areas that Major vowed to address. It is flexible, easy to use and incorporates improved graphic capabilities. The page is fully customizable - that is, you can select from a large group of widgets, known as "radar scopes" in AssetBook parlance.
A button at the upper right of each radar scope governs settings. Click this, and a dialog box appears that allows the user to customize the scope. For example, if a scope lists my largest accounts, I can order a chart to be included next to the list. A drop-down menu offers two default chart types: pie chart or column chart. Another menu allows you to select the number of accounts to display in the scope.
The charts themselves are interactive. In the example of the large accounts list, when you mouse over a slice of the pie chart, you can see several details: the registration of the account, the account balance in dollars and the percentage of your total AUM that the account represents.
A special type of list on the home page is the alerts scope. One powerful new Radar feature is the ability to establish various types of alerts and have those alerts appear on your home page.
These alerts are highly customizable. For example, you can be alerted when a sum of cash exceeding a certain threshold flows into or out of the account. If your clients are on a systematic withdrawal plan, you can set the tool to check that balances are sufficient and alert you if additional cash is required. You can also set required minimum distribution reminders or portfolio drift reminders that will notify you if a portfolio requires rebalancing.
Major soon hopes to leverage the TD Ameritrade VEO Open Access API so that the firm's custodial alerts can flow right through into the Radar alerts system.
The bottom line is that without leaving the initial page, an advisor can obtain a great deal of information about the overall status of the firm's portfolios. Screens can be customized at the user level, so that as employees perform various functions, each can have his or her own screen views.
Other sections of the application work like the home dashboard. For instance, an account dashboard page is populated with various radar scopes that can be further customized.
To cite one example, in the performance scope I can show a chart comparing returns against an index, like the S&P 500. I can specify that I want returns calculated using either the time-weighted return method or internal rate of return. Using drop-down menus, I can specify the return periods that I want to display. I can also set up a tax considerations widget - to display, for example, my top unrealized gain or loss positions.
For more information, click the accounts detail tab. This allows you to simultaneously view two charts from the drop-down lists as well as such information as the fee schedule applied to the account, the tax ID, the model associated with the account and the core cash position (if any). There is also room here for notes related to the account.
Where appropriate, Radar displays information in a spreadsheetlike grid, letting you create your own custom views by adding, removing or moving columns. You can order and filter the data within a column by right-clicking and selecting the desired action.
Furthermore, you can grab a column and move it to the group bar to sort the whole list by that column of data. For example, if you drag the asset class column to the group bar, it will display the list sorted by asset class. This only touches the surface of the flexibility that these grid views offer, but they are substantial.
Radar's ability to build, administer and assign models is good. In the administration section, you select a type of model (investment model or class model) and name it. You can then create the model manually, by using the drop-down list of investments and typing in the target/tolerance levels - or you can import existing models into the system for use in Radar. Within the administration section, you can create fee schedules, performance settings, batch report settings and client log-ins for the client portal.
Client portals are part of the package as well. Advisors can create and upload reports in PDF format. The system offers a range of report templates as well as a color palate, making it possible for advisors to match the report's color scheme to their corporate colors.
Currently, uploads to the portal are limited to PDF files, but that is scheduled to change when the next version is released.
Such impressive applications are close to worthless if your database contains errors. Sound daily download and reconciliation procedures are essential, as is database maintenance. Major's experience indicates that many advisory firms are lacking in this department. As a result, Radar offers database administration, downloading and reconciliation.
Another essential function, of course, is the performance calculations themselves. AssetBook has a great deal of experience here, and it shows. Users can generate performance reports on the fly in seconds. Want to see the performance of a certain client? Just click the appropriate button, and a desktop with your preferred customized radar scopes, customized to your liking, will appear.
AssetBook tracks a wide range of standard benchmarks, letting advisors display up to four benchmarks in a performance report. They can also create custom benchmarks to be displayed in performance reports.
Radar includes a library of new deluxe reports at no additional charge (and users of the classic AssetBook system can add these reports for $1,500). These were created to compete with the likes of Tamarac and Black Diamond, Major says. One can debate whether they compare favorably with those of top competitors, but they are certainly a big step up from the classic AssetBook reports.
Radar also has a number of other features that advisors commonly request. For example, advisors generally want to be able to classify holdings in various ways. Radar provides built-in Morningstar asset classifications, allowing many advisors to automate much, if not all, of the classification task.
Advisors want to be able to view all of a client's holdings, even held-away assets in order to provide a more complete view of his or her situation. Although AssetBook does not offer account aggregation services, it makes those of ByAllAccounts available at a discounted price.
Radar does not include intelligent rebalancing capabilities, but it offers a solid basic rebalancing tool. It alerts advisors when a portfolio has violated previously established tolerances, and it provides the advisor with the necessary tax gain or loss information required to make rebalancing decisions.
For those who need a more robust rebalancing tool, Radar integrates with Trade Warrior, Red Black, Tamarac and Atom Align. Integration with Total Rebalance Expert should be available by the end of the month, the company says.
One issue worth noting: Radar requires Microsoft Silverlight technology to run. If you have a Windows PC or a Mac, you may well have Silverlight installed already. If not, you'll be prompted to download it. I tried the app on a Windows computer using three major browsers (Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Firefox). All ran fine.
On my Mac, Silverlight worked well in Safari, but it was less than flawless in Firefox.
Silverlight is not compatible with the iPhone, iPad, Android or Windows RT. By the time you read this, however, there should be a Radar app available for the iPhone, iPad and Android.
I doubt that many advisors will be using a phone regularly to interact with Radar, but tablets should work well. For now, if you have a Surface RT tablet, you are out of luck - but that's the fault of Microsoft, not AssetBook. The newer Surface Pro and other tablets running similar Intel processors should work fine with Silverlight.
The Radar package costs $40 per year per account; this compares with $24 for the classic AssetBook offering. There is a 200-account minimum for each system. If you custody assets at TD Ameritrade or Fidelity, discount pricing is available.
Unlike some competitors, AssetBook does not insist on a long-term contract. Its normal license agreement is for just 30 days.
The one exception to this rule is data conversions. Most firms charge for data conversions because they can be time-consuming and expensive. AssetBook will do your conversion at no cost, but it requires a one-year commitment. I think that's a great deal.
AssetBook has been popular with advisors because it offers a lot of functionality at a very affordable price. Radar is a bit more expensive, but the additional functionality appears to make it an excellent value, as well.
All indications are that Radar will continue the AssetBook tradition of offering financial planners excellent value for their money. It is a step up in price from the classic version of AssetBook, but for advisors who desire improved usability, superior graphics, superior report templates and the ability to customize screen views, it is certainly worth the additional cost.
Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial e Planning editor-at-large, is co-e creator of the Technology Tools for Today newsletter, conference e series and technology guides for advisors, including the new Technology Tools for Today's High Margin Practice. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.