Founded in the 1970s, The Vanguard Group manages one of the world’s largest and most popular line-ups of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Vanguard Personal Advisor Services (PAS) was launched in 2015 to provide algorithmic and human investment advice for client funds placed at wholly-owned broker-dealer Vanguard Marketing Corporation (VMC). When the product was originally launched, the existing retail brokerage customers at Vanguard were the focus as that group got closer to retirement age. As they head into retirement, Vanguard PAS helps them shift from building wealth to drawing it down in a smart way.

Important

Aside from this Vanguard Personal Advisor Services robo-advisor review, we've also reviewed Vanguard's traditional brokerage services and the new Vanguard Digital Advisor.

New and Notable Updates

  • New tools include a smart withdrawal calculator with long-term expense profiles in mind.
  • Health care cost estimates include Medicare plan comparisons.

Key Takeaways

  • Vanguard Digital Advisor, a separate product aimed at new investors, was launched to the public in 2020 with lower minimums and lower management fees.
  • Vanguard PAS offers customized portfolios with access to an advisor at very low fees compared to others aimed at larger portfolios.

Of PAS applicants, 80% to 90% have other Vanguard accounts, according to a spokesperson, and entry requires $50,000 across all assets. When getting started, the robo-advisor asks detailed questions regarding age, assets, retirement dates, risk tolerance, and market experience, generating a proposed portfolio allocation filled with Vanguard Funds and other securities, which includes individual stocks as well as ETFs and mutual funds. Most of the heavy lifting is done by algorithms, but the new client must speak with a financial advisor to complete the customized plan in a cumbersome process that can take as long as a month.

The site provides ample goal planning resources that include checklists, how-to articles, and calculators. Clients can apply these valuable tools to estimate their total costs of retirement, perform top-down reviews of assets and plan major life goals that include college savings.

Pros
  • Can speak with financial advisor.

  • Competitive management fee.

  • Top-tier financial institution.

Cons
  • Transaction costs not included.

  • High account minimum.

  • Lengthy setup process.

Account Setup

4.2

Vanguard made PAS easier to find in its massive site refresh this year. Clicking on "Advice and Retirement" on the main menu directs you to PAS and other advisory offerings. When enrolling, new clients are prompted to provide detailed information relating to their financial situation, investment objectives, and willingness and ability to take risk. A financial plan is then formulated, recommending an asset allocation that will be maintained in the account to meet long-term objectives. Vanguard is updating the onboarding process to make it less work for the new client.

Vanguard updated the account setup process by no longer requiring the new client to speak with a financial advisor directly, but the firm considers the advisor consultation to be, "an exceptionally valuable part of the enrollment process, and typically recommended." This is a major change from PAS's previous incarnation, which required a phone or video chat with a financial advisor. You must consult with an advisor if you want to restrict portfolio holdings or make changes to the recommendations.

New clients can bring in non-Vanguard assets and hold them in the portfolio, which is unusual in the robo-advisory space. With the elimination of commissions for equity trades on the Vanguard brokerage platform, these liquidations do not generate fees.

The advisory agreement and other disclosures are easy to find and can be read in advance.The $50,000 required to fund and maintain the portfolio includes balances in other Vanguard accounts, and the portfolio can be established as a traditional individual retirement account (IRA), Roth IRA, individual taxable account, or joint taxable account.

Vanguard PAS will consider and provide guidance for 401(k)s and other outside assets but does not manage those accounts. PAS will provide similar guidance for college savings 529 accounts, Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) and Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, but they do not fall under the PAS management umbrella.

Goal Setting

4.8

A single account can include multiple goals and allocations, whether for college planning, retirement, homeownership, a vacation, a rainy day fund, or management of trust assets. The goal-setting process was refreshed in the last year, allowing the addition of a new goal by clicking on a card. There's a way to explore how the goals compete with one another that is being tested now and will be integrated into the PAS experience by year-end.

Assets both within and external to Vanguard can be used to calculate progress towards goals through a Yodlee connection. The accounts are displayed in three buckets: advisor-managed within Vanguard, self-managed, and non-Vanguard assets. Long-term forecasts and recommendations in the account interface coach clients on how to better meet investment objectives, based on life situations and goals outlined during the lengthy onboarding process. The client can make changes at any time by altering the risk profile.

Social Security benefits are built into the goal planning rubric for retirement along with advice about the timing of taking these benefits. Accounts up to $500,000 are assigned to a group of advisors, while accounts above that level get a dedicated advisor. The website features an impressive variety of tools and calculators to help clients figure out how much money needs to be set aside to reach goals within realistic time frames. Many of these resources focus on retirement, but college planning and life assessment calculators are equally valuable in meeting long-term financial objectives.

Account Services

2.4

Deposits, recurring deposits, and withdrawals can be accomplished with a few clicks in the account management interface. No margin is available to advisory clients, nor can you borrow against your assets.

Cash Management

Advisors ask new clients to opt in to an interest-bearing Spending Fund, with limits that target minimum and maximum cash held aside in the investment account. The automated management system will buy additional securities when the upper limit is exceeded and sell securities when the lower limit is exceeded.

Cash is swept into an interest-bearing money market fund, the Vanguard Federal Money Market Fund, which is not FDIC-insured but is covered by SIPC insurance. Cash in accounts is excluded from the calculation that generates the management fee.

Portfolio Construction

3.1

A proprietary algorithm digests client profile data and recommends a portfolio and corresponding glide path that considers the risk tolerance, asset allocation, and time horizon suitable for the stated goals and time horizon. The output follows the categorization scheme found at most rivals, subdividing portfolios into very conservative, conservative, moderate, aggressive, and very aggressive objectives.

Portfolios may contain:

  • ETFs, primarily Vanguard funds
  • Socially conscious portfolios may contain Vanguard mutual funds
  • Individual stocks in large accounts
  • Fixed income in very large accounts

Allocations are fluid, changing to match the glide path trajectory, risk exposure, and time remaining for each goal. As the amount held in the account increases, the recommended portfolio can include individual stocks as well as fixed income.

Portfolio Management

4.7

Vanguard PAS maintains a broadly diversified portfolio that includes investments from a variety of market sectors and asset classes. The methodology follows traditional Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) principles, emphasizing the benefits of low-cost securities, diversification, and indexing, driven by long-term financial goals. As with other robo-advisors, the system won’t base decisions on market timing or short-term performance.

Vanguard PAS leverages a ‘time and threshold’ rebalancing approach. Managed portfolios are reviewed quarterly or when additional cash is deposited or withdrawn to determine if rebalancing is required. Vanguard PAS advisors can rebalance and adjust portfolios at other times if warranted, based on client request. A rebalance is triggered if the portfolio is found to deviate from the target asset allocation by more than 5% in any asset class (stocks, bonds, or cash), using investment methodologies and strategies consistent with those agreed upon during the portfolio’s implementation. Cost, tax, and diversification tradeoffs will be evaluated on whether some of all of each position should be sold and used to rebalance toward the recommended asset classes.

Stock and bond methodologies increase diversification by including equity funds at different capitalization and volatility levels as well as bond funds with different geographical, timing, and capital risks. Tax-loss harvesting through the MinTax cost basis process must be opted into by the client at the time of enrollment. Vanguard PAS clients can speak to a financial advisor at any time by scheduling an appointment.

User Experience

4.4

Mobile Experience

The website is mobile-ready and easy to read. Vanguard provides the same full-featured iOS and Android apps for all types of accounts, along with iPad and Kindle versions. Apps add a security layer through two-factor authentication while retaining nearly all account functions that are accessible through the web management interface.  

Desktop Experience

The website has been updated considerably and uses a card-type interface. The client dashboard displays cards that open further for each function, such as goals, investments, and tools. Most functions can also be accessed from menus, but the card layout is clean and easy to navigate. The cards are dynamic and based on some variables such as market events, calendar (year-end tax planning), or client demographics. For example, everyone between 62 and 67 will see a card that discusses the timing of taking social security. The Tools card takes you to a plan simulator that lets you perform "what-if" analysis with your goals and holdings.

Customer Service

4

PAS clients use a different phone number than the broad Vanguard clientele, with customer service hours listed from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can schedule an appointment to talk with an advisor, and once an account grows beyond $500,000 in value, the client is given access to a dedicated advisor.

There’s no live chat for prospective or current clients on the platform, but customer service representatives are available via direct message on various social media platforms. Registration is required to send an email through the firm’s secure message application.

Education & Security

5

The FAQ was updated this year, which could prevent time spent waiting on the phone for those with less than $500,000 managed. Though there aren't specific education offerings built into PAS, there are massive amounts available on the general Vanguard site. These include articles, videos, research papers, blog posts, and social media output, as well as marketing pitches for Vanguard products.

The site uses 256-bit SSL encryption and provides two-factor authentication. The wholly-owned Vanguard Marketing Group holds client funds, providing access to Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) and excess insurance. Cash is swept into money market funds that are not FDIC-insured.

Commissions & Fees

4.4

The robo-advisor charges a competitive 0.30% advisory fee for the first $5 million managed, paid quarterly, which drops to 0.20% for assets over $5 million.

  • Monthly cost to manage a $50,000 portfolio: $12.50
  • Monthly cost to manage a $250,000 portfolio: $62.50
  • Monthly cost to manage a $1,000,000 portfolio: $250.00

Clients who begin their relationship with Vanguard PAS by transferring in non-Vanguard assets may pay a transaction fee when those securities are liquidated, but equity commissions were eliminated in early 2020 so individual stock sales will not incur a fee.

Certain non-Vanguard mutual fund families are subject to transaction fees, though. A Vanguard spokesperson says, "These fees only apply to clients who enroll in the service with non-Vanguard funds that they, in consultation with their PAS advisors, choose not to sell—likely because of embedded capital gains. If they do ultimately sell, they would incur the same transaction costs as they would by placing a self-directed trade on their Vanguard Brokerage Account." There are no transaction fees assessed when buying or selling Vanguard's ETFs. The full fee schedule can be viewed here

Is Vanguard PAS a Good Fit For You?

Vanguard PAS offers an excellent fit for mature investors looking to place capital at a financial institution with a long and stable history, but clients who bring in non-Vanguard assets may pay extra for transaction costs, expense ratios, and third-party relationships when they are sold and re-invested in Vanguard funds. Regular access to financial advisors may justify these added costs, with coaching and management increasing the potential for superior returns.

Vanguard is one of the originals when it comes to empowering investors through index funds. Its robo-advisory offering is solid and would no doubt benefit by a clearer picture of performance, as Vanguard has long been the name for delivering broad market returns at a low-cost. The website updates made over the past year are most welcome, making the site considerably easier to use.

Compare Personal Advisor Services

For those looking to place their funds in the hands of a financial institution with a long and stable history, Personal Advisor Services may be a great fit. See how it compares against other robo-advisors we reviewed.

Investopedia Robo-Advisor Rating Methodology

Investopedia is dedicated to providing investors with unbiased, comprehensive reviews and ratings of robo-advisors. Our 2020 reviews are the result of in-depth evaluations of over 20 robo-advisor platforms, including the user experience, goal-setting capabilities, portfolio construction, costs and fees, security, mobile experience, and customer service. You can read our full robo-advisor rating methodology for a much more in-depth explanation than the summary below.

Overall Star Rating Explained

With the individual investor in mind, we took a critical look at the services and technology provided by robo-advisors. We organized our methodology into nine categories, scoring each advisor across multiple variables to rate performance in every applicable category. The score for the overall award is a weighted average of the categories.

EVALUATION CATEGORIES
Review Category Weighting Variables
Account Setup   5% 6
Goal Setting 15% 4
Account Services 10% 8
Portfolio Construction 15% 7
Portfolio Management 20% 4
User Experience 15% 6
Customer Service   5% 5
Education & Security   5% 6
Fees 10% 5

The Review Process

To evaluate these platforms, we sent questionnaires with over 100 queries to the participating robo-advisories. Most of the companies we reviewed gave us socially-distanced video demonstrations of their platforms and services during August 2020.

From the questionnaires, the hands-on testing of the platforms, and the platform demonstrations, we scored each category and then combined the category scores into an overall rating for each robo-advisor. Each category covers the critical elements users need to thoroughly evaluate a robo-advisor.

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