What Are Robo-Advisors?

Definition and examples of robo-advisors

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Definition

Robo-advisors are automated portfolio managers. You can think of them as autopilots for investors. After initially answering a series of questions about your resources and financial goals, the robo-advisor will make ongoing decisions about how to invest your money.

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Robo-advisors are automated portfolio managers that use algorithms to offer financial advice. You can think of these apps as autopilots for investors. When you sign up to use one, you will first answer a series of questions about your risk tolerance, financial resources, and goals. Then, the robo-advisor will make ongoing decisions about investing your money and will monitor any changes in the future.

Here's what these products offer, how they work, and whether they could be a good fit for you.

Definition and Examples of Robo-Advisors

Robo-advisors are software products that can help you manage your investments. It's all done without the need for you to consult a financial advisor or manage your portfolio. A wide variety of financial institutions offer these products. Some, such as Fidelity, are established companies with a lengthy history. Others, like Acorns, were created recently for the sole purpose of providing a robo-advisor service.

Robo-advisors are alternatives to traditional financial advisors, and they're often much more cost-effective. These products are also alternatives to simply picking and choosing investments on your own.

How Do Robo-Advisors Work?

A new customer who signs up for a robo-advisor usually starts by giving basic information about their investment goals through an online questionnaire. These questions may touch on subjects like your timeline, your risk tolerance, and how much money you have in savings. Then, robo-advisors run those answers through an algorithm, which will provide an asset allocation approach and help you build a diversified investment portfolio that meets your goals.

Once your funds are invested, the software can automatically rebalance your portfolio. That will ensure that it will remain close to that target allocation. Many popular robo-advisors encourage you to regularly contribute to your account. You might make small weekly deposits, for instance. Then, the robo-advisor will use those contributions to maintain your target allocation.

Note

Some robo-advisors even use tax-loss harvesting strategies, which involve selling specific securities at a loss to offset gains in other securities.

Investments In a Robo-Managed Account

Most robo-advisors use low-cost exchange-traded funds (ETFs) rather than individual stocks or mutual funds to build your portfolio. They can follow an index fund or another passive investment approach. This emphasizes the importance of your allocation to stocks or bonds. Depending on your robo-advisor, you may also be able to further specify investments using environmental, social, or governance (ESG) investing criteria.

How Taxes Work for a Robo-Advisor Account

As with any investment, your tax liability when using robo-managed assets depends on the type of account in which you hold the assets.

If you hold your assets in a traditional IRA or another tax-deferred retirement account, you pay no taxes until you withdraw funds. Rollovers or asset transfers from your existing account to a robo-advisor generally do not count as withdrawals. Withdrawals from a Roth IRA account are generally tax-free if they are qualified distributions.

Tip

Some of these online portfolio solutions offer a free trial period. That way, you can see how the service works before you are charged.

If you own investments in a taxable account, then you will need to report those on your tax return. You'll also need to pay taxes on earnings, similar to investing in a brokerage account. You'll receive an annual 1099 form, which reports the interest, dividends, and capital gains on your investments.

If your robo-managed account allows you to transfer in existing investments, those investments will likely be sold unless they are the same investments that the robo-advisor would have invested in with those funds. If sales do occur, and you make a profit, you will have capital gains taxes on those sales.

Robo-Advisor Fees

Robo-advisor fees may be structured as a fixed monthly fee or as a percentage of assets. Fixed monthly fees can be as low as $1. Percentage fees range from roughly 0.15% to 0.50%.

Remember that robo-advisor fees are in addition to any fees associated with the investments. For instance, mutual funds and ETFs within your account will likely come with their own expense ratios. This type of fee is taken out of the assets of the fund before returns are distributed.

Pros and Cons of Robo-Advisors

Pros
  • No investing knowledge needed

  • Isn't time-consuming

  • Simple strategies

Cons
  • Hard to get human-to-human interaction

  • Limits investor options

  • May force investors to open multiple accounts

Pros Explained

  • No investing knowledge needed: Robo-advisors can be an excellent option for beginning investors. You can start investing even if you haven't yet developed the financial expertise required to make informed decisions.
  • Isn't time-consuming: Many people don't have time to manage their investments actively, so they'd rather put their portfolio on autopilot. Once a robo-advisor account and automated deposits are set up, you don't need to do anything else but watch until you want to withdraw money.
  • Simple strategies: Robo-advisors often use a simple investment strategy that is easy to understand. For instance, your advisor might allocate 60% to stocks and 40% to bonds. You likely won't have many investments to watch, so you can easily and quickly assess the performance of your holdings.

Cons Explained

  • Hard to get human-to-human interaction: Some robo-advisors offer live assistance. But this usually comes with extra costs. Many robo-advisors interact with you only through online methods. The trade-off is that robo-advisor fees are much lower than those of most financial advisors. What can you do if you enjoy speaking to actual people or need someone to walk you through the app or website? In that case, the savings on fees might not be worth it for you.
  • Limits investor options: If you have ideas about a specific stock you want to invest in, you probably won't be able to tell your robo-advisor to buy it. The "options" offered by robo-advisors are very general. For instance, they may ask you, "Do you want to be risky or conservative?" Robo-advisors might not satisfy those who want to make active decisions about their money.
  • May force investors to open multiple accounts: If you decide you want to invest in a specific stock, you may have to open a separate brokerage account to buy it. Some investors may also need to coordinate company benefit packages and 401(k)s with other accounts, which could make the automation offered by robo-advisors less useful.

Key Takeaways

  • Robo-advisors are services that automatically balance an investor's portfolio.
  • They make decisions based on your basic information and investing goals.
  • Robo-advisors are low-fee alternatives to financial advisors, but there are some drawbacks to opting for an automated investing advisor.
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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Acorns. "Automatic Investing in the Background of Life."

  2. Adam Hayes. "Enacting a Rational Actor: Roboadvisors and the Algorithmic Performance of Ideal Types." Economy and Society, Issue 49, Volume 4, 2020, Pages 562-595.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Traditional and Roth IRAs."

  4. Office of Investor Education and Advocacy. "Form 1099, Investment Income (Interest and Dividends)."

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