Betterment: Overpriced simplicity

By Felix Salmon
December 13, 2010
Sean Park is so excited about Betterment that he bought a stake in the company:

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Sean Park is so excited about Betterment that he bought a stake in the company:

Betterment allows anyone to quickly, easily and without mystery manage asset allocation and risk budgeting using a simple, multi-asset class portfolio. No hassle, no time wasted, no blizzard of trade confirmations. The first time I saw it, I immediately wanted to be able to manage all my cash balances using their platform.

Except Sean Park is a sophisticated venture capitalist, and Betterment doesn’t manage cash balances. Instead, it manages investments. Basically, it provides an easy way of sweeping money out of your checking account and into your Betterment account, where it’s then invested across eight different ETFs. Betterment does most of the asset allocation; you just tell the company how much you want invested in Treasuries and how much in stocks, and they will do the rest.

This is a handy little service — but the amount that Betterment charges — 0.9% per year — is way too much, especially since it comes on top of the expense ratios of the underlying ETFs, which net out at 18.2bp for stocks and 17.5bp for bonds. In these days of ultra-low interest rates, buying a bond fund and then paying out 107.5bp per year in expenses is likely to leave you with a negative real return, and quite possibly could leave you with a negative nominal return as well. Or, to put it another way, right now it makes very little sense to have Betterment manage your bond funds and charge you a 90bp fee for the privilege: you might well be better off just keeping your money in a savings account, where there’s no risk of a nominal decline.

The idea behind Betterment — that investing should be very easy and simple at the front end, even if there’s lots of complicated stuff going on at the back end — is a good one. And I look forward to the time when banks offer Betterment-style services to their depositors, making it easy and painless to save money. I’m sure those banks could learn a lot from what Betterment is doing, and even maybe license some of their technology. But it only really becomes attractive when it’s free. And when, at the very least, it gives some kind of an option to invest internationally and in credit — two enormous asset classes that Betterment completely ignores. I’m pretty sure that Sean Park, for one, would never find it genuinely attractive in its current incarnation.

Update: Betterment’s CEO, Jon Stein, responds in the comments, and he sure knows the way to a blogger’s heart — by referencing an old blog entry which even I’d forgotten about:

I agree with you that we should offer our customers exposure to international stocks. Our users are all US-based, and so are naturally overweight US. We plan to add international exposure soon, and perhaps a real-estate component or credit component, as well. All of these asset classes are components of the “market portfolio” – and would be represented in the “everything bagel” that you talked about in a previous post. It’s that everything bagel that we’re working toward – it takes time to make it just right.

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