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). In addition to traditional financial products, 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). The program held $140 billion in assets as of June 30, 2019.
Of PAS applicants, 80% to 90% have other Vanguard accounts, according to a spokesman, and entry requires $50,000 across all assets. The firm charges a 0.30% fee on the first $5 million in assets, dropping to 0.20% between $5 million and $10 million.
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.” 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. The Investing Education section is disappointing and infused with marketing pitches, but a well-populated blog covers a broad swath of financial topics.
Vanguard began testing a new advisory service very quietly in mid-September 2019. Based on filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, this new offering, currently called Vanguard Digital Advisor, is a true robo-advisor that will provide online financial planning tools to its users, designed to help them create a personalized, goal-based financial plan. Vanguard Digital Advisor is not yet registered or available to test, but the SEC filings indicate it will have a minimum account size of $3,000 and a management fee of 0.15%. Once this new service is available, we will take a close look.
Can speak with financial advisor
Competitive management fee
Top-tier financial institution
Transaction costs not included
High account minimum
Lengthy setup process
The Vanguard PAS program can be tough to find because prospective clients need to drill through the massive website, locating the advice menu in the dedicated personal investor section. In addition, applicants may not understand that PAS is primarily an automated investment advisory because they can talk with financial advisors at any time and marketing materials refer to “high-tech” rather than computer-driven investment.
New applicants 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. Lead recommendations will normally be limited to allocations in low-fee Vanguard Funds.
The final investment plan will be created within a few weeks after the applicant consults by phone or video chat with a financial advisor, marking a major negative compared to the rapid onboarding at the majority of high-tech rivals. The client must agree to the new plan before implementation, adding another waiting period, and can request reasonable restrictions. New clients can bring in non-Vanguard assets and hold them in the portfolio, which is unusual in the robo-advisory space. However, when those non-Vanguard assets are liquidated, transactions are subject to a brokerage commission.
The advisory agreement and other disclosures are easy to find and can be read in advance, providing detailed information that is missing in the sparse FAQ. An investment of $50,000 is required to fund and maintain the portfolio, including credit from 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 does not support Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts.
A single account can include multiple goals and allocations, whether for college planning, retirement, home ownership, a rainy day fund, or management of trust assets. Information from external accounts can be used to calculate financial needs through a Yodlee connection. 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.
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.
Vanguard PAS clients can speak to a financial advisor at any time by scheduling an appointment. Advisors ask new clients to opt into 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. Interest rates are competitive, between 2% and 3%, but client funds are not FDIC-insured
The stated policy regarding client access to the portfolio is confusing and contradictory. One section of the fine print states that clients have the power to add or remove securities after informing Vanguard, but another section warns, “You shouldn’t purchase or sell securities in your portfolio without prior assistance from an advisor and you may be restricted from such activity until you terminate the service.”
Deposits, recurring deposits, and withdrawals can be accomplished with a few clicks in the account management interface.
A proprietary algorithm digests client profile data and recommends an “investing track and corresponding glide path that embodies the risk tolerance, asset allocation, and time horizon suitable for your goals.” The output follows the categorization scheme found at most rivals, subdividing portfolios into very conservative, conservative, moderate, aggressive, and very aggressive objectives. Allocations are fluid, changing to match the glide path trajectory, risk exposure, and time remaining for each goal.
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.
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. The platform rebalances portfolios quarterly and engages in tax-loss harvesting through the MinTax cost basis outlined in the program brochure, which must be opted into by the client at the time of enrollment.
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.
Finding the program can take a few clicks because Vanguard PAS comprises just one of multiple site offerings. A dedicated FAQ makes the job easier, but a dedicated site would provide a useful and permanent solution. Program information is well-constructed but too brief and marketing-oriented, forcing clients to read the dense but well-written disclosures to explore investment methodology.
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. Contact attempts produced a variety of unacceptable waiting times, from over five minutes to more than 13 minutes. There’s no live chat for prospective or current clients, and registration is required to send an email through the firm’s secure message application. The bare-boned FAQ doesn’t address many logistical issues, forcing a thorough review of the disclosures, agreements, and other fine print.
Education & Security
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. An Investing Education section is filled with marketing pitches for Vanguard products, but a well-populated blog covers a broad swath of financial topics.
Commissions & Fees
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. Clients who begin their relationship with Vanguard PAS by transferring in non-Vanguard assets may pay a transaction fee when those securities are liquidated. A Vanguard spokesperson says, "These fees only apply to clients who enroll in the service with individual stocks or 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 regular coaching and management increasing the potential for superior returns.
Vanguard is one of the originals when it comes to empowering investors through index funds. Their 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. There are still kinks to work out in the system in terms of customer service and user experience, but Vanguards PAS holds its own even as is.
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