09.28.2017
By Rob Daly

Schwab: Robo-Advisers Not So Disruptive

Much of the disruption financial services face is not from their direct competitors, but from other industry verticals that retail consumers interact with daily, according to Walter Bettinger, president and CEO of Charles Schwab.

“We make comparison across industry lines, not just bank versus bank but against Amazon and Uber,” he told the audience at the Finance Disrupted 2017 conference hosted by The Economist. “Customers are expecting everything in a no-tradeoff world.”

Although fintech startups are disrupting the industry, Bettinger noted that Charles Schwab had a history of disrupting itself since its founding in 1971. “When commissions were $80 per trade, 90% of the firm’s revenue came from commissions,” he estimated. “Now, that is in the single digits.”

Similarly, Bettinger is seeing the lion’s portion of his firm’s revenue migrating from mutual funds into exchange-traded funds, indexes, and financial advice business lines.

Regarding financial advice business, he discounts the novelty and impact that robo advisors will have on the industry overall.

Walter Bettinger, Charles Schwab

“What they do is take a risk profile and make allocations based on that in relatively low-cost underlying instruments, rebalance the portfolio, and do some level of tax harvesting,” he explained. “That’s been going on for decades.”

Where startups will have challenges is on the economy of scale that the entrenched players have.

Charles Schwab is continuing trying to reduce the amount of profit it generates from each client dollar under management. “About 20 years ago, we made approximately 70 to 80 basis points from each client dollar under management,” said Bettinger, “Now, it is somewhere in the 20s.”

As a result, the firm took in approximately $18 billion in net assets in August as well as signing up thousands of new clients via its mobile application daily.

He noted that he believed this amount was larger than the market capitalization of the two leading robo adviser startups. “It is hard to scale a trust business in a short time,” Bettinger added.

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