Whether any individual "robo advisor" firm survives is now beside the point.
The reality is that automated, algorithm-based investment management, portfolio rebalancing and, to some extent, advice is here to stay; so is digital technology that enables seamless onboarding and back-office efficiency.
Consumers will have access to powerful technology from digital-only firms, companies combining digital automation with human advisors and traditional financial advisory firms. The big questions going forward are who will be doing what in the digital advisory space -- and when and how they'll be doing it.
The following tip sheet handicaps ten of the top moves the advisory industry will be watching this year. See the slideshow here.
Move: Launch of Schwab Intelligent Portfolios.
Buzz: Financial service giant's reported "no-fee" digital consumer offering is the most anticipated move in the robo space this year.
Potential Upside: Lure of "zero cost" (even though Schwab will profit from the piles of money that will end up in cash) freezes market, delivers knockout blow to B-to-C pioneers like Wealthfront.
Potential Downside: Either embarrassing vaporware or product lays an egg and is seen as handiwork of old-school company that can't compete with the cool new kids on the block.
Move: Full-fledged rollout of Vanguard Personal Advisor Services, an online (and human) advice platform.
Buzz: In accelerated beta last year, the platform already has $4.2 billion in assets -- so what will growth be when this master marketer ramps up?
Potential Upside: Gobbles up big share of digital marketplace.
Potential Downside: Emphasison phone calls with advisors turns off the digital-only crowd.
Move: Targeting HNW investors and millennials (preferably combined) with deployment of $100 million cash war chest.
Buzz: Yes, the RIA's growth ($1.7 billion in AUM, according to most recent form ADV) and venture capital funding (approximately $130 million to date) have been impressive. But can a consumer-only strategy work -- and can a company charging only 25 basis points ever attract enough assets to be profitable?
Potential Upside: Wealthfront rides the demographic wave of digital-centric millennials to emerge as a Schwab-like powerhouse.
Potential Downside: B-to-C could turn out to be the wrong bet; VC backers may lose patience with the high burn rate as prospects of hefty Facebook-like return on investment diminish.
Move: Rollout of Betterment Institutional, the firm's B-to-B digital offering to RIAs.
Buzz: Fueled by partnership with Fidelity, this is the biggest, best-funded effort to date to work with, rather than compete against, independent advisors. It's backed -- and being hawked -- by industry heavyweights Steve Lockshin (the Convergent founder) and Marty Bicknell, chief executive of Mariner Wealth Advisors.
Potential Upside: Becomes go-to firm for advisors looking for a robo partner.
Potential Downside: B-to-B hottest trend in the space; less differentiation with too much competition; money runs out before Betterment can break even.
Move: Pershing clearing and custodial deal provides Motif with major-league clearing and custodial brokerage services.
Buzz: Deal could push well-regarded (and -funded) online broker -- backed by Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Chinese investment -- to next level.
Potential Upside: Firm's unique model of offering investors and independent advisors a platform and tools to buy, sell and rebalance "motifs," or baskets of up to 30 securities, stands out and catches on in crowded marketplace.
Potential Downside: "Motifs" seen as gimmick by investors or badly underperform in bear market.
Move: Continued rollout and adoption by advisors of Jemstep's Advisor Pro platform to onboard and service clients, boosted by the firm's partnering with TD Ameritrade, Salesforce and Tamarac.
Buzz: Major wealth managers getting on the bandwagon; the firm reports 600 new client accounts in last three months.
Potential Upside: Jemstep carves out profitable niche in fast-growing advisor/robo alliance market sector.
Potential Downside: Platform fails to stand out in increasingly crowded and commodified market.
Move: Targeting older investors with new high-yield diversified income ETF portfolio.
Buzz: Seen as a counterintuitive shift for a digital platform, but will be closely watched.
Potential Upside: Huge market largely ignored by other robos.
Potential Downside: Could fail to penetrate boomer market and break out of the pack; portfolio may have more risk than advertised.
Aspiration Fund Advisor
Move: New company pitching hedge fund-like investing approach directly to mass market clients.
Buzz: Attention-grabbing features include fund-of-funds approach; letting investors choose their own fee (excluding what money managers get); and donating 10% of "every dollar earned" to charity. Backers include Jeff Skoll, the former head of another once-small startup: eBay.
Potential Upside: Terra incognita for robos.
Potential Downside: Terra incognita for robos.
Move: New company is set to launch B-to-C robo brokerage with zero commissions.
Buzz: Supposedly has half a million people on waiting list; backing comes from high-quality VCs, including financial services specialist Ribbit Capital.
Potential Upside: Grabs share of mass market.
Potential Downside: Unable to hit needed volume levels.
Move: Launched automated service this month that "measures performance and tracks expenses" of financial advisors for $9 a month -- and recommends other advisors if customers are unhappy.
Buzz: Appears to be first to market with model; advisors are understandably nervous and curious.
Potential Upside: Differentiated in crowded market; becomes the Carfax of financial services.
Potential Downside: Playing footsie with advisors looking for prospective clients; revenue model is unclear.