Updated 2012. Betterment.com is another online investment tool that rolls portfolio management, trading commissions, and rebalancing into one website. I opened an account when it started in 2010 with $1,000 to see under the hood. Since then, they’ve actually made several changes in response to feedback and constructive criticism, and I think the moves have been in the right direction. Instead of a new post, I’ve updated this existing review to incorporate the changes.
The main attraction of Betterment is simplicity. It boils everything down to a big dial (see above) to indicate your risk preference, and takes care of everything else in the background. ETF buying, ETF selling, rebalancing, and so on. On the surface, it’s as easy as having a bank account, besides the critical fact that you can lose money!
The new account application was conducted entirely online. You provide your usual personal info and investing background, and they verify your identity using a quiz based on information from your credit reports (your actual credit score is not checked nor is it a factor). You then provide your bank routing and account numbers, and they deposit and withdrawal trial amounts to verify that you own that account. After that, you can transfer money electronically back and forth easily. This part was indeed simple and easy. Here’s a screenshot of part of the application:
Asset Allocation (Updated)
Based on my answers to their risk questionnaire algorithm, I ended up with a 63% stocks vs. 37% bonds allocation. My initial review circa June 2010 knocked the fact that (1) their stock allocation was all US-based and (2) their bond allocation was entirely Treasury Inflation-Protected bonds. As of November 2010, they indeed added nominal Treasury Bonds to their asset allocation. As of September 2011, the adjusted their stock portfolio to add international stock exposure in the form of a conservative 35% international/65% US split. (Market-cap weighting is closer to 55% international/45% US.) Here is their current target breakdown for stocks and bond portions, separately:
Stock Portion Only
- 25% Vanguard Total Stock Market (VTI)
- 25% iShares S&P 500 Value (IVE)
- 25% Vanguard Europe Pacific (VEA)
- 10% Vanguard Emerging Markets (VWO)
- 8% iShares Russell Midcap Value (IWS)
- 7% iShares Russell 2000 Value (IWN)
Bond Portion Only
Happily, they are using passive index ETFs that offer good tax-efficiency and low costs. The weighted expense ratio of all the stock ETFs together is 0.16%. The weighted expense ratio of all the bond ETFs together is 0.18%.
I do like the current asset allocation a lot more than I did before, although I wish it was more carefully considered in the beginning because it resulted in a lot of unnecessary trades for early adopters like myself. My 1099-B form for 2011 is four pages long of tiny little trades. The silver lining is that the tax info imports nicely into TurboTax software.
Betterment.com tries to make things simple a la ShareBuilder, and thus also uses fractional shares. This way, you can own exactly $10 or $100 of an ETF, even if the price of a single share may be $76. I believe they buy and sell shares between other users of Betterment:
DUAL AGENT CAPACITY: In executing your trades Betterment Securities has acted as both an agent and dual agent, with the exception that in the case of a trade which totals a whole number of shares we have acted as an agent only. For portions of your trades for which Betterment Securities acts as a dual agent you received an execution price equal to the “bid” (when selling shares) or “ask” (when buying shares) quotes on the open market.
As long as they are providing a fair price and not using the system as a profit-generating venture, then that would make practical sense. If I need to sell some shares and someone else is buying, then swapping them out internally would save money and commissions all around.
Fees (Updated Early 2012)
When Betterment first rolled out, it offered a flat fee of 0.9% annually for accounts with balances up to $25,000. There were no monthly fees, no maintenance fees, no minimum requirements, and no commission charged for any trades. As of March 2012, their fee schedule has been changed to lower fees for most users, but also raised some fees for certain smaller accounts. However, if you were an existing customer which opened an account before February 21, 2012 , you can choose to keep your old fee schedule.
Here’s the new fee schedule, which breaks down into three plan options:
Note that for accounts under $10,000 in size, there is a requirement to add $100/month to your account. Otherwise, you’ll be subject to a $3 monthly fee. For smaller accounts that don’t contribute $100 a month, this is comparatively a fee increase. However, I think this requirement is understandable because Betterment needs active and growing accounts for their business model to work, and this also encourages a certain level of saving. However, if you do add $100 a month, your annual fees are now 0.35% instead of 0.9% previously. Once you reach $10,000, there is no monthly requirement and you are looking at 0.25% annually.
All in all, I think the updated fee structure is more equitable than before and a more realistic solution for the long-term. For a $1,000 account that adds $100 a month, your annual costs will be about $6. Less than ten bucks a year, including all commission costs but on top of the expense ratios of the individual ETFs? That’s a pretty good deal even if you wouldn’t mind making trades yourself. Even with a discount brokerage you’d pay $7/trade at Scottrade or $3.95/trade at OptionsHouse. When you look at the whole fee picture, Betterment can be very economical. Here is a screenshot of my automated transaction history:
Custom portfolios. I know that $100,000 is a lot of money, but this is where I think Betterment is getting somewhere cool. With $100k they will let you design a custom basket of ETFs and then maintain it for you. For example, I could add ETFs that cover Real Estate, Commodities, or Gold. Now, 0.15% of $100,000 is $150. I actually think I might pay a few hundred dollars a year for them to maintain an ETF portfolio as that would include trade commissions. The only problem here is portfolio fragmentation – my money is split in a bunch of different accounts (IRAs, 401ks, Solo 401ks) which makes holistic asset allocation harder to achieve using automated tools. I think such customization is definitely a step in the right direction to reach the “mass affluent” (though I hate that term).
Alternatives. You can already buy a nice all-in-one mutual fund from Vanguard like the Vanguard 2045 Target Retirement Fund (VTIVX) with a $1,000 minimum investment. In a similar manner, you can manage your overall asset allocation by altering the date and they’ll maintain and rebalance for you as well, gradually becoming more conservative as time goes on. You can transfer funds to/from a bank account in $100 increments. Transactions are also free when you hold them at Vanguard.com, and all this costs just 0.20% annually including all fees.
New User $25 Bonus
If you open a new account at least $250, you can get a $25 bonus to start via this referral link. Not a bad deal if you want to try it out. To qualify for the bonus, you must make an initial deposit of $250 within 60 days of signup and not withdraw that initial deposit for 60 days.