For well over a decade, advisors have been demanding more of their technology providers, and it appears the wait is finally over. This year’s Technology Tools for Today Conference, of which I’m a co-founder, included several examples of significant innovations in the advisory tech realm.
There were a number of big announcements leading up to T3 2015. Here’s what I thought were the most significant takeaways.
1. M&A ACTIVITY
Fidelity’s purchase of eMoney caused quite a stir. There was speculation that the merger would somehow marginalize advisors who were not Fidelity clients, or that other financial planning applications would be frozen out of the Fidelity/eMoney ecosystem. We see almost no chance of either happening; both could erode the value of Fidelity’s new asset.
In my view, Fidelity purchased eMoney for its expertise in account aggregation and advisor/client portals. I believe Fidelity views these areas as essential to the advisor/client platforms of the future. It’s also likely that Fidelity execs believe eMoney’s technology can be used in other areas of their extensive worldwide businesses. If they’re right, and they can further leverage eMoney, the reported $250 million purchase may not look so pricey.
From the eMoney side, the firm recently completed the rollout of its next-generation emX platform. In Fidelity, eMoney gets a parent with a long history of spending heavily on financial services technology. This marriage should benefit both firms in the long term, and potentially advisors as well.
In another recent deal SS&C Technologies agreed to buy Advent Software for $2.3 billion. My take is that this deal was driven more by Advent’s Geneva product line (used by hedge funds, prime brokers and SS&C) than its RIA/wealth management business. While the SS&C/Geneva portion of the deal makes economic sense, it remains to be seen how SS&C, a relative unknown in the RIA space, proceeds with the other Advent assets.
The other big deal was private equity firm TA Associates’ purchase of a majority stake in NorthStar Financial Services Group, the parent of Orion Advisor Services, CLS Investments and Gemini Fund Services. This deal was about succession planning for NorthStar’s owners, the Clarke family, but it also provides capital that can be used for product development and/or acquisitions. We don’t expect any negative impact on existing clients.
As a group, these deals suggest that “smart money” from outside the industry sees value in financial technology companies. As long as the market stays strong and interest rates stay low, this trend is likely to continue.
2. EVOLUTION OF eMONEY
Speaking of eMoney, the tool has long had something of an identity issue with advisors. While the company has often been categorized as financial planning software, it was often purchased for other reasons — for account aggregation, for instance, or for its client portal. With the Fidelity deal, and with the release of emX Select, it should be clear that the real appeal of emX is as a platform as opposed to a planning application.
That’s no knock against its planning capabilities; eMoney’s cash flow planning tool is very good. But it’s now clear that the two have been unbundled; you can buy the platform and use another financial planning application.
By the end of 2015, eMoney expects to integrate with at least 28 applications, including MoneyGuidePro, Morningstar, Redtail, Orion, Envestnet, Albridge and Hidden Levers.
3. ROBO COMPETITION
Providing advisors with the tools to compete against robo advisors was a prevalent theme at T3.
Six months ago, the talk was about the threats robo advisors posed to traditional RIA firms. That dialogue now centers on upgrading advisors’ technology to compete effectively, and how it can potentially open up new business opportunities for RIAs.
Initially, the consumer-facing robo advisors had two potential advantages: a better end-user technology experience and lower cost. But advisors now have low-cost technology options that let them offer a user experience on par with or even superior to the B2C firms.
Vendors at T3 focused on the robo battle fell broadly into three camps:
- Those with a history of serving the RIA market who are enhancing existing products or developing new ones.
- New firms developing robo technologies that allow advisors to compete with B2C robo advisors.
- Firms looking to play in both business- and consumer-facing markets.
Betterment is in the last category. It’s one of the better-known B2C firms, but offers an advisor-branded platform through Betterment Institutional.
Northstar (Orion/CLS), eMoney, MoneyGuidePro, Advicent, RiXtrema and Riskalyze are among the firms with products and services aimed at helping advisors compete effectively against the B2C robo advisor platforms. Some of the newer names in this group are Jemstep, Oranj, Wealth Access and Upside.
The new AutoPilot from Riskalyze and Orion/CLS is a robo-type product that advisors can plug into their current website. Riskalyze technology handles the risk assessment, Orion technology powers client onboarding and servicing, and CLS handles the investment management, all for a cost of 25 basis points.
There are a few common threads here. All of these offer a superior end-user experience, and most incorporate account aggregation and integration with other applications as required. Finally, most offer a seamless, paperless client-onboarding experience.
4. VENDORS AS INNOVATORS
At past conferences, it was typical for one particular planning software to shine. This year all the major firms looked impressive.
MoneyGuidePro previewed the next major release of its industry-leading software, which boldly attempts to broaden the reach of financial planning.
Advicent unveiled Narrator, an app that allows firms to configure widgets to create a unique user experience. It can be as simple as plugging one or more widgets (for example, a college funding widget) into an existing website, or creating a whole online financial planning app from these widgets.
This concept is not new; FinanceLogix has been making their widgets available to institutional clients for some time. However, the Advicent widgets will represent the first rollout of the recently purchased Figlo technology, and Figlo has impressed me in the past.
FinanceLogix also recently released version 3.5 of its flagship product. It includes enhanced Social Security Optimization, a stunning new client portal, a new client interview process, and the ability for both advisors and clients to create tasks in the client portal.
There are also new vendors trying to break into the marketplace. One, Advizr, offer a client experience similar to that of the B2C robo advisors.
It looks more like “financial planning lite” to me. But there are millions of Americans who currently get no financial planning advice and could likely benefit from such an application.
We are just at the beginning of a technology revolution in the industry. It’s an exciting time for advisors and those who serve them.
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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