How Personal Capital Is Different From Algorithmic Advisors And Traditional Advisors

in Personal Capital News by

New technology driven investment management services, including Personal Capital, have collectively attracted over a billion dollars in managed assets in the last year. This is a drop in the bucket for the industry as a whole, but growth is accelerating rapidly and those who are paying attention have taken notice.

A huge business opportunity exists simply because most Americans are not investing as well as they should be. Traditional product-based approaches generate billions in profits for big financial institutions, but fail to deliver for clients. The large banks and investment firms are looked at with wary eyes and are slow to offer better solutions. It’s no surprise Silicon Valley attacked the problem.

Personal Capital offers personalized investment strategies, and also a transformative web and mobile app which helps people simplify and better control their financial life. The value proposition is transparent and it resonates. We now manage about $500 million, up over 400% from a year ago, and we expect a similar growth rate in the next 12 months. We had a 98% retention rate last year.

A different approach from another group of companies involves a new delivery of automated ETF wrap management. This group is frequently referred to “algo-advisors” or “robo-advisors” due to a lack of human interaction between client and advisor. Personal Capital is often incorrectly lumped in to this category, given we have a team of financial advisors based in San Francisco and Denver to work one-on-one with our clients.

I’d like to explain how and why we are different. But first, let’s quickly review the basic structure of both traditional advisors and algorithmic advisors.


Traditional investment advisory services come in two main forms.

1) The first is the broker model where “advisors” earn commissions based on which products their clients buy. The obvious problem is conflict of interest. Your broker is technically more of a sales person than a partner and is often heavily incentivized to recommend investments which earn him more money, not you. Personal Capital does not use the broker model. 

2) The second type of advisor is the Registered Investment Advisor (RIA). As fiduciaries, RIAs are legally obligated to act in their client’s best interest, which is a major reason this structure is gaining share from brokers. RIAs typically earn fees based on a percentage of assets managed, which better aligns them with client interests. Personal Capital advisors are RIAs. 

Algorithmic advisers are also RIAs, but with no human assistance. 

The basic algo-advisor model starts by asking potential investors a series of questions online. Based on the responses, an algorithm suggests an asset allocation which is filled by purchasing ETFs or mutual funds. The software rebalances periodically. The main benefits are easy access to a diversified asset allocation and relatively low cost. Drawbacks include potential over-simplicity and lack of service.

Personal Capital combines the best aspects of human RIAs with technology. We are a tech-enhanced advisor who embraces being a Financial Services company and a Technology company. Our management team combines people with deep experience in both. We start with the best features of traditional RIAs and apply technology to generate additional value and efficiencies for clients. Sophisticated investment management is a major part of what we offer, but our higher goal is to provide tools and services to help people live a better financial life.


• We’ve spent millions of dollars building our free Financial Dashboard. On it you can see all of your accounts in one place. It’s comprehensive – we organize data and provide insight on both your long-term and short-term money. It helps users simplify life and better control their money – and it allows us to optimally manage client assets. It is a big advantage. Over half a million people have signed up for the dashboard, and they love it – our mobile app is rated 4.5 stars on the Apple app store.

• We leverage technology to scale personalized, investment management. The Dashboard introduces us to those who could benefit from our paid wealth management service and allows us to quickly demonstrate precisely how we can improve their current portfolio. Our Investment Committee makes all portfolio decisions, but software and advisors allow us to optimally implement and customize each strategy and keep our clients on track.

• We interact with clients to meet specific needs. Thanks to technology, we can interact remotely, via phone, email and video chat. If a client is based in San Francisco or Denver, we are always happy to meet face-to-face. (Read about Kyle Ryan, Head Of Advisory Services)


Asset Allocation: We use a cash flow based approach designed to give each client the best chance of achieving their retirement goals. The analysis incorporates all assets and liabilities as well as projections generated by our retirement planning tools. It is dynamic and adjusts with life and markets. It is metric based, but also capitalizes on personal interaction with an advisor. I believe our methodology represents an important step forward for the industry and is superior to other algorithm based models I have seen.

Portfolio Construction and Rebalancing: For the US equity portion of portfolios, we utilize individual stocks in a way that offers potential for higher return while simultaneously lowering risk from sector bubbles. We call this strategy Smart Indexing. For all other asset classes we use a granular blend of low cost ETFs. Software helps keep accounts on target, but rebalancing decisions are made by our Investment Committee. We strongly believe asset allocation and portfolio management are not commoditized.

Financial Planning: It’s who we are. We have a number of Certified Financial Planners™ on staff and routinely help clients with retirement planning, education planning, when to refinance a mortgage, customized stock option strategies, which funds to choose in their 401k, when to start Social Security and much more.

An Advisor When You Want (or Need) One: Life happens. So do market cycles. Investing can seem easy in the middle of a bull market. Fear and greed tend to rear their ugly heads in the midst of bear markets and the height of bull markets – that’s often when having an advisor adds the most value.

Tax Management: We manage to each client’s individual tax return, including asset location across different tax status accounts. We do tax loss harvesting, as do some robo-advisors. Tax loss harvesting can be valuable, but it can quickly become counterproductive if it is on autopilot. The use of individual stocks for the US equity portion of portfolios allows for improved tax reduction.

Custodian: Our client’s money is kept at one of the largest, most stable custodians. There are zero trade commissions, which is what allows us to effectively implement our strategies using individual securities.


I joined Personal Capital because it presented a unique opportunity to help build an investment service totally from scratch, using new technologies to provide a better solution for clients. Happily, Bill Harris (our founder, CEO and Investment Committee member) shares the same investment philosophy, with a focus on diversification and efficiency. The possibilities that come from integrating the benefits of the Financial Dashboard provide us the opportunity to meaningfully elevate how wealth management is done. More new things are in the pipeline.

As a company, we recognize different solutions are right for different people. Those getting started saving and investing may find an algo-advisor to be a low-hassle way to get diversified market exposure. It is generally better than picking active mutual funds or random stocks. Algorithmic-advisors can be a useful tool for do-it-yourself investors, similar in many ways to how Target Date Funds have already helped a lot of people.

I spend a lot of time talking with clients, working with advisors, and helping with financial planning issues. I like doing this, but I also think it makes me better at my portfolio management responsibilities. Money is personal and emotional, and I’m thrilled every time we can provide a client more peace of mind and a better chance to retire how they want to. Odds are by the end of the next market cycle, both Personal Capital and algorithmic advisors will rise up to take a much larger position in the wealth management industry. We’re excited to be part of the change taking place.

Personal Capital: Simple Apps, Honest Advice

Image credit: Florence Low

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Craig Birk, CFP®

Craig Birk, CFP®

Craig Birk leads the Personal Capital Advisors Investment Committee and serves as the Chief Investment Officer. His focus is translating improvements in technology into better financial lives. Craig has been widely quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNN Money, the Washington Post and elsewhere. Prior to Personal Capital Advisors, he was a leader within the portfolio management team at Fisher Investments, helping assets under management grow from $1.5 billion to over $40 billion. Craig graduated from the University of California at San Diego and has earned the Certified Financial Planner® designation.


  1. Sam Dogen

    Nice job describing what differentiates Personal Capital from the algo-advisors Craig. It must be frustrating to get lumped together with the algo-advisors in media reporters because journalists just assume that all financial tech companies are the same.

    I’m slowly seeing those in the know differentiate more clearly in reports, and this post should help make things even more clear.

  2. Barbara Friedberg

    As one living and working in Silicon Valley (with quite a bit of exposure to the various platforms), this review really hit the nail on the head. It’s tough to differentiate between the variety of money services available. The opportunity to speak with an advisor clearly differentiates personal Capital. And the breadth of the dashboard and money organizing offerings is quite comprehensive.

  3. Ray Shreder

    I really like the Personal Capital model and that is why we offer Personal Capital to our members of WealthCare Connect. However, I would like to clarify that an advisor that works for an RIA is an Investment Advisor Representative and the firm is the Registered Investment Advisor. Just semantics!

  4. Joseph L. Sexton

    I’m a retired 72 year old, a firm believer in an income Portfolio with some growth, so how can you help folks like me. Dividend stocks are fairly easy to pick through DIVIDATA & Dogs Of The Dow. I’ve had 5 advisors, mostly interested in themselves.

    • Dave S

      Personal capital would customize a well diversified portfolio to your needs. Their minimum is 100k however. Do use their website dashboard in any case. I don’t work for them.

  5. Raaid

    “Tax loss harvesting can be valuable, but it can quickly become counterproductive if it is on autopilot.”

    Assuming the automated algorithm isn’t terrible, wouldn’t auto-pilot be better than human interaction (more systematic, more frequent if needed, less frequent if needed, more evidence-based?)

  6. Bill

    Nice piece….but, what differentiates you from Fisher and Vanguard?

  7. Jeremy

    I can’t believe this article hasn’t been flagged by FINRA yet for being misleading.

    Any Certified Financial Planner is a fiduciary.

    There are plenty of these CFPs at both traditional brokerage houses and in the RIAs. The misconception that both Robos and RIAs are perpetuating is a great marketing scheme, but highly unethical – which runs counter to their purported ideology.

    What’s interesting is the lack of explanation that one cannot be a real fiduciary if they only offer wrap management of ETFs because that is not always the best solution for a given client. For example, a 25 year old looking to invest money for 10+ years is better served by paying a one time commission verse 10+ years of wrap fees.

    Further, if you cannot offer a planning-only engagement fee you again are not really objective because your practice is then defined by accumulating assets – the same base revenue source of the major brokerage firms – so Personal Capital is really in no different a business than Morgan Stanley, UBS, Merrill Lynch, etc. they just charge a little less and have a micro-fraction of the clients.

    Both brokerage firms and RIAs can offer wrap programs, commission programs, insurance by commission and by fee, planning by fee-only, and other products like structured products, options and hedge funds.

    Every Advisor at every firm runs their practice differently. Some are planning-focused with wrap business and there are a few still left that do portfolio-only management through a transnational fee.

    You should advocate individuals finding an Advisor that suits their needs and can be an efficient and objective advocate for them vs. trying to lay a blanket statement about brokerage firms, RAIs and insurance companies and wire houses for that matter.

    By the way, I use their App and have spoken to their advisors – basically the same experience I’ve had with others so far.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for this. Good points.

    • Anon

      Legally speaking, an investment adviser is a fiduciary. Any investment adviser, CFP or not. The CFP board may have its own standards, but they do not have force of law.

      In any event, while I’m not as familiar with FINRA standards, it is clear to me that several comments in this article are prohibited testimonials in violation of SEC rules. The CCO should definitely disable the comments.


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