It’s time for ETFs to start wooing the robots. But the asset management industry isn’t quite so sure.

Automated advice platforms — known as robo advisers — are poised to expand their investment in ETFs over the next five years, boosting their assets to more than $800 billion, according to a report by PwC.

 The PowerShares QQQ Trust ETF has returned a whopping 22.5% so far this year.
More than 75% of asset managers expect robots to generate less than $100 billion over the next five years, according to PwC. Bloomberg News

Robos, which include independents such as Betterment and Wealthfront as well as platforms from the likes of Vanguard and Charles Schwab, currently oversee about $75 billion. PwC’s prediction is based on growth rates from 2015 to 2016.

“You’re going to see a real acceleration,” said Nigel Brashaw, the accounting and auditing firm’s global ETF practice leader. “Once you start seeing technology increasingly take hold, it’s something that’s not going to go backward.”

But many asset managers consider PwC’s projection optimistic, as more than 75% of those polled in the study expect robos to generate less than $100 billion for ETFs over that time frame, according to the report.

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Robos have found a natural partner in ETFs thanks to their shared emphasis on cost. Unlike a traditional adviser who might require hundreds of basis points a year to choose investments, robos use answers to a series of online questions and some sophisticated algorithms to provide the same service for little or no fee. This hands-off, cookie-cutter approach is cheap, and using low-cost ETFs to execute the strategy ensures that management fees won’t eat into the savings.

Many ETF issuers and other asset managers are, however, ill-prepared for this shift. About 55% see robos sending less than $50 billion into ETFs, with participants from the European and Asian markets the most cautious in their expectations.

That wariness will end up being their loss, PwC said. Those who resist the shift to automated advice and other digital technologies risk endangering their business and missing a huge opportunity, according to the report.

Bloomberg News