Nearly every day, some financial services firm is announcing an app for smartphones or tablets.
Not surprising, when Apple says its sold more than 100 million iPhones and expects to sell 30 million iPads this year alone. Oh, and there is amply competition from devices based on Google’s Android operating system, Research in Motion and its Blackberry system and Nokia trying to get in the game with Microsoft’s Windows platform.
Yet mutual fund and exchange-traded fund companies are not exactly rushing into the game.
Only a handful, such as Vanguard and Fidelity Investments, have even supplied their millions of customers with apps that let them check balances and manage their accounts.
You’re more likely to see podcasts on the iTunes store, from names such as Federated, Franklin Templeton and T. Rowe Price.
Meanwhile, Bank of America lets you pay bills from your handheld device and send text messages to retrieve balance and transaction information. Charles Schwab delivers separate apps for managing your account and working your retirement savings, as well as a multimedia version of its house magazine on investing.
The slow adoption of mobile apps by mutual fund firms is “definitely true,’’ said Dan Wiegand, a senior analyst at Corporate Insight and author of a report released in June titled “Money on the Move: Mobile Finance Review 201.’’ In general, he says, “we find that the asset management industry tends to lag behind banks and brokerages.''
For banks and brokerages “account access is basically a must-have," Wiegand said.
But showing customers up-to-the-date or up-to-the-minute fund balances is not a high priority for fund firms. “In that sense, (asset management firms) are still behind the curve,’’ he said.
There are a lot of firms that are doing nothing. And some of the firm that do have apps or mobile sites aren't necessarily letting clients log on and view their accounts, he said.
They may let you check performance of mutual funds and formulate investment decisions "even though you can't actually make any transactions from a mobile device,'' he said.
Vanguard has countered that trend not just by letting its customers perform transactions and manage their investments on smartphones and tablets. It’s supplied its advisors with a separate app that lets them monitor price and performance information on Vanguard ETFs and mutual funds, as well as create and follow investment watch lists. Fidelity has now given its advisors in its wealth management practice the ability to buy or sell shares on behalf of clients, while on the move.
But the third largest fund company, American Funds, appears in no hurry to give its customers access to account information from handheld devices, on an interactive basis. At this point, “going paperless” means electronic delivery of account statements, transaction confirmations and fund reports.
“There is a number of firms that are basically sittting on the sidelines in the mobile space,’’ Wiegand said.
On the broadest benchmark, Apple’s iTunes store, there is not an American Funds app to be found. Nor is there any promotion of downloadable apps of any sort on its home page on the Web.
"There we can say pretty confidently that if they don't have something on the iTunes store or something they talk about on their public site, they probably have nothing," said Wiegand.
American Funds did not return calls seeking comment on its approach to mobile apps for customers, advisors or to manage its fund business.
It’s that last area that has not been scantly embraced by mutual funds: apps for their own executives, to monitor sales and financial performance and to manage the business.
Last year, Dreyfus gave all of its sales force iPads so they could receive videos, fact sheets, market commentaries, research reports, sales ideas and presentations. This was designed to make it easier to interact with customers, in their homes and places of business, than by mailing and lugging around paper.
Last month, Dreyfus’ parent, BNY Mellon launched an application that would let its institutional customers to access BNY Mellon products and services via an iPad. The app, found in the iTunes App Store, lets its customers run their business with BNY Mellon.
They can pull in foreign exchange research from BNY Mellon Global Markets and get transaction reports and account management tools from its Liquidity Direct service, online. Through Liquidity Direct, they can buy or sell a wide range of money market funds, provide custody for margin balances in counterparty transactions, and invest directly in individual money market securities. Account performance is monitored, as well.
This puts all money market investments “in one place” for mutual fund, hedge fund and insurance company investment managers, said Joe Quinn, vice president of BNY Mellon Liquidity Services. So far, about a half a dozen institutions have begun using the app, primarily to execute transactions while away from the desk or, since it’s summer, while on vacation.
“If it couldn’t transact, it might not be as helpful to them,’’ Quinn said.
Similarly, State Street this fall plans to launch an iTunes app it calls Springboard, for its “executive-level” customers at institutions. These are portfolio and fund managers who will be able to view their entire investment portfolio at a glance, analyze risk, check net asset values and watch fund flows.
Not that mutual funds aren’t making some creative uses of mobile technology. Most notable may be Putnam Investments.
Its PriceCheck & Save iPhone app turns consumer shopping into investment savings. And, theoretically, fund sales.
The Putnam customer using this app points his or her smartphone at an object of desire in a retail store, such as a flat-screen television with Netflix built-in at Best Buy.
The phone scans the bar code and throws up alternate sources of the same product on screen, from across the Web.
Then, it calculates the savings. Then, it asks – naturally – if you want to invest the savings that you just “made” in a Putnam fund in the 401(k) plan that you got through your employer.
"There is some experimentation going on, especially without that focus on account access,’’ Wiegand said. “Firms are looking at ways they can get a toehold in the mobile space.''
But giving specially built “apps” to their executives for downloading onto iPads may not be necessary.
Daniel Cwenar, President, of the Access Data unit of Broadridge Financial Solutions, said his firm works with mutual fund companies to create applications that run on mobile devices through browsers.
They help get, for instance, the right sales data into the customer relationship management software of their choice, from Oracle or Salesforce or other supplier. Then, they help them transform it into a form that can be displayed on the device of their choice, whether it’s a smartphone or a tablet. And whether it runs the Apple iOS, the Android OS or other OS.
The same can be done for command and control apps, risk analysis apps and wholesaler and distribution cost calculation apps.
“There hasn’t been a lot of demand for a custom iPad app that will expose this kind of data,” Cwenar said.
Executives who want to look at such data on an iPad can do so, using Apple’s Safari browser, instead of a dedicated app.
If dedicated apps are necessary, then Broadridge and other suppliers will be looking for help in translating each app to the current multiplicity of operating systems for mobile devices, from Blackberry to Microsoft to Apple to Android.
One such tool is called Sencha Touch, which allows a firm to develop “cross-platform” mobile web apps that look and feel native on iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry touch devices.
Which means, eventually, mutual fund executives might have apps for themselves, not just customers.
"It stands to reason that if they can do that for clients, they should be able to do the same useful thing for executives who want to use their iPads," said Wiegand.