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An example of a Robo-Advisor Dashboard (Wealthsimple)

There are various reasons for why people invest. Whether that is to beat the rate of inflation, meet future financial goals, or any other financial purpose, the universal intent is to have more money in the future. Canadians have currently invested over $1.38 trillion in mutual funds.[1] North Carolina State University Professor of Finance, Charles Jones describes a mutual fund as an “investment that pools the money of various investors and buys and manages a diversified portfolio of securities”.[1]

Sample portfolio by a robo-advisor

While mutual funds have been traditionally managed by a team of finance professionals and sold by licensed salespeople, vast improvements in technology has given rise to a new breed of automated portfolio managers, commonly known as robo-advisors. Robo-advisors use specialized software to allocate an investor’s money into appropriate investments based on factors such as an investor’s tolerance for risk. Investments are managed by a robot and adjusted automatically depending on market changes. In the past three years, over eleven firms and departmental expansions have been launched in Canada, including existing corporate giants and startups like Bank of Montreal’s SmartFolio, Questrade’s Portfolio IQ, Wealthsimple, and Nestwealth [2] Robo-advisors are also capable of adjusting a client’s portfolio in real time and can autonomously respond to changing market conditions.[2] Each firm has unique offerings and differing entry requirements for potential investors. Points of differentiation among these firms include minimum account size, fees, and types of investment accounts offered.

Introduction to robo-advisors


Current State of Investing


Stocks represents partial ownership of multiple companies, whereas a share is owning part of a single company.[1]. For example, if one wanted to buy “stocks” of Google, they would be referring to purchasing a single share of Google.

To access the stock market, one must go through an online broker and use their platform to buy and sell stocks. These platforms come equipped with all the essential features needed to trade stocks, such as searching up stocks on different stock markets (Toronto Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ etc.), seeing the past performance of stocks, and being able to buy or sell stocks. The sophistication of the platforms varies based on who the broker is, and whether someone elects to pay a premium to access their more advanced platforms which provide additional data about the stock's history. This can help investors decide which stocks to invest in.

Generally people invest in stocks themselves, with no advice from professional advisors. Each time someone makes a trade, they are charged a commission fee.

Mutual Funds

Problems with Mutual Funds

A single mutual fund is a portfolio consisting of various stocks.[2] Because they contain multiple stocks, they are considered less risky than investing in stocks alone because the risk is diversified among various stocks. Traditionally mutual fund managers manage the portfolio within each mutual fund. As a result, there are fixed fees and those fees go towards the mutual fund managers. The problem with mutual funds is the managers get paid regardless of whether the mutual fund makes money or not, so investors lose total control of the activity in the mutual fund. In addition, a vast majority of mutual funds underperform against their comparative indexes.[2]

Exchange Traded Funds (ETF)

Exchange Traded Funds

ETF’s are similar to mutual funds in the sense that ETF’s have pools of investments. However, they are bought and sold like stocks. Therefore, the price of an ETF is determined by the number of buyers and sellers. The primary difference between ETF’s, stocks, and mutual funds is the significantly lower expenses ETF’s have, which directly correlates to lower fixed fees for the investor. An ETF's fixed fees are usually between 0.25% - 0.75%.[3]

History of Robo Advisors

Robo-advisors started to emerge in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession as major financial institutions either started to fail or were forced to restructure.[4] Consumers lost trust in traditional financial institutions due to their role in creating the crisis, and many of them elected to look elsewhere to satisfy their investment needs.[5] In addition, many firms were forced to undergo extensive restructuring in the aftermath of the crisis in order to remain solvent.[5] Finally, financial institutions were made to comply with new sets of regulations that were introduced in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.[5] These three factors all helped undermine the strength of traditional institutions and create an encouraging environment for financial start-ups to disrupt the industry.[5] Robo-advisors were just one of many new innovations that aimed to increase the accessibility of obtaining financial advice by simplifying the way advice is delivered to the client, as well as reducing the cost to obtain it.

The period following the Great Recession saw a large-scale adoption of online financial tools by consumers and a keen interest in the Financial Technology (FinTech) sector by investors., an online personal financial management platform, is a prominent example of the new enthusiasm for FinTech. In August of 2009, Mint received $14,000,000 in Series C Venture Capital Funding and in 2009, the company was acquired by financial software giant Intuit for $170,000,000.[6] This quick series of large investments generated a large amount of enthusiasm and support for FinTech among investors. Robo-advisors benefited significantly from this new trend and more firms emerged and gained funding. [4]

BMO SmartFolio

Following the rapid rise of FinTech, the established financial institutions began to show interest in the emerging robo-advisor industry. These institutions include Fidelity Investments, Vanguard, Charles Schwab, and Northwestern Mutual.[7] These large firms possessed significant resources, and thus had several methods in which they could enter the robo-advisor industry. The three main methods of entry are as follows:

  • Develop a Robo-Advising product In-House
    • This approach grants the firm full control of the product and its future development. However, the firm will require personnel with deep technical experience and there are also risks with regards to scope creep and cost overruns.[8]
  • Forming a partnership with an existing robo-advising firm
    • Partnerships reduce risks regarding full implementation of a new system into the organization and can reduce acquisition costs. However, any major firm who proceeds using this method will no longer have control over the product and its future development.[8]
  • Acquiring an existing robo-advising firm outright
    • This method allows a firm to get their robo-advisor to market the fastest. As with any acquisition, there are risks regarding how to integrate one firms operations and infrastructure into another.[8]

These methods of entry are not exclusive, and several firms elected to build their robo-advising product using a combination of these approaches. Fidelity Investments has prominently utilized several of these approaches when bring their robo-advising product to market.[7] In 2014, the company invested in Future Advisor as its first move into the robo-advisor space. In the same year, Fidelity Investments partnered with E-Money, a wealth planning software firm, in order to expand its digital presence.[7] Shortly thereafter, the company acquired E-Money and solidified its commitment to digital financial services.[7]

Currently, the top 12 robo-advisors hold approximately $70B of assets under management.[9] This figure is sizable, but is still very small compared to the estimated $32T of total assets under management in the entire financial advising industry.[9] Robo-advisors have developed significantly in their short history, but traditional financial advising methods still hold the vast majority of market share.

Evolution of Robo-Advisors

The four stages of robo-advisor evolution

The evolution of robo-advisors can be divided into four distinct steps.[10] Each step in the evolutionary cycle brings increased capabilities while simultaneously decreasing the need for human interaction. The four steps are as follows:

Robo-Advisor 1.0

Robo-advisor 1.0 is the first stage in the evolution of robo-advisors. Platforms in this phase are very similar to existing asset management software used to aid human financial advisors in the decision-making process.[10] The software is limited in the kinds of financial products that it can suggest, and only asks basic questions of the client.[10] A major disadvantage of a first stage robo-advisor is that its functionality is limited to only suggesting products to the client.[10] The client is responsible for buying and managing their investment portfolio. They must also manually monitor the market for any changes and adjust their portfolio accordingly.[10]

Robo-Advisor 2.0

Robo-advisor 2.0 shows significant improvements in autonomous operation from robo-advisor 1.0. Platforms in this phase are capable of setting up investment accounts and executing orders for the client.[10] Questionnaires are also more in-depth and are able to determine a client’s risk tolerance.[10] The platform can use this information to help direct clients to certain portfolios classified by risk.[10] Although the service requires less human intervention, it is still far from a fully autonomous solution. Investment managers must still manually monitor client portfolios and provide adjustments when necessary.[10] Investment managers are also able to adjust the algorithms as they see fit in order to change the behaviour of the robo-advisor.

Robo-Advisor 3.0

Robo-advisor 3.0 strongly builds upon the autonomous investment capabilities introduced with robo-advisor 2.0. The robo-advisor is now able to make investment decisions autonomously using advanced algorithms.[10] Investment managers' only role in the system is to provide oversight and intervene when they feel it is necessary.[10] Clients are also able to accept or reject adjustments that the robo-advisor makes to their portfolios, still enabling a relatively high degree of human control over the process.[10]

Robo-Advisor 4.0

Robo-advisor 4.0 is the final stage in the evolution of robo-advisors. Algorithms direct investments based on extremely comprehensive questionnaires that probe deeply at a client’s risk appetite and desired investment outcomes.[10] In addition, algorithms direct all investment decisions and continually learn by utilizing the latest advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.[10] The robo-advisor is also capable of adjusting a client’s portfolio in real time and can autonomously respond to changing market conditions.[10]

According to a report by Deloitte, approximately 80% of robo-advisors have capabilities at the 3.0 stage, with many platforms rapidly advancing to the 4.0 stage as advancements in Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence enable greater robo-advisor functionality.[10]

Benefits of Robo-Advisors

As mentioned, there are a wide variety of robo-advisors available to Canadian consumers. However, this section will be focusing specifically on Wealthsimple due to its large presence in the Canadian financial industry.

Lower Fees

Savings generated by the lower MER of robo-advisors

The combination of a fund’s management and operating fees are known as the Management Expense Ratio (MER). The MER for Wealthsimple’s equity growth portfolio is 0.70% [11], in comparison, the average MER of an equity fund sold in Canada is 2.42%. Due to the large difference in fees, clients using robo-advisors are able to save a significant amount of money in the long term. For example, an investor who puts in $25,000 at a 4.0% rate of return can expect to save $13,000 in expenses over 20 years. Monika Dutt, a research analyst for Morningstar, explains that the significant cost savings are derived from robo-advisories not having to pay "teams of well-educated and highly credentialed portfolio managers" [11] to actively manage a fund. In addition, robo-advisors also save capital and operational costs by not having to maintain brick and mortar sales centers. Robo-advisors automate sales and administrative tasks, thus eliminating a massive cost that was traditionally required to compete in the market. These cost savings are then passed onto consumers in the form of a lower MER.

Available 24/7

Benefits of Robo-Advisors

The second benefit of robo-advisors is its 24/7 availability. This means that investors can actively trade at home or on their spare time, rather than meeting with financial advisors during banking hours.[1] It also gives the investors the option to access their investments through smart phones which makes it very easy to invest on the go. Individual portfolios are also managed 24/7 by robo-advisors which will also make automatic adjustments to your investments based on your profile parameters, such as risk tolerance, long term goals, and previous performance.[2]

Customized Portfolios

Unlike mutual funds, robo-advisors give the investor the option to customize what is contained within each portfolio. This is mainly determined based on the series of questions that the investor answers when signing up for the robo-advisor. The robo-advisor will then select investment products and assemble them into a portfolio that is better suited toward the investors needs than mutual funds. Similarly to mutual funds, an investor is able to have multiple portfolios, each with its own investments and traits.

Eliminates Emotions

Robo-advisors eliminate the emotional aspect of investing because they automatically manage a lot of the trades. This is ideal for inexperienced investors because new investors can have their judgment impaired by their emotions, potentially leading to sub-optimal trades. The software will allocate an investor's money into appropriate investments without any interference from human emotion.

Users of Robo-Advisors

There are three main consumer categories that would benefit from using robo-advisors: millennials, retirees, and high net worth individuals (HNWI).


The emergence of robo-advisors is still considered a new technological advancement. Millennials are widely considered "digital natives" as they have been raised with technology as a fundamental part of their daily lives.[3] The use of robo-advisors appeals to younger investors due to the many benefits it offers, predominately the convenience and lower fees these services offer.[4] Many of those new to investing find it much easier to have automated advisors sort out their finances as many have a distinct lack of trust in traditional financial advisors for various reasons.[3] Robo-advisors help to remove the perceived uncertainty out of investing, which provides these millennials with peace of mind and measure of comfort.


Robo-advisors have become a more appealing option for investing to the wealthier demographic of the Baby Boomer generation as they age and enter retirement.[3] This is mainly because it is much more convenient for them to invest as it can be done anywhere at any time. Appointments with traditional advisors are no longer needed for this group of people to discuss their investments. Although this generation did not grow up with technology, many have learned to grow and adapt to utilize and improve their everyday tasks with it. With the option of robo-advisors, more and more of them will start to look toward this choice as the user interface is easy to learn and relatively user-friendly.

High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI)

Individuals with high net worth have started to think that using automated investment tools can affect their wealth in a positive way.[3] Because of the large pool of funds available, HNWI are able to invest their money using multiple different options; they can choose to split up their money and invest some of it using robo-advisors. Investing using more than one method may result in lesser risk than investing every penny using just one approach. Similar to millennials, HNWI also feel more comfortable using robo-advisors as they take out the perceived “guess-work” in investing with traditional financial advisors.

Impacts on the Industry

Promotes Innovation

Investment results are not guaranteed and robo-advisors expose investors to just as much risk as any other investment approach.[5] Despite this, robo-advisors will generate greater competition in the wealth management industry because of the benefits they provide, including lower fees and increased accessibility. The increase in competition may actually lead to innovation both within the wealth management industry and in traditional service industries outside of financial advising.[6] Financial advisors will now have to create unique and personalized services to investors that robo-advisors cannot duplicate.[6]

Increases Access to Investment Services

Robo-advisors have enabled investors to have increased access to investment services. Robo-advisors open up investing to those who have low funds available for investment or want to spend less on overall fees. Robo-advisors often have pre-set options for certain investments, and because of this, many will still prefer a human advisor.[7] Even though robo-advisors have highly personalized services tailored to each customer’s preferences, some investors would still feel more comfortable having a second opinion from a human advisor.[8] While they provide numerous benefits to investors, robo-advisors cannot provide the emotional reassurance a human can, which may discourage some from investing with automated advisors altogether.

Impacts on Society

Robo-advisors, like many emerging technologies, have had widespread implications on society. These impacts are predominantly felt in the areas of financial market regulation, fiduciary capabilities of automated platforms, and future employment.

Financial Market Regulation

Primary regulatory bodies for the US and Canadian financial industries

Financial advisors are subject to extensive regulations and must comply with these regulations in order to continue their practice. In the United States, the primary piece of legislation that governs the conduct of financial advisors is the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. This legislation defines an “Investment Adviser” as any entity that is in the business of providing financial advice for compensation.[9] Rule 204-3 of the act mandates that financial advisors provide several disclosures to their clients, including a comprehensive description of the advisor’s background, business practices, and any conflicts of interest.[9]

Since robo-advisors are in the business of providing financial advice to clients in return for compensation, they are therefore legally classified as “Investment Advisers” and are subject to regulation under the Investment Advisers Act of 1940. This means that they must make extensive disclosures to clients and regulators regarding their business practices. Robo-advisors give their recommendations based on a system of algorithms, data analytics, and decision science operating on extensive back-end technology infrastructure. The business practices of robo-advisors are fundamentally different than their human counterparts and this poses several challenges for clients and regulators.

Many clients may be unable or unwilling to make sense of a robo-advisor's business model if they are unable to understand the complex methods by which the platform makes its investment decisions. This may result in users being unable to make informed decisions as to which robo-advisor is best suited for their particular needs.

Unlike clients, regulators must have knowledge about a robo-advisor’s business practices in order to properly evaluate whether the platform is in compliance with applicable laws. This requires regulators to be well versed in topics such as algorithms, systems architecture, technology infrastructure, data analytics, and decision science.[10] As it currently stands, regulatory authorities lack the skills and expertise necessary to carry out proper assessments of robo-advisors and it will require considerable cost and time to build these capabilities.[10]

Similar to the troubles facing automotive regulation and autonomous cars, financial regulation is clearly unable to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation in the robo-advisor space.

Fiduciary Duty

The nature of providing financial advice means that advisors are held to a high standard of care known as fiduciary duty. In its most basic form, fiduciary duty is an obligation for one party to care for the best interest of another.[11] For financial advisors, this means always suggesting products that fit the client’s needs, regardless of whether another product offers the advisor a greater commission or other incentive. In humans, this concept is well known and understood by all professionals that are required to adhere to this rule. However, with robo-advisors it is somewhat less clear whether they are truly able to uphold fiduciary duty because of the way they conduct business. Robo-advising firms argue that their products only charge for the provision of advice, and therefore do not feel any temptation from additional incentives like their human counterparts.[11] However, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has raised concerns that the investment product suggestions a robo-advisor provides may not actually be properly personalized toward client needs and therefore are not in the best interest of the client.[12] This concern arises out of robo-advisors' reliance on questionnaires to collect all relevant client information. Poorly designed or confusing questionnaires may miss critical client information or collect contradictory information, resulting in suggestions that may not be in line with the clients desired investment strategy.[12] While the issue of missed information is certainly inherent in humans, some current robo-advisors may not be able to spot contradictions in client information like a human advisor can. In addition, many questionnaires do not ask the client follow up questions like a human would in order to discover missing important client information.[12]

It is clear that fiduciary duty in robo-advisors is a complex issue and that serious legal questions must be resolved about whether automated services are able to act in the best interest of a human client.

Automation and Employment

Top 5 jobs most likely to be automated

Robo-advisors, like other emerging technologies, have the potential to significantly disrupt employment in their respective industries. The highly-skilled and specialized nature of the financial advising profession means that automation of this industry could have wide-reaching repercussions for other similar jobs in the near future.

Many jobs are currently in the process of being automated or are at high risk of being automated. In a report released by the Brookfield Institute at Ryerson University, it was estimated that nearly 42% of the work Canadians do can be automated.[13] The top five positions at risk for automation in descending order are Retail Salespersons, Administrative Assistants, Food Counter Attendants, Cashiers, and Transport Truck Drivers.[13] These positions all tend to involve highly routine work, require lower education, have lower wages, and involve routine and scripted client interactions. Automation tends to affect jobs that have these characteristics first as robots and programs are suited to perform routine tasks with a high degree of accuracy.

Certified Financial Planner designation

Financial advising is widely seen as a specialized information job that requires significant schooling and training to fulfill. Financial advisors generally possess a bachelor’s degree as well as additional credentials such as the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) designation.[14] The nature of financial advising requires professionals to have very personalized interactions with their clients since different clients will have different needs. Unlike the jobs that are most at risk for automation, financial advising involves non-routine work, rigorous educational requirements, and personalized interaction with clients. The emergence of robo-advisors demonstrates that these specialized information jobs are no longer considered 'safe' from automation.

It is clear that the existence of robo-advisors is threatening to disrupt and in some cases, replace the human financial advisor. A similar trend has already occurred in the travel industry with many people opting to book travel online instead of through a human travel agent.[15] In addition, advancements in Artificial Intelligence have aimed to make automated systems emulate human interactions, with companies like Microsoft and IBM working on creating chatbots often with mixed results.[15] This could further degrade the emotional advantage that human advisors have over their robotic counterparts. With these advancements, the United States Department of Labour predicts that travel agents will be subject to a 12% decline in employment numbers between 2014 and 2024.[16] The rise of robo-advisors has the potential to disrupt employment for financial advisors much in the way that internet technologies disrupted employment for travel agents.

It is therefore clear that robo-advisors will significantly alter the employment landscape for financial advisors in the near future.

Future Developments

Forecast of assets under management by robo-advisors

The future of robo-advisors, as with many other new technologies, is hard to predict. Many services on the market today are evolving to the Robo-Advisor 4.0 stage where the platform will improve utilizing the latest advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.[17] As such, the future of robo-advisors is dependent on future developments of these technologies. Robo-advisors will inevitably gain more capabilities, have an increased ability to make complex decisions, and be better able to understand the client’s needs in the near future.[18]

Despite the changes that robo-advisors are bringing to the financial advising industry, there is still a case for human advisors. Certain individuals will value the guidance, reassurance, and emotional connection that human advisors provide.[19] This is especially true of persons who are making complex investment decisions as they may be uneasy having an emotionless algorithm directing a significant portion of their finances.[19] Human advisors may also be desired by those new to investing, as they may want someone to explain the mechanics of investing or provide reassurance if the market changes.[19] Investors who are part of an older age group may also prefer human advisors as they may be intimidated by the technical aspects of a robo-advisor. Finally, there will inevitably be a subset of investors who are simply weary of technology and do not trust an automated platform to handle something as important as their finances. While robo-advisors would appear to be an ideal replacement for the human financial advisor, there are a significant portion of investors who would stand to benefit from human interaction.

Robo-advisors are bound to create stronger competition within the wealth management industry. In order to justify their higher costs, human advisors will have to market the additional value and emotional connection they bring to the investing experience.[20] The benefits of human advisors may become more difficult to justify as AI matures and can provide client interactions that are similar to a human conversation.

Millennials are beginning to come to the age where they will be making long-term financial decisions. Since millennials are one of the groups that are specifically targeted by marketing campaigns for robo-advisory services, these platforms will see significant increases in assets under management. By 2020, robo-advisors are estimated to hold anywhere between $500B and $2.2T of assets under management.[21]

Future Applications

Robo-advisor platforms combine several technologies in order to provide personalized advice to clients, including Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Predictive Analytics. These technologies and the ability to provide automated advice have wide-ranging uses in many different business functions and industries.

Human Resources

Human Resources departments in numerous companies struggle with determining whether a candidate is a good fit for a job. Managers can feed information about job history, experience, education level, and interests into systems that can help suggest a role that will keep employees engaged.[22] This has the potential to reduce turnover and the costs associated with it. Robo-advisor technologies can assist larger companies with succession planning, which will align existing employees skills and talents with future roles better than current methods. This will ensure there is a more accurate fit for the employee and positions, and will help promote better harmony between the employee and company.


Marketing is another business function that stands to benefit from the use of customer data to formulate suggestions. Amazon and other retailers already give product recommendations based on a customer’s shopping habits, but these recommendations can be improved due to advancements in AI and Machine Learning. Amazon has just recently made its Deep Scalable Sparse Tensor Network Engine (DSSTNE) open source in the hopes that others will improve on its capabilities.[23] Developments in AI should lead to both robo-advisors and other suggestion engines making much better product recommendations in the future.

Insurance and Risk Management

Life insurance is another industry that can benefit from robo-advisor technologies. Invisor Financial and the Teachers Life Insurance Society have partnered to create a working life insurance robo-advice platform.[24] Much like robo-advisors in the financial sector, this platform asks clients a questionnaire to determine the level of coverage they need. The entire process is completed online, forgoing the need to have a human insurance agent assist clients with purchasing coverage. Other insurance companies are likely to investigate the implementation of similar technologies in the future, leading robo-advisors to have a much larger presence outside of the financial industry.

Addendum - Updated by Drew Parker ( has posted an interesting blog addendum in January of 2019 to complement this discussion. The author compares current robo advisors and discusses features salient to each. It can be accessed at [25]


Nathan Moo Assam Ahmed Jennifer Hung Clarence Chok
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada


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  2. WallStreetJournal (2017) 'The Pros and Cons of Robo Advising' accessed from
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  6. 6.0 6.1 'How Will Robo-Advisors Impact the Future of Investing?' accessed from July 5, 2017
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  20. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Ludden
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  25. Watkins, A.S. (2019) 'Best Robo Advisors in 2019'
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