Now imagine that this tool is completely free.
Today we’re interviewing Herbert Moore, the co-founder of robo advisor WiseBanyan.
This interview was inspired by an email from a listener named Dave:
I think your show is terrific. I listen whenever I’m doing the dishes or folding the laundry. Like you, I’m also a litigator with securities experience, though now I focus on antitrust and patent lit, and have only been practicing since 2007. I stumbled onto your podcast in November 2014, when I woke up and realized that, at 35, I desperately needed to get a handle on my finances.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your shows and have learned a ton from them. I wanted to recommend that you round out your Robo-Advisors interviews with an interview of Herbert Moore of WiseBanyan. WiseBanyan is different because they charge no fees at all and require no minimum to invest. I just started with them (I have $100 in their account). They use the “modern portfolio theory,” and invest their clients’ money in passively managed funds. At the very least, I think you’d find them interesting to check out. You may also have heard of Robinhood Investing–also free, plus free to trade individual stocks. I know less about them, although they seem to have a ton of VC backing. To me, WiseBanyan seems to be a great equalizer for investing. Disruptive, as they say.
In any case, just want you to know I’m a huge fan, I think you ask the right questions, and I’ll stay tuned.
In case you’re wondering where the name WiseBanyan comes from, it starts with the banyan tree that grows in southeast Asia and in the southeastern U.S. They grow very wide and very broad, and drop very deep roots. So they added “wise” before the name of a tree, since it adds “smart” to a type of tree the plants deep roots for the future.
The fully automated system works to replicate what a good financial advisor would do in person. You answer some simple questions about your investing goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon. WiseBanyan takes this information and constructs an asset allocation tailored to your investment needs.
Like other popular robo advisor platforms, such as Betterment and Wealthfront, WiseBanyan also uses primarily exchange traded funds (ETFs) in your portfolio. Use of ETF’s keeps investment expenses to an absolute minimum, which helps to improve your long-term performance. But unlike other robo advisors, WiseBanyan has no management fee. It is the first online financial advisor that allows you to invest with no account minimums and no management fee.
Transcript of Interview with Herbert Moore of WiseBanyan
Rob: Herbert, welcome to the show.
Herbert Moore: Hi, Rob. Thanks very much for having me on.
Rob: I’m thrilled that you agreed to come on the show. I’m not sure a lot of people have heard of your company but I’ve gotten a lot of email from folks who tell me that Schwab is coming out with a free robo-advisor service sometime this year and I thought, you know, we don’t have to wait for Schwab because there’s already one out there called WiseBanyan. And a reader emailed me and specifically asked me to interview you so that’s why I reached out to you. So, thanks so much for taking the time out of your day.
Herbert Moore: No, that’s great. And we’re really excited too that one of our clients saw fit to email you about us.
Rob: Yeah. Well, I was glad they did. Why don’t we start out with a little bit about you so folks get an idea of who you are? Give us a little bit of your background.
Herbert Moore: Sure. I’ve worked in the financial services for my entire career and more specifically, in the asset management industry. I started at fund-to-funds then moved over to head trader of the volatility arbitrage hedge fund in New York where we were attempting to cross off inconsistencies from the options and then fixed-futures markets. After that, I formed my own company called Archipelago Cap Management. What we tried to do there was take strategies that have previously only been used for institutional investors and bring them to the high net-worth market. I was joined by my cofounder Vicki Zhou, and together we built WiseBanyan. WiseBanyan really grew out of the unfortunate events when we had to turn people away from Archipelago because they didn’t have the required minimum to meet what we needed to make our business work. About a year and a half ago, we sat down and looked at where the industry was going and where we could add value to people and what big problems we could solve. One of the biggest problems we saw out there was that younger investors or people just starting to invest were not faced with very good options. We developed and built WiseBanyan as a way to help them start saving and investing in their future.
Rob: Let me back up just a little bit. Did you say that you were with a hedge fund at one point?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. It was actually a commodity-trading advisor which has slightly different regulations but is essentially the same structure, called Ansbacher Investment Management.
Rob: Let’s go back even further. What’s your background? How did you get into this business?
Herbert Moore: My undergraduate degree is in Economics and Spanish and I have a Master’s of Engineering. I got into this business because I was fascinated by the financial markets. I was fascinated by the way that, as a society, we use them to allocate cap which is really just a collection and reflection of our own human energy and what we save towards various projects. I was also fascinated at the inefficiencies within those cap markets where, either behaviorally or even with great deliberation, we can make poor choices that don’t really do the best for our investments or what we seek to accomplish for the allocation of that cap.
Rob: When you left all of that, you started your own firm. Was it a registered investment advisor firm?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. We were registered in the states of New York and Connecticut. Now, with WiseBanyan, we’re nationally registered.
Rob: Is it also a financial planning firm?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. We hold the same registered investment advisory designation as most other firms in our area. We don’t currently offer financial planning with WiseBanyan but that’s something we expect to do in the future.
Rob: You mentioned the inspiration for WiseBanyan was that you had a minimum amount of assets required for new clients with your firm. WiseBanyan was a way to bring these tools to folks with perhaps not as much to invest right now. What was the minimum for your firm?
Herbert Moore: At our firm, it was typically $100,000. What we saw there was that we were working under a similar fee structure that a lot of advisors were. We looked at what the overhead was and how much we have to spend to service clients. On top of that, we used a lot of tools that most brick and mortar financial advisors use, even trying to allocate assets efficiently. Trying to allocate 5 percent to a single asset class gets very difficult at a lower number than that if you don’t have the tools and sophistication that a company like WiseBanyan does.
Rob: So today, do you run a traditional investment advisory firm plus WiseBanyan?
Herbert Moore: So those assets and clients have been folded up into WiseBanyan. They are now on WiseBanyan and it is all one entity.
Rob: What are your assets under management today?
Herbert Moore: Currently, WiseBanyan has about $22 million.
Rob: I have to ask, where did the name come from?
Herbert Moore: We really liked the idea of putting down roots with your money and laying the groundwork for future financial success. The banyan tree is this really cool tree in Southeast Asia and the southeastern United States. They have them down in Florida as well. They grow very wide and very broad. In addition to having a root structure underneath the trunk, they also drop down roots from their limbs, which helps them to expand. So “Wise” is just smart, but “Banyan” symbolizes the idea of constantly planting your roots for the future. We like this imagery so much that our original name was Money Roots, but that was a working title that disappeared very quickly.
Rob: So you’ve got a traditional investment advisory firm. How did you get started with a sophisticated website that does everything robo-advisors do? I assume you didn’t write the code for this.
Herbert Moore: We did, initially. My cofounder and I sat down and wrote the code. That has since been torn completely apart. We started thinking about this in the summer of 2013. We wrote the code and put 50 clients on it, mostly our family and friends, in November of 2013 to test the infrastructure and get a proof of concept going. Then, we went outside and started hiring more. Now we have a fantastic team of engineers who do the entirety of our development. I don’t do any of the development anymore and my cofounder does very, very little of it. Initially it was us building the website, building some of the infrastructure, building some of the trading algorithms and platforms. Now we’re a much better team.
Rob: Did you or your cofounder have any programming background?
Herbert Moore: We learned as we went. I built a few basic websites in the past but nothing like this. My cofounder has a background in statistics and applied math. So she is very good on the quantitative side but it was a new language for her as well.
Rob: Can you walk us through how WiseBanyan works?
Herbert Moore: When you come to WiseBanyan, we try to digitally replicate what a good financial advisor would do in person. We ask you who you are, what your goals are and how long you’re investing for. That’s the quantitative side of it. The qualitative side is, are you a return seeking or risk adverse person? We get at this in a variety of ways with a few behavioral questions. This all feeds into a risk score, from one to ten. Ten would mean you are seeking the most returns and you are not as concerned about risk. At one you are strictly interested in cap preservation and a very small amount of growth. With that, we have built portfolios that seek to maximize your return at that given level of risk.
Rob: So those scores get translated into an asset allocation plan?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. We use a variety of tools. The principal one is modern portfolio theory which does exactly as I was describing. It seeks to generate portfolios with the highest level of return for a given level of risk. But, there are inherent issues with that, as anyone who uses it will acknowledge so we also do a qualitative overlay on that to ensure that portfolios don’t become very skewed towards one asset class.
Rob: How do you execute the plan? I assume you’re using ETFs from somewhere like Vanguard. What are the actual investments that our money would go into?
Herbert Moore: We look at the ETF universe broadly. We start with what asset classes we need to use for a client’s portfolio. Then we find the best ETF for that asset class. We look at a variety of things— how many assets are in the ETF, if it can support the level of current and expected trading that we plan to do in that ETF, what’s the tracking error, and what’s the fee basis? We do end up with a lot of Vanguard ETFs in the portfolio. I believe they make up about six or seven out of ten ETFs that we have in the portfolio. iShare is another one that we rely on pretty heavily. The ETF market has really improved in the past 10 years and we’re very fortunate to be able to benefit from that and have our clients benefit tremendously from it as well.
Rob: How has the ETF market improved?
Herbert Moore: Fees have come down drastically. Look at iShare, Vanguard and Schwab competing with each other and you see these fees come down. Not necessarily related to use, but we’ve also seen more niche ETFs, whereas we use the broad based ETFs. Primarily it’s fees and trading volume. At $22 million it’s not an issue for us, but at $2 billion or $4 billion you could run into some volume constraints when rebalancing portfolios. With the depths of the market in those ETFs, it means that we can build WiseBanyan with that as the guts of it.
Rob: Like most robo-advisors, are there certain tilts to the portfolio, such as small caps. I know Betterment tilts towards value. You might have commodities, REITs, emerging markets. What’s the structure for your portfolio? Do you tilt it towards any of these subclasses of assets?
Herbert Moore: We don’t tilt towards small cap or value. The reason we don’t is because a lot of that is outgrowth of driving in the rearview mirror almost. For example, when people start their portfolio, they notice that small caps have outperformed in the past 20 years and invest in that. We think that the market dynamics that have existed and have allowed small caps to outperform historically do not mean that they will outperform in the future. If you believe in efficient market theory for various asset classes, you believe that across the globe, cap on balance is represented relatively efficiently. We use VTI, which is all U.S. equities and has small caps within it, but only as their proportion of market share. The one discretionary overlay we’ve put on our portfolio was tilting away from longer duration bonds, simply because of the low interest rate environment that we’re in right now. If interest rates were to pick up, people who are investing in WiseBanyan aren’t looking to take interest rate risk. That is a macroeconomic view that we’ve taken. That there’s not much return relative to the risk in longer duration bonds. But we don’t actively tilt between emerging markets or small cap equities because we don’t think it’s best for our clients in the long run.
Rob: A very core portfolio might be a VTI for U.S. stocks, an intermediate U.S. government bond fund, and then an international fund. You’d have a remarkably diversified portfolio with three funds.
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. One thing clients ask is where their small cap ETFs are. We do give that allocation to small cap. By using these larger, more diversified ETFs, you eliminate the tax consequences that come from rebalancing between your small cap and large cap allocations as they’re all under one ETF and one security.
Rob: Do you need more than three funds?
Herbert Moore: We think that in the long run, an investor is much better served being broadly diversified. It also allows portfolio rebalancing to work for you. You can take a little money off the table on ones that have run up and add it to the ones that have underperformed as of late and you’re hoping will revert back to their mean. Diversification will certainly bring down the volatility in your portfolio in the long run, but as ETFs become more broadly diversified and efficient, I think there is a case to be made that some of them can be combined into a single allocation
Rob: How many ETFs are in play for a typical portfolio that you manage?
Herbert Moore: We use ten, but any single investor only has nine ETFs in their portfolio. That’s because we use a short-term, high-yield bond ETF that’s only used in higher risk portfolios. In the lower risk portfolio we have a short-term, essentially cash ETF that is used.
Rob: A significant difference between WiseBanyan and the rest is that there’s no management fee. There’s the underlying cost of the ETFs, but WiseBanyan is free. Is that right?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. We’re the first free online financial advisor and the only advisor that allows people to invest with absolutely no minimums, no WiseBanyan cap.
Rob: So how do you survive?
Herbert Moore: We operate on an a la carte model, so the diversified portfolio is free. We view this as a commodity business where there’s no marginal cost to us, but there are additional products and services we offer or expect to offer clients. The one that’s live right now on our site— and it’s only available if you refer other clients to WiseBanyan, is tax preparation. If you refer seven clients, WiseBanyan will prepare your taxes for you. In the future, that’s going to be a product that people can begin to pay for and we’ll offer to our clients. We believe other services, such as tax-loss harvesting offer demonstrable value to your portfolio and you can choose that as an upgraded service with WiseBanyan. Other firms might allow you to do at a minimum asset level for free.
Rob: So if someone joins WiseBanyan and refers seven friends, you will do their taxes for free?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. As an internal business decision, we look at what our typical cost per acquisition is. If we can get more clients on WiseBanyan and give this service to a person, that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make. Right now we have a referral program. And when you refer clients to WiseBanyan you get everything from a free T-shirt to tax-loss harvesting to tax preparation.
Rob: That’s interesting, but at some point you have to make money.
Herbert Moore: We look at the curative financial services and products that we can offer to clients over a number of years, and what our typical client, as an upwardly mobile person who is investing for the first time and starting to build their future will need for the future. We expect to grow with our clients and be able to offer them these products and services. We’re also fortunate to have great backers and great people behind WiseBanyan, who see the long-term value in it and are giving us time to grow with our clients. For right now, the main goal is user growth. We’re doing that incredibly well. We’re doubling in size about every three months and we expect to be able to keep on pushing forward with the user growth and roll out these paid products and services in 2015.
Rob: When you think about products down the road that you might sell, are you thinking in terms of insurance products, annuities or financial planning?
Herbert Moore: Annuities is something we will likely stay away from simply because they’re a high-fee financial product. We see that they’re a product that is typically sold and not bought. And, in a lot of cases they simply aren’t the best choice for a client even though there are some good annuity products out there. As our clients have various life events and need certain products and services, WiseBanyan can be there to provide it to them. They’re not so much curative financial products but simply products we can offer in-house like tax-loss harvesting which is something a client can simply turn on in their profile and we can do that for them in-house.
Rob: Is there a fee for the tax-loss harvesting feature?
Herbert Moore: We haven’t launched the fee publically yet, but it will be likely in the 15 to 25 point basis range.
Rob: Would that be applied only to the balance in a taxable account as opposed to, say, an IRA?
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. For an IRA account we’re working on something called, enhanced indexing which is an option-based strategy. It has tremendous benefits for an IRA because there’s no short-term capital gains there. We expect to roll out programs that can benefit both the taxable and non-taxable accounts.
Rob: Something that’s new to me on the tax-loss harvesting front is that there’s an IRA ruling from 2008 that says if you sell something at a loss in a taxable account and then buy it with an IRA account within 30 days, the wash-sale rule gets triggered. When it’s just an individual buying and selling you can manage that. When you start giving your money over to an automated investment service, like WiseBanyan, you don’t have control over the purchases. If you make a contribution, it gets spread out over all your ETFs. If there’s rebalancing, it happens. From your end, you have to be able to know what’s going on in the taxable account and the retirement account so that you don’t run afoul of that rule.
Herbert Moore: That’s an excellent question. It’s something that makes the logic behind building a tax-loss harvesting product certainly more difficult, that you’re dealing with this cross-account nature. So, if you’re switching from the primary security in a given asset class to the alternate, then money comes into that retirement account, you also have to purchase the alternate, rather than the primary, for no other reason except that you’ve done that in the taxable account. You’re also getting at the issue of if a person has an E-Trade account on the side and they purchase the taxable security. That’s something that we’re thinking about very hard, and it simply has to be a method of communication between our clients and us. We can let them know what and when we’re doing something so that consideration can be made for their external accounts.
Rob: I was contemplating have taxable accounts with one automated investment service and retirement accounts with another. I don’t think that works with this rule, if I’m using tax-loss harvesting because there’s no way for those different services to communicate with one another.
Herbert Moore: That’s correct. I think tax-loss harvesting is being marketed more than it ever has in the past. I’m curious to see how it all plays out with the IRS looking at what people are doing with these services and whether or not there will be additional guidance they issue on it.
Rob: I’m not certain the IRS got that ruling correct. That statute doesn’t actually address IRAs and the ruling didn’t address 401ks. Although you might assume that the IRS thinks that if it applies to IRAs, why wouldn’t it apply to 401ks? I can see them carving out an exception with these automated investment services. As an investor, if I put my taxable accounts with WiseBanyan and my retirement accounts with Betterment, I would know— I would have to do an incredible amount of work myself to see if the wash-sale rule was implicated. I would never know. There’s no way the IRS would know— I wouldn’t know unless I took the time to figure it out.
Herbert Moore: You’re absolutely correct. You couldn’t also make the case of any sort of discretion with WiseBanyan or Betterment in the portfolio and that any of these are at your behest. I would imagine with some of the rationale behind the 401k ruling was that these weren’t accounts that people could actively do anything in.
Rob: Is there a minimum balance to turn on the tax-loss harvesting?
Herbert Moore: With tax-loss harvesting, we will have a minimum balance. That’s something that hasn’t been decided yet. Essentially we’re one of two firms, Betterment being the other, which offers fractional shares. That allows us to perfectly allocate these $100 portfolios. There’s no real reason why it can’t be offered at a minimum level. I think we will have a nominal minimum to that. You want the gains that are realized to be meaningful to a client rather than a few cents on their tax returns.
Rob: Is the tax-loss harvesting feature available today?
Herbert Moore: No, it’s not available today. We do have some additional features that we’re running in a beta right now, that aren’t live on WiseBanyan yet. But the tax-loss harvesting is not available yet.
Rob: How do you see the growth story? You see other services at a billion dollars and your free service is at $22 million. Why isn’t it the opposite?
Herbert Moore: We only launched in March 2014. We’re doubling once every three months. We’re early in this but people have responded incredibly positively to it. Wealthfront roughly doubled last year. We’re doubling in less than half as much time. All of our growth is 100 percent organic. We don’t spend a dollar on PR or marketing. We’ve seen ourselves as building this brand where our clients refer their friends to it.
Rob: Do you offer IRAs in addition to taxable accounts?
Herbert Moore: Yes, we offer traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, Roth IRAs, trust accounts, joint accounts and even corporate accounts.
Rob: I want to go back to the seven referrals. If someone refers seven clients, will you do their taxes for a year or forever?
Herbert Moore: We’ll do their taxes for one year.
Rob: Is that true regardless of how complicated the taxes are?
Herbert Moore: Over half of our clients are under 30 years old. They’re investing for the first time, so their financial lives aren’t too complex yet. That was another business decision we made, that although there might be a few people with very complicated taxes, the vast majority of younger people just want help making sure their deductions are correct and that they knew how to deal with an investment account for the first time.
Rob: I mentioned in an earlier podcast that I was going to set my mom up with an automated investment service and was originally planning on using Betterment. Actually, she is going to be investing her required minimum distributions out of an IRA. She needs a place to put them as she doesn’t need the money. I think I should consider putting her with WiseBanyan.
Herbert Moore: Absolutely. We’re very well set up to take distributions or recurring streams getting reinvested. There’s no easier or cheaper way to have those reinvested for you.
Rob: I assume it’s easier to set up an automatic transfer every month from their checking account.
Herbert Moore: Absolutely. We see about half of our clients doing that.
Rob: Do you have venture capital money backing you?
Herbert Moore: We do. We have three venture capital firms that have backed us: Galvanized Ventures, Vegas Tech Fund, and Village Capital, which looks at social enterprises and helps those that have been disenfranchised by the investment industry. We also will likely be making an announcement next week on something else we’ve been working on for awhile.
Rob: What do you see as the future? Schwab is presumably going to enter the market. I don’t know if a Fidelity or Vanguard ever will. What is investing going to look like a few years from now?
Herbert Moore: I think it will change in two ways. When looking at the robo-advisory industry, we see firms really competing on service a lot more and they’re starting to differentiate themselves. Wealthfront has carved out a niche of Silicon Valley tech employees which is a great niche to go after. Betterment has done a lot of work on retirees and how they can deal with automatic distribution. We’re skewing much younger with first time investors and that’s a place we’re really excited to fill. Then it becomes not so much about portfolio construction which is really a commodity business. You might see some pricing pressure. I think we were an early leader in that. Then I think we’ll see services start to compete on the features; whether it’s a tax-loss harvesting feature or what additional products, services and value we can bring to clients.
Rob: I’ve been rebalancing my accounts by hand for a long time. It seems silly, and I’m in the process of figuring out how I’m going to change the portfolio to simplify it. It seems that soon the days of rebalancing by hand will be long gone.
Herbert Moore: I think so too. To expand on that a little bit, I don’t see the robo-advisors as putting traditional interactive brokers out of business. I see this as an evolving way for people to manage the core of their portfolio, the people who have decided that passive, low-cost indexing is the way to go, which we genuinely believe. Also, if they want a trading account or a speculative account on the side, that becomes a different offering for them and a shift between thinking about the core of your portfolio that could be with WiseBanyan and that side where you might want to buy Apple stock because you have a feeling about it would go to a different entity.
Rob: I appreciate your time today. I’m curious, before I let you go, do you have any favorite investing books?
Herbert Moore: I really like David Swensen’s book, where he’s the chief investment officer for Yale, and he talks about what the average individual can do for himself. He also talks about the value in keeping your fees low and moving to a low cost ETF portfolio or index-based portfolio. WiseBanyan is built off of that same thinking. A Random Walk Down Wall Street is also a great book. It talks about how the investment industry is built on making fees and not so much returns and value. So that’s a really good read, but David Swensen’s book is one of my favorites and what I generally recommend to people who are starting to think about investing in their own portfolio.
Rob: Is that Unconventional Success?
Herbert Moore: Exactly. Sorry. I couldn’t remember the name. That’s why I was dancing around it.
Rob: I appreciate your time today. Is there anything else I should have asked you about WiseBanyan that I’m not smart enough to ask?
Herbert Moore: One thing I always like to tell people is the real value of getting started early is so important. People often overlook that and say that they’ll wait until they have $10,000 and then think about it. Well, before I took this call, I looked up investing $100 a month. If you wait until you have $10,000 to start investing, you’ll have 13 percent less than if you start now. You’ll have invested the same amount of money but have 13 percent less. If you add fees on top of that, you’ll have 43 percent less. Getting started early is one of the most important things about investing, and that’s what we’re excited to offer with WiseBanyan.
Rob: Is there a minimum to get started with WiseBanyan?
Herbert Moore: No, there’s absolutely none. We can only create deposits for $10, so we are bound by that. We see people start with $10, maybe they benchmark it against what else they’re doing or just get comfortable with the process and then they add a lot more later on.
Rob: That’s what I did. I started with $100 to see behind the scenes. Even if folks can start with $10 a month, you build from there and keep going. My first investment was $100 and I look back on that time and am so grateful. I’m not quite sure why I started. I can’t say I had a great plan. Something just gets people to start, even if it’s just $10.
Herbert Moore: Absolutely. Part of it is compounding over a long period of time but part of it is the mechanism of having that set up.
Rob: I appreciate you coming on the show and sharing WiseBanyan with us. Thank you so much.
Herbert Moore: Thanks a lot, Rob. This was a lot of fun.