Back in the day, I used to get calls from mutual fund wholesalers on a regular basis. Some would invite me to breakfast or lunch to talk about their products. The best of them would call me to share market intelligence and investment insights from their analysis, and sometimes they even offered to bring an analyst or fund manager along for a meeting. That kind of information can be very valuable, but it isn’t scalable — and it is so 20th century.

In the 21st century, there has to be a better way to deliver important information to advisors — and there is: T. Rowe Price’s MarketScene app. The fact that it’s free just adds to its allure. Currently, the app is available only for the iPad, but iPhone and Android versions are to be released over the next few months.

According to John Halaby, head of U.S. investment services at T. Rowe Price, his firm wanted to extend value to advisors in a more deliberate, targeted way. It went out and asked advisors: “What do you want from us?”

The answers received included:

“We want to hear from you.”

“We want your perspective on the current investment environment.”

“Give us your current thinking on asset allocation.”

The challenge was to come up with a user-friendly way of providing advisors with what they were asking for. That sounds relatively simple, but it’s not. Advisors are now inundated with information, but it is not readily accessible when they need it in an easily digestible format.

A SELF-SERVICE MODEL

MarketScene is a self-service model that allows advisors to access just the information they need, when they need it. 

When I suggested to Darrell Riley of T. Rowe Price’s asset allocation group that MarketScene was just a digital version of the chart books that some competitors provide to advisors, he strongly disagreed. “MarketScene is unique,” he said. “We have no competitors.”

After taking a close look at the app, I agree for the most part that it is unique and useful.

The app can be downloaded from Apple’s App Store and is currently presented as a series of quarterly digital books. The plan is to go to a monthly publication schedule in the near future, with special editions to be released periodically as market conditions require.

THE TEST DRIVE

I downloaded the Q1 2015 edition of the app to start my trial. Scrolling from right to left on the introductory page takes you to a slide with a quick navigation tutorial. Scrolling left to right, or right to left, moves you from article to article. Scrolling top to bottom or bottom to top allows you to navigate between pages within an article.

Tapping on a screen allows you to view app navigation tools, which are displayed within a tool bar to the left of the screen. There are also a few icons that enable various commands (open/more; close/back; tap for more; legal disclosures). Navigation is simple.

Across the bottom of the page, regardless of where you are in the program, there are four little icons. One allows you to provide feedback to T. Rowe Price about the app. It launches an email to Advisor Services so you can help shape future releases.

There is a separate icon for Advisor Services about service-related issues. Right now, this sends an email to a central services email account at T. Rowe Price, but the plan is to eventually send the email to the advisor’s dedicated service person.

The third icon is the Home button. Finally, there is a comprehensive glossary for those who are new to the business or for use with clients.

The home page holds five icons; each links to a section of the app. They are: Market Performance, Market Consensus, Key Themes, Asset Allocation Committee Strategy and What to Watch.

Click on Market Performance and choose from equity or fixed-income for the applicable three- and 12-month periods. The first level of equity performance is a single-page chart with the data for the S&P 500, Russell 2000, MSCI EAFE, MCSI Europe, MCSI Japan and MCSI Emerging Market indices.

INDEX PERFORMANCES

At a glance, you can get a feel for the relative performance of these indices. If you want more detail, you can click on the plus sign below the index. This brings up a page with the numeric performance values, as well as a brief commentary with T. Rowe Price’s take on what drove the performance.

There are arrows on the details page so you can scroll without having to navigate back to the composite page each time. The fixed-income section mirrors the equity section, with coverage of the Barclays U.S. Aggregate Bond, Barclays U.S. Treasury Bond, Barclays Municipal Bond, Credit Suisse High Yield Bond, Barclays Global Aggregate ex-U.S. Dollar Bond and JPMorgan Emerging Markets Bond indices.

The Market Consensus section does not describe T. Rowe Price analysts’ consensus, but rather the firm’s view of what investor expectations are with regard to the economy and corporate earnings. This is subdivided into U.S. Market Consensus and Non-U.S. Market Consensus.

The consensus report covers five topics: the economy, interest rates and inflation, corporate earnings, equity valuations and investor sentiment. 

SHARING INSIGHTS

Key Themes is an area where T. Rowe Price investment experts can share insights on developments they believe are influencing investor perceptions. For example, a recent issue highlighted were a stronger dollar, signs of a recovery in Europe and “risks and opportunities in emerging markets.”

When you click on a theme, you get a one-sentence synopsis of the discussion. If you are interested, you click “learn more.” When I drilled down on the emerging market theme, the app presented four charts that illustrated risks and opportunities.

For more information, I clicked on the plus sign near a chart. This revealed the chart full screen, with a “notes” tab. The notes contain an explanation of the data in the chart for those who are more comfortable with the written word. There’s also a link at the bottom of the screen for “additional perspective.” That links to a much more detailed discussion about one aspect of the emerging markets outlook.

Back at the original four-chart page, there is a small button at the bottom titled Funds to Consider. According to T. Rowe Price,  advisor focus groups strongly favored this feature. Assuming you are interested in a theme, T. Rowe Price presents the name and symbol of a few funds they offer that might be appropriate. You can download the prospectus directly from this page, or you can contact Advisor Services for more information. It should be emphasized, however, that the Funds to Consider button is unobtrusive and optional. 

Advisors will find the Asset allocation Committee strategy useful. It illustrates T. Rowe Price’s current asset allocation, with  discussion divided into an equity section and a fixed-income section.

In each view, there is a horizontal bar with five positions, with the middle being neutral. From the left navigation bar, you can jump to U.S. vs. non-U.S., developed vs. emerging, global equity vs. real assets, large cap vs. small cap, U.S. growth vs. value, non-U.S. growth vs. value, and compare, which is a composite of all of the above.

Finally, there is a section called What to Watch. These are open issues that may move markets, such as “weaker Japanese yen” and “Federal Reserve policy.” For each, the app presents an upside and a downside scenario.

AN IMPRESSIVE APP

Although this app is in its initial version, I found it very impressive. Clearly, T. Rowe Price was thoughtful in its approach to both content and usability. Over time, based on user feedback, the firm plans to add additional features and more-frequent updates.

One future feature being contemplated is the addition of analytics so T. Rowe Price can actually determine what aspects of the app are creating the most value for advisors.

Another is “asset allocation model review.” This would allow T. Rowe Price to let users know, in aggregate, what advisors with practices similar to theirs are doing in terms of asset allocation. Yet another idea would be to allow advisors to upload their own models for analysis.

I think the bottom line here is that all asset managers and mutual fund companies try to provide useful information to their advisors, but many fall short. MarketScene is a refreshing new approach that strikes the right balance. For those who want a quick snapshot, it’s there. For those who want more detail, it’s there.

Most important, it is readily accessible and it’s free. The fact that much of the data can be repurposed for use with clients is a bonus. You can easily cut and paste text for use in client presentations, newsletters and more.

MarketScene is not going to replace all the research that many advisors subscribe to at significant cost anytime soon, but it is a nice addition to the advisors’ tool kit.                                                           

Joel Bruckenstein, a Financial Planning columnist, is co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today conference series and technology guides for advisors. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FinTechie

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