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E*TRADE is an established online discount brokerage that also has a brick-and-mortar presence. E*TRADE was acquired by Morgan Stanley in 2020 for $13 billion, bolting a strong offering for self-directed investors onto Morgan Stanley’s vast wealth management services. E*TRADE customers mostly trade in retail accounts, but the broker also offers investors robo-advisory services through its Core Portfolios.  With more individual investors entering the markets throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including many first-time brokerage customers, Core Portfolios offers a passive option. We’ll dig deeper into E*TRADE’s Core Portfolios platform to help you decide whether it is the right fit for your investment needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Core Portfolios is better suited for newer investors than it is for sophisticated investors.
  • No consolidation of external accounts when creating or managing the portfolio, which may lead to wash-sales rule violations.
  • Socially responsible investing options are available.
Pros
  • Can open account with just $500 and access funds with low expense ratios

  • Very easy to enroll and get started, especially for existing E*TRADE customers

  • Online and mobile platforms are very easy to use

  • Incorporates socially responsible investing (SRI) as an option in Core Portfolios

Cons
  • Simpler risk tolerance and portfolio recommendation process limits the goal setting in the portfolio creation process

  • Does not offer tax-loss harvesting

  • Goal setting and financial planning tools available for regular E*TRADE brokerage accounts are not incorporated into Core Portfolios

Company Overview

Account Minimum $500
Fees  0.3% annually. In addition, ETF expenses (expense ratios) are also taken out of the account. 
Goal Setting  None 
Available Assets  ETFs 
Interest Paid on Cash Balances  0.05% for excess cash, which is swept into a money market fund. 
Customizable Portfolio  Yes, investors can incorporate SRI /ESG investing and Smart Beta ETFs into the portfolio, but otherwise, the platform is not very customizable. 
View Portfolio before Funding  Yes 
Customer Service  Can speak with a registered investment advisor for assistance from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., but it is not a dedicated advisor. Their service is more geared towards getting people up and running on their system. 
Financial Advisor Available  Yes, but not a dedicated professional.
Cash Management  Portfolios hold 1% in cash (down from 4% recently). Portfolios will be rebalanced if cash gets to 6% of the portfolio. E*TRADE utilizes a cash sweep to a money market fund until cash balances are used as part of a rebalancing. Cash in the money market fund can also be used to fund a separate bill pay or checking account at E*TRADE. Transfers between accounts is straight-forward. 
Tax-Loss Harvesting No
External Account Sync/Consolidation No
Mobile App  Android, iOS 

Account Setup

Setting up a Core Portfolios account at E*TRADE is quick and easy. An E*TRADE Core Portfolios account requires a $500 initial investment, which is obviously higher than some robo-advisors with no account minimums. Anyone, whether or not they have an existing account at E*TRADE, can use the E*TRADE website to take the risk tolerance profile questionnaire, indicate initial and any recurring deposits, and see a recommended portfolio.

You can go through the process multiple times if you want to see changes in recommended portfolios based on different responses. Investment advisors are also available to assist investors and potential customers with establishing a Core Portfolios account and determining the best portfolio for their needs.

After going through the process of getting a recommended portfolio, E*TRADE asks if you are a new or returning customer. Existing customers go directly to the account opening process after logging in, and new customers will have to set up an E*TRADE account. The account opening process at E*TRADE is similarly straightforward and is completed quickly and easily.

Goal Planning

Goal planning in E*TRADE’s Core Portfolio is limited. This contrasts with robo-advisories that have more detailed questionnaires regarding goals, needs for withdrawals, and time horizons. E*TRADE chose a less complicated approach for their managed account offering.  E*TRADE only has a handful of drop-down questions, and there is no ability to customize for the individual investor. For example, you cannot enter two separate future goals, such as a car purchase and money for your children’s college fund.

Moreover, the E*TRADE questionnaire’s longest time horizon is just eleven years. While this may work well for many E*TRADE customers, other investors will prefer more robust goal planning tools. Two customers that both have the goal of saving for retirement with withdrawals in 11 or more years and similar risk tolerances would receive the same portfolio recommendation, even if one client is 55 years old and another 20 years old.

The recommended portfolio allocates 20% to fixed income, but a 20-year-old would often be advised to not have any fixed income. More fixed income may be appropriate for the older investor. So, while these two investors share some of the same goals, not obtaining more information such as investor age and other goals may not result in a portfolio best suited for all investors. Goal planning differentiates E*TRADE’s robo-advising platform, but not necessarily in a good way as not all investors are looking to trade simplicity for their specific investment needs.

Account Services

Core Portfolios allows clients to set up automated recurring deposits, and these are easy to increase, decrease, or otherwise manage. Margin is unavailable in Core Portfolios accounts, but investors can borrow against their accounts; E*TRADE’s interest rates for this, however, are on the high side at more than 7%. Investors are not able to include any of their individual holdings or purchase assets for inclusion in Core Portfolio accounts. Transfers into and out of accounts are simple. Cash can be withdrawn or transferred to other E*TRADE accounts with ease.

Cash Management

Core Portfolios hold 1% in cash (down from 4% recently), and these portfolios will be rebalanced if cash gets to 6% or more of the portfolio. Cash is swept into a money market account until it is transferred out to another E*TRADE account, such as a checking or bill payment account. The cash is brought back into the Core Portfolios account once cash reaches 6% or otherwise requires rebalancing.

Portfolio Construction

Portfolio construction for E*TRADE Core Portfolios accounts is fairly straightforward. There is a very quick questionnaire about initial investment and recurring deposit amounts, time horizon, and risk tolerance that leads to a suggested portfolio that best fits the investor’s questionnaire responses. You can also override the suggested portfolio and choose a different portfolio. 

Portfolios are managed exclusively with ETFs chosen in conjunction with modern portfolio theory techniques to diversify the asset classes in the portfolio using individual ETFs in each asset class to maximize returns while lowering risk through a diversified portfolio. You can also choose whether you want part of the portfolio ETFs to consist of SRI/ESG stocks or smart beta ETFs that are more actively managed in an effort to increase portfolio gains relative to other ETFs.

  • Core Portfolios are highly diversified across domestic and international equity and fixed income ETFs. 
  • Income portfolios offer higher dividend yields and a lower overall risk profile. 
  • Tax-optimized portfolios are designed for investors in higher tax brackets. 
Available Assets
Individual Stocks No
Mutual Funds  No 
Fixed Income  Yes, but limited to municipal bond ETFs for tax efficiency 
REITs  No 
Socially Responsible or ESG Options  Yes 
ETFs  Yes 
Non-Proprietary ETFs  Yes 
Mutual Funds  No 
Private Equity  No 
Crypto, Forex   No 

Portfolio Customization

E*TRADE speaks of the ability to customize their Core Portfolios accounts, but this is limited to a choice of having part of their portfolio invested in socially responsible (SRI/ESG stocks) stocks or smart beta ETFs, which is where the ETF is more actively managed in an effort to increase portfolio gains relative to other ETFs.

While these are nice features available to Core Portfolio investors, it is a stretch to call it customization.

Portfolio Management

Core Portfolios are invested in ETFs according to allocation percentages guided by your questionnaire responses and modern portfolio theory. The accounts are rebalanced semi-annually, as well as when the account drifts out of line with the portfolio allocations by at least 10% or when cash is at 6% of the portfolio. Accounts can be monitored online, and investors are kept informed about key market events and trends that might impact their portfolios. E*TRADE will also send a regular online statement with holdings information, trades made, and dividends received.

There is no tax-loss harvesting on E*TRADE Core Portfolio accounts, although fixed income ETFs in the portfolio is limited to municipal bonds to limit taxable interest. While investors can see the entirety of their various accounts when online, E*TRADE’s brokerage has tools to show overall asset allocations by asset class and at the individual portfolio level. This will allow an investor to make changes in their various accounts to ensure proper diversification across multiple accounts. However, the Core Portfolios does not do this analysis or choose securities based on the overall financial picture of the investor.

Key Portfolio Management Features
Automatic Rebalancing Semi-annually, or whenever the cash on hand exceeds 6%
Reporting Features  Online monitoring and statements
Tax-Loss Harvesting  No tax balancing, but fixed income is limited to municipal bond ETFs to help reduce taxable income 
External Account Sinking/Consolidation  No – E*TRADE does have these capabilities for regular accounts. However, Core Portfolios do not do this analysis or choose securities based on the overall financial picture of the investor 

User Experience

Desktop

The desktop experience with Core Portfolios is intuitive. The page is not cluttered, the concepts are presented succinctly, and it is easy to navigate through the questionnaire process and open an account. The frequently asked questions area links on the primary menu for those new to investing are very helpful and provide access to useful education. That said, the basics of how these accounts work could have been better outlined on the primary Core Portfolio web page. The information is all there, however, and the desktop interface was easy to use.

Mobile App 

Core Portfolios information on E*TRADE’s mobile app works the same as the desktop. The mobile app offering was very easy to use, and accounts can be opened from the mobile app. Money transfers into or out of Core Portfolios accounts are easy to do on the mobile app, so transferring money to an E*TRADE account that supports checking or bill pay was very simple.

Customer Service

Phone support at E*TRADE is 24/7, but investment advisors to assist customers with Core Portfolio are available from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. EST. Once the account is set up, support focuses more on technical support. The average hold time to reach an investment advisor is between one and three minutes. E*TRADE also makes investment advisors available to Core Portfolio customers and potential customers, and there is an E*TRADE Tax Center to help clients understand how their investments will be taxed.

There is also a good deal of information about Core Portfolio accounts on the E*TRADE website, and the frequently asked questions section answers the majority of questions people might have about robo-advisory accounts in an easy-to-read way where key topics are in bold with sections that can be expanded to see additional detail for the topic.

  • 24/7 phone support
  • Investment advisors supporting Core Portfolios available 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. EST (1-3 minute hold time)
  • Extensive FAQs available on the website
  • Physical branch network for clients to visit

Security Features

Two-factor authentication is available on E*TRADE’s platform. Biometric security is available for mobile phones with either facial recognition or fingerprints. E*TRADE also provides additional investor protection beyond coverage through SIPC through the Morgan Stanley excess of SIPC supplemental insurance policy. E*TRADE’s platforms have not suffered any outages since at least 2020, but there have been some instances where account holders had difficulty logging on and placing trades; to be fair, though, the significant increase in trading activity since the COVID-19 pandemic and the frenzies over meme stocks like GameStop and others has impacted other brokers, as well. There have not been any data breaches in the past four years.   

E*TRADE Core Portfolios’ security is up to industry standards. 

  • Two-factor authentication
  • Biometric login on mobile by facial recognition or fingerprint
  • Additional investor protection beyond coverage through Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) through the Morgan Stanley excess of SIPC supplemental insurance policy.
  • No outages since at least 2020, but there have been some instances where account holders had difficulty logging on and placing trades. To be fair, though, the significant increase in trading activity since the Covid pandemic and the frenzies over meme stocks like GameStop and others has impacted other brokers as well. 
  • There have not been any data breaches in the past four years. 

Education 

E*TRADE has a tremendous amount of educational information available, and it is available to anyone on their website rather than being limited to account holders. The Core Portfolios main page has an overview of the process and the Core Portfolios FAQ section is comprehensive and easy to navigate. The FAQ section provides overviews of what Core Portfolios are, why they use ETFs, what portfolio balancing is, and the costs. It also contains a section outlining the program’s investing approach and criteria for investments in the portfolio. Beyond the FAQ content, there is also a “Knowledge” top menu selection that provides overviews of diversification and risk tolerance. The initial “Knowledge” page also has a link to the E*TRADE educational library, which provides a tremendous amount of educational information on investing. 

Commissions and Fees

E*TRADE’s Core Portfolios accounts require at least $500, and they have a flat fee structure of 0.3%  (or 30 basis points), so a $10,000 account would have an annual fee of just $30. This annual fee is calculated monthly and is based on the account value at the beginning of each month. Core Portfolios customers will also have to pay ETF expense ratios typically ranging from 0.05 to 0.12%. The fees are very reasonable, although E*TRADE’s 0.3% annual fee is higher than some of its competitors in the robo-investing space—including some competitors which don’t charge advisory fees at all.

Category Fee 
Management fees for $5,000 account 0.30%; $15 per year or $1.25 per month
Management fees for $25,000 account  0.30%; $75 per year or $6.25 per month 
Management fees for $100,000 account  0.30%; $300 per year or $25 per month 
Termination fees  $75 for full transfer out and $25 for partial transfer out. The $25 feel is not charged on Core Portfolio accounts with at least $5,000, and they are also not charged if the transfers are to another E*TRADE account. 
Expense ratios   The majority fall between 0.05 to 0.12 
Mutual funds  N/A 

Final Verdict

E*TRADE’s Core Portfolios features a simple account setup process and an intuitive desktop platform that is easy to navigate. It’s particularly good for younger investors who are always on the go and who want access to an industry-leading mobile platform. After all, E*TRADE is a pioneer in mobile investing. 

The biggest downsides of E*TRADE’s Core Portfolios are its lack of tax-loss harvesting, weak goals and time horizons planning, and its inability to consolidate external accounts. These are key missing elements that make it far less suited for investors with complicated finances and tax situations.

Methodology

Our mission at Investopedia is to provide investors with reviews and ratings of robo-advisors that are comprehensive and unbiased. Our team of researchers and expert writers, led by Michael Sacchitello, spent months evaluating all aspects of a robo-advisor’s platform, including the account setup process, goal planning tools, account service options, portfolio construction offerings, portfolio management, mobile and desktop user experience, educational content, fees, and security. As part of this evaluation, we extract critical data points that are weighted by our quantitative model that produces a powerful star-scoring system.

With the individual investor in mind, we’ve designed a comprehensive ranking methodology to find the best overall robo-advisors and the best robo-advisors across nine key categories. Each advisor is then scored across multiple variables to rate performance in every applicable category. The score for the overall award is a weighted average of the categories.

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