"This technology revolution was not invented by robo-advisers. They have simply noticed, and taken advantage of, a broader and deeper shift towards passive investment through ETFs and index funds."
-- John Gapper, Robots are Better Investors than People
We like to think of "technology revolutions", but as Mr. Gapper points out, revolutions aren't led by technology. The landscape is littered with shuttered technology companies that showed that a thing was possible, but failed to foment a "revolution".
Revolutions happen once we have critical mass of people with different attitudes and behaviors. Consider the changes in investing behaviors referred to above. Once investors realized that actively managed funds charged higher fees but performed no better (and frequently worse) than passively managed funds, they switched. Today, as investors come to realize that financial advisors are charging fees for putting their money in passive funds, they're amenable to robo-advisors that charge lower fees for doing exactly the same thing.
A change from human advisor to robo-investing won't happen at the pace set by technology, however. It took a long time for investors to change their preference from active to passive funds. Index funds first appeared in the 1970s, as did research showing that active funds didn't consistently outperform the broader market. Yet it took decades for investors to invest differently.
Why did it take so long? Attitudes, prejudices and predispositions take a long time to change. Sometimes they don't: those who hold a belief may never let it go, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And, people financially, politically or emotionally invested in something will fight to preserve it. Active fund managers initially derided passive funds, while today, facing massive capital outflows, they're fighting for survival. Those who stand to lose from change will also fight back with marketing designed to co-opt the next generation, such as the way manufacturers of sweet fizzy drinks simultaneously play to an older generation's nostalgia while encouraging them to create a sentimental moment - vis-a-vis their product - with a grandchild.
No matter how much technology we throw at something, entrenched behaviors don't start to change until a generation comes along that isn't as emotionally committed to them. And that still only describes how change starts, not how it finishes - and it can take a very long time to run its course. To understand the dynamics of change, we need to look at both ends of the generational spectrum: as people enter, people also leave. This is most obvious in the workforce where, in general, people join around age 18 and leave around age 65.
The United States has just completed a major generational shift, not so much for the one arriving as the one that has recently left.
The Great Depression and the Second World War shaped American domestic and foreign policy well into the 1990s. Yet as long ago as 1965, America had reared a generation without any direct experience of either, making them less constrained by the values held by the people who had come before them. And, starting 1965, a generation began to arrive born to parents who were themselves bred following the Depression-and-WW II-era. Prior to 1945, most everybody had direct experience to the privations of one or both. After 1965, we had generations grow up in households where those two seminal events were things their grandparents told them about from time to time, and which they only briefly studied in high school history classes.
Despite the social upheaval that coincided with the maturation of this post-depression-and-war generation (the late 1960s), the value system of the pre-1965 generation dominated American society and the American workplace, first through sheer numbers (those who held it made up the bulk of the working population) and later through positions of seniority (older people were more likely to hold executive positions).
The numbers are now vastly different. People born in 1945 reached age 65 in 2010. There are very few in the American workforce with a direct experience of life during WWII, let alone the Great Depression. Nor are there too many who are just one generation removed from those events (that is, grew up in households directly influenced by them); those who are one-generation-removed will largely exit the American workforce by 2030.
It's no coincidence that we've seen more change in the last decade than we arguably did in the three previous decades combined. But not so much because of a new generation arriving, bringing with it new expectations and demands, as much as the old generations leaving and relinquishing the top rung of authority and social influence. Out of numbers and out of power, those value systems no longer hold sway. Although we live and work in a "post-1965" world today, it took over 40 years - two additional generations - for that to happen.
Because change is a function of society more than technology, it's slow in coming but swift once it arrives. And, while a lot of change happened with the completion of the pre- to post-1965 shift (at least, in the workforce), the stage is set for still more revolutionary change. We'll look at specific examples in the next post.