So you’ve got a high interest savings account, bought yourself some government bonds, maybe even dabbled in regular savings plans and/or bought blue chip SGX stocks. So, what’s next on your “investment journey”?
The natural next step is to look outside of the local market, i.e. start investing in global (especially US-listed) assets.
While this can easily be done at your favourite bank or investment brokerage, such as UOB KayHian or Phillip Securities, they tend to charge hefty commission fees, which really eat into your profits if you’re only a small-time investor.
So if you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to invest, you may want to consider going the (much cheaper) robo advisor route instead.
But what the heck are robo advisors?
- What are robo advisors?
- What are the robo advisors in Singapore and how much are their fees?
- Which robo advisor should you use?
- Are robo advisors regulated in Singapore?
- Pros of robo advisors
- Cons of robo advisors
- What sorts of investors are robo advisors suitable for?
What are robo advisors?
If you invest the traditional way, say, through a bank, there’s an investment manager handling your account and advising you on how to invest, based on his/her understanding of your financial goals and risk appetite.
Robo advisors are digital advisory services that basically replace the human investment manager.
They come in many forms, but generally, what happens is that you sign up on an online platform, input your goals and risk appetite, and — using some fancy algorithms — the robo advisor will recommend an investment portfolio for you. If you’re happy with the suggestions, you can invest directly through them. You can also monitor your portfolio online with robo advisors, and rebalance your portfolio whenever you need to.
As the word “robo” suggests, there is no direct human involvement in the advice rendered. Yet, every robo advisor is subtly different, because they use different algorithms based on the company’s knowledge of markets and investing.
Of course, since robo advisors aren’t human, they can’t (yet) capture all your nuances and customise accordingly, or execute trades that don’t fit within their framework of computer logic.
What they can do, though, is to help automate your international investments in a low-risk way, typically by helping you invest in ETFs (exchange-traded funds). These are funds that invest in a variety of assets, which might include stocks, bonds, gold and more. Most of the ETFs that robo advisors deal with are US or worldwide.
In short, robo advisors are simple investment instruments. They’re meant to let you invest passively in the longer-term, not to make short-term gains by buying and selling frequently.
In exchange, robo advisor fees are much lower than the commission fees at a traditional investment brokerage, making it cost-effective for small-time investors.
What are the robo advisors in Singapore and how much are their fees?
The robo advisor scene used to be dominated by Stashaway, Smartly and AutoWealth. These have been around since 2015/6 and are the most established platforms in Singapore. Over the past couple of years, though, it seems like every bank and finance company has been jumping on the bandwagon.
Here are the main local options available to Singapore investors right now:
|Robo advisor||Total fees per year||Minimum investment|
|Stashaway||~1% (up to $25,000)||None|
|Smartly||1.1% to 1.25% (<$10,000) / 0.8% to 0.95% (>$10,000)||$50|
|AutoWealth||0.5% + US$18||$3,000|
|OCBC RoboInvest||0.88% + possible extras||US$2,500 ($3,411)|
|UTrade Robo||0.88% (up to $50,000)||$5,000|
|Philip SMART Portfolio||0.5% + SGX clearing fees where applicable||$5,000|
|MoneyOwl||1.13% to 1.23%||$100|
|EndowUs||0.6% (up to $200,000)||$10,000|
|Kristal.AI||0.05% (up to US$50,000)||$10|
The fees here are taken from the robo advisors’ websites. Most of them say the fees are “all in” but there’s quite a lot of discrepancy between the rate structures. For example, some list ETF fund management fees separately from the platform fee, while others just behave as if ETF fees don’t exist. So, take it all with a pinch of salt.
Apart from these 8 robo advisors for retail investors, there’s also DBS digiPortfolio (only for DBS Treasures clients for now) and Connect by Crossbridge (only for high net worth investors). Previously, there was also CGS-CIMB eWealth but it’s been discontinued.
Stashaway vs Smartly vs AutoWealth: Which robo advisor should you use?
Although there’s a dazzling array of options, most Singaporean investors would prefer to go with one of the more established “ASS” — AutoWealth, Stashaway or Smartly.
Each robo advisor uses a different investing strategy, so the portfolios generated (and therefore your returns) will differ. Plus, there are also differences in the experience of using each platform. However, we can compare them in terms of their fees and minimum deposits.
Depending on your situation, here are our recommendations:
Stashaway: Your starting capital is small
With no minimum investment amount needed, Stashaway is definitely a viable option for getting your toes wet. You can easily open an account in a few minutes via their website or app, and it’s very easy to use.
It also charges one of the lowest fees for small investment amounts (e.g. up to $8,000) — 0.8% fee plus about 0.2% for the ETF fund manager, so about 1%. For non-USD assets, there’s also a 0.1% currency conversion fee per year.
While it is a low-barrier tool, Stashaway also manages several clients with more than $1m worth of investments. See our review of Stashaway here.
Smartly: Fees are competitive for those with at least $10,000
Smartly works similarly to Stashaway, and its fees are lower than Stashaway as soon as you have $10,000 to invest. You can easily open an account but it’s not quite as fast as Stashaway.
For investment amounts under $10,000, total fees (Smartly fees + ETF manager fees) add up to about 1.1% to 1.25%, which is more expensive than Stashaway, but if you have more than $10,000, this drops to 0.8% to 0.95%.
AutoWealth: You want more control over your portfolio
While StashAway and Smartly are meant to be entry-level robo advisors for people who want the simplest possible way to invest their money, AutoWealth is designed for slightly more serious investors.
The minimum investment amount is much higher at $3,000, and the sign-up process is also more onerous. AutoWealth assigns each user a personal advisor who will be able to offer support via text. You can also choose to meet the advisor in person.
AutoWealth has a different pricing structure in which you pay US$18 a year for using the platform, and 0.5% commission on the investment amount. So while it’s expensive for small investments, you start to see pretty dramatic savings (compared to Stashaway and Smartly) around the $10,000 to $20,000 mark.
Are robo advisors regulated in Singapore?
In a nutshell, yes, robo advisors are regulated, but they get special leeway from the MAS.
MAS requires robo advisors be licensed under the Securities and Futures Act (SFA) and/or the Financial Advisers Act (FAA). Which one(s) apply depend on the robo advisor’s “scope of activities and business model”, but the point is that you should find it in either one or the other.
At the same time, MAS doesn’t want to be impede digital innovation, so in Oct 2018, they also loosened the licensing criteria:
Robo advisors can be licensed under the SFA even if they lack the usual corporate track record requirements, provided they have board/senior management members with relevant experience in fund management and technology, offer portfolios that comprise only non-complex collective investment schemes; and submit to an independent audit after the first year.
They can also be licensed under the FAA while being exempt from having to collect full data on a client’s financial status. However, they’re required to put in some form of data-gathering measure to prevent recommending the wrong types of investments.
Robo advisors also get special leeway to pass their clients’ orders to brokerages without having to obtain an additional capital markets services license under the SFA.
These relatively relaxed rules mean it’s fairly easy for robo advisors to operate regardless of their performance history, so be careful when choosing one.
Pros of using robo advisors
Just as online shopping has dealt a heavy blow to brick and mortar sales, an array of advantages have led to a surge in popularity of robo advisors, including the following:
Fees are lower
Because robo advisors offer advice automatically, based on algorithms and with the help of software, they can afford to offer lower fees than investment management professionals can. Robo advisors also often do not charge additional fees to deposit or withdraw money. That means you don’t need to worry as much about losing money to fees when depositing or withdrawing smaller amounts.
Low buy-in fee
Forget about investing with traditional investment managers if all you have are the coins in your piggy bank. Most traditional investment methods require a minimum trade size that can range from hundreds to thousands. You also need to worry about whether the fees you are paying will eat significantly into your investment gains if you’re not investing much. Some robo advisors let you invest if you only have a small amount of money.
Easy and convenient
Ease of use is one big reason people prefer using robo advisors. There is usually no need to submit documents to a brokerage or fund manager when signing up for an account, or relay your instructions to an investment manager. You can simply sign up online, create a profile and let the app do the rest. Some activities such as rebalancing can also be automated.
No lock-in fee
Most of the local robo advisors at the moment do not lock you in, meaning you can choose to liquidate your investments at any time. Therefore, while they advise against short-term speculation, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it, especially if deposit and withdrawal fees are not being charged. Conversely, some funds have lock-in periods.
Maintaining a diversified portfolio is essential to reducing risk, as you won’t go broke if one or two of your assets crashes and burns. Robo advisors operate like funds by offering a mix of assets, except that instead of human analysts managing the assets, it’s an algorithm doing the work.
Thanks to robo advisors’ algorithms, they can offer advice that is customised (to a limited degree) according to your needs. It can take into account details such as risk appetite, income/cash-out needs, financial goals and more, to offer advice fine-tuned to your needs. Of course, don’t forget that the efficacy of the advice given depends on the sophistication of the algorithm.
Cons of using robo advisors
Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns when it comes to robo advisors. There are a few disadvantages, such as the following.
Inability to deviate from the algorithms
A human investment manager can do whatever you want him to, including make choices he doesn’t think are so smart. But with robo advisors, investment choices are only customisable up to a certain point, and cannot deviate from the algorithm’s parameters.
If you want to be able to choose your own securities or have some very specific investment preferences, robo advisors may not be able to give you nuanced enough advice.
Fees and taxes
While robo advisors generally charge lower fees than investment managers, you might still end up paying quite a bit in fees and taxes.
For instance, if you are investing in US-listed ETFs, you are going to lose money in the form of currency conversion fees and US dividend taxes. Also look out for other costs such as subscription fees. Robo advisors might be marketed as a cheaper alternative, but they’re still not as free as DIYing your own portfolio management.
What sorts of investors are robo advisors suitable for?
As you can see, there are some disadvantages mixed in with the advantages. So what kind of person are robo advisors ideal for? Well, you might want to consider using one of the following apply to you:
You don’t know how to invest globally
One reason robo advisors have become so popular is that they offer an “investment for dummies” experience for those who have no idea how to get started. They’re easy to use and require no knowledge of how global stock markets work. You just transfer your money, let the robo advisor invest using their algorithm and hope your wealth grows.
You are lazy and want a completely passive system
No matter how much or how little you know about investing, if you’re so lazy that you wouldn’t lift a finger to invest if someone didn’t do it for you, robo advisors can manage your investments for you with almost zero effort. Rebalancing can also be done automatically. Just know that you’re paying a price for the convenience.
You’re looking for a cheap and easy way to start investing
Don’t have much capital or know-how, but want to start investing anyway? Instead of waiting years till you finally earn enough money or read enough books to qualify as an investment expert yourself, it can be a lot easier to simply use a robo advisor. Putting off investing all your life because you don’t know how can leave you worse off in the end.
You’re looking for a lower cost alternative to your investment manager
If you’re already using an existing investment manager and haven’t been too pleased with their performance or think their fees are too high, you might want to consider switching to a robo advisor.
Have you ever used a robo advisor? Share your experiences in the comments!
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