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A wary wealth management dissects Amazon expansion

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For a number of wealth management leaders, the joint announcement by Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to team up on health care reinforced much of the tech-driven message they’ve promoted to advisors: digital efficiency will only create new opportunity.

But within that team up, the industry may be getting a glimpse of future competition in wealth management too, some speculate.

While the effort is first about finding a better health care offering for the employees of the three companies, says Will Trout, head of Celent's global wealth management practice, there is an underlying wealth management impact in how it could give Amazon even more access to customer data.

More data will be essential to feeding its artificial intelligence capabilities, he notes, which are already being positioned for future use in investment insights, automated meeting preparation and even risk management for compliance.

“Amazon will embed itself in the fabric of the wealth management space unless the regulators intervene,” Trout says. “Control of the data — and ability to classify, package and deploy it — will be the differentiator, including in the advised space. Think on-the-go analytics instead of going through the business intelligence team. That smart data, residing in the cloud, will remove the laborious and often manual data extraction process.”

AI’s future impact on industries including wealth management cannot be ignored, adds Lex Sokolin, global director of fintech strategy at Autonomous Research.

“We have entered a world where technology, capital and attention are massively concentrated in the hands of a few enterprises,” Sokolin says. “This concentration can only get more acute because of how technology functions and compounds.”

He views the move as an evolution of an ongoing discussion about broadening holistic care that the industry has grappled with. “Health care, income, retirement all fit together,” he says. “I don’t think it includes high-end wealth. There’s no need to subsidize and socialize high-net-worth private wealth. But there’s a need to solve for the retirement crises among the retail customers who have no savings.”

Again, technology is a threat to the advisory that hasn't transitioned to more holistic, personalized advice, says Larry Swedroe, principal and the director of research for Buckingham Strategic Wealth.

"This whole area is ripe for disruption due to inefficiencies in chain of delivery," Swedroe says. "So no surprise [if] Amazon would go after it. As to RIAs, if you are a commodity, which is what Amazon specializes in, perhaps you might worry about them, but [you] already should be worried by robos."

The team up serves as a sound reminder to Ron Carson why he continually invests in technology, he says, and how there is competition outside wealth management that his firm needs to focus on.

“Moves like this have been a trickle but an avalanche is near,” Carson says. “A private enterprise solution for our healthcare crisis is going to be for the benefit of the consumer. Think of blockchain and peer-to-peer trends happening in every industry. This is how we cut out the middlemen that aren't adding value.”

United Capital CEO Joe Duran, who regularly exhorts advisors to heed the disruption wrought by Amazon and Vanguard, acknowledges the three giant firms are tackling “one of the most complex and expensive sectors in the country. No one yet knows what they will end up accomplishing.”

As part of the announcement, JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon stated “the three of our companies have extraordinary resources, and our goal is to create solutions that benefit our U.S. employees, their families and, potentially, all Americans.”

Duran said the three “could a eventually commercialize their platform to expand beyond their initial group and welcome other firms to create a powerful collaborative platform, and perhaps even expand to small businesses and or direct to consumers. Imagine Amazon health.”

But he had his doubts about how the three firms with such different cultures could come to an agreement on a singular solution.

Oppenheimer health IT and distribution analyst Mohan Naidu tells American Banker that as far as a deepening relationship between Amazon and JPMorgan, the relationship will be very focused for the near term.

"Amazon is a big player and they have also started doing Amazon Pay,” he said. “Reading between the lines, this is going to be pretty focused on health care, and anything that comes out of it is all gravy on top of that."

Which is why advisors shouldn’t expect to see Amazon in wealth management directly anytime in the near future, says Wescott Financial CEO Grant Rawdin.

“Health care costs among these three behemoths are billions of dollars and they can’t seem to get an acceptable cost savings because of systemic issues in the health care system,” Rawdin says. “There is no such expense savings among them in the financial services sector.”

To some extent they compete in the financing, investment management and insurance areas, he acknowledges. “Of course, that begs the question whether it is these three who cooperate or another one or two of them that cooperate. But this motivation is about controlling the marketplace and creating some type of pricing power.”

The argument of regulatory hurdles barring tech giants from entering wealth management still stands for now, Rawdin adds.

“Can you imagine what Amazon’s ADV would look like? Affiliated businesses, conflicts of interest, fiduciary requirements, fee disclosures, custody issues since they have your credit card on file for purchases? Would they extend into this via their credit facilities providing other financing services, and then bring you in for investment management and insurance? Where would they custody? Who would they buy? Each transaction would present of potential regulatory issues. [But] nothing is insurmountable.”

With additional reporting by Ann Marsh, senior editor and the West Coast Bureau Chief of Financial Planning.

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