This Simplified 401(k) Robo-Advisor Hopes to Flower on Wall Street

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Flowers are ordinarily few and far between on Wall Street, but a new robo-advisor to 401(k) participants is betting that a floral image is just what retirement savers are looking for. Blooom -- spelled with an extra “o” -- has signed up more than 1,000 clients paying $1 to $15 a month to have their 401(k) portfolios managed.

Blooom’s special wrinkle is that the Overland Park, Kansas, company’s online service employs a drawing of a flower to tell clients how well their personal portfolios are performing. If the plant is green, all is well. Wilting and afflicted by pests means bad news.

Blooom’s president is Greg Smith, a ex-Goldman Sachs banker who made waves when he published a blistering review of what he called his former employer’s clients-last priorities on his way out the door in 2012. Smith said Blooom is all about removing the confusing terminology and numbers from finance, and making it accessible to ordinary retirement savers while putting their needs before the firm’s.

“We think we can do finance just as well using human language and images that people can understand,” Smith said. “At times I think the charts and graphs are used to bewilder people and we would rather keep it straightforward and simple.”

Blooom also employs a simple pricing structure. When announced at the end of 2014, the plan was for clients with portfolios up to $5,000 in value to pay $1 a month. Over that amount the flat fee was $10 a month. Currently revised pricing is $1 per month for portfolios up to $20,000, and $15 a month over that.

The company is a Registered Investment Advisor, meaning it must follow the fiduciary standard calling for advice to be in clients’ best interests rather than merely suitable. Clients receive recommendations from approximately 25,000 funds and can customize portfolios by making changes to, for instance, preference for stocks over bonds. Smith said Blooom has placed more than $140 million under management in a year, which he said is faster growth than other robo-advisor startups.

Another robo-advisor to 401(k)s said Blooom’s approach places yet another layer of fees on an already fee-heavy investment vehicle. “At that $15 a month, at the currently allowed maximum contribution for $18,900 for the first year, you’re paying about 90 basis points,” said Cynthia Loh, head of New York-based Betterment for Business.

Betterment for Business, which sells its services to employers rather than individuals, charges a top rate of about 60 basis points while providing additional services, according to Loh. “One of the things we’re trying to combat in the 401 (k) space is all these layers of fees,” she said. Loh declined to say how many clients Betterment for Business has signed up.

Automated investment advice generated by an algorithm has its place, according to Phil Corcoran, a financial planner with Savant Capital Wealth Management in McLean, Virginia. However, he noted that advising a 401(k) is only part of an individual’s financial needs. “We’re going to be looking at the larger picture than whether you are saving enough for retirement,” Corcoran said.

Robo-advisors have a place with smaller accounts and with people who prefer to deal with online systems, Corcoran said. But he added that larger portfolios of $500,000 and up benefit from advice from a human planner. Savant has approximately $4.3 billion in assets under management, according to the company.

“If we can encourage more savings and getting jobs done on the financial front, I’m all for it,” Corcoran said. “But the client’s going to reach a certain point where I think they’re going to get a better outcome with a seasoned professional.”

Smith said Blooom’s stripped-down fee structure and wilting-or-thriving metric is just the sort of simplified scheme that huge numbers of retirement savers need from the financial industry. “If we can gain clients early we believe we can help millions of people in retirement,” he said.

—Written by Mark Henricks for MainStreet

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