Review of: Wealthfront
Reviewed by: Larry Ludwig
Last modified: April 18, 2018
Wealthfront is a robo advisor that emphasizes low fees and automated investing. The service shines when you have a taxable account, and the service is free for accounts under $10k. The negative is it doesn't support fractional shares.
Robo advisors seem to be the wave of the future — each of them offering something different to entice investors. But Wealthfront is making moves to become one of the best in the industry, especially for tax-efficient investing. In a sea of robo advisors, this service certainly stands out.
In fact, with our latest review update, we now rate Wealthfront as the best robo advisor.
What Is Wealthfront?
Wealthfront is a robo advisor with an emphasis on tax efficiency for taxable accounts, but it also works well with IRAs. It uses Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT) to create an automated asset allocation.
Wealthfront doesn’t hold your portfolio; it uses the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC).
Wealthfront invests in Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF) index funds. They diversify your investment by allocating into many ETFs and continually make sure the asset allocation is correct by automatic rebalancing.
It’s like having a financial advisor that’s software based. Wealthfront manages both personal accounts and retirement accounts, including 401(k) rollovers and various forms of individual retirement accounts.
Launched in December 2011, the company recently announced it has over $7.1 billion of assets under management (AUM).
Wealthfront Fees & Features
|Fees||First $10k managed free; 0.25%/year for $10k+|
|Tax Loss Harvesting||— All Taxable Accounts|
|Automatic Deposits||— Weekly, Biweekly, Monthly and Quarterly|
|Socially Responsible Investing|
|Access||Website, iOS App, Android App|
|Customer Service||Phone: M-F 7A-5P PT; Email|
|Promotions||$5k Managed for Free Exclusive|
- Tailored Transfers — Exclusive to Wealthfront. If you are moving from an advisor or existing brokerage account into other robo advisors, you typically have to sell all your holdings and move in cash. Instead of selling your holdings, Wealthfront will transfer into a diversified portfolio over time. This will reduce your tax bill.
- Referral Program — For every customer you refer, you get an additional $5,000 managed free. So it’s possible to have more than $15,000 managed free.
- Tax-optimized Direct Indexing — For larger taxable accounts of $100,000 or greater, it makes investing even more tax efficient.
- External Account Support — Organize all of your accounts in one place with advice on fees, taxes and excess cash.
- 529 College Savings Plan — Free for the first $10k — Nevada residents get $25k free and then all-in fees of 0.43%–0.46% per year after that amount deposited. As with their other accounts, the first $10,000 is managed free. Wealthfront's 529 plan is domiciled in the state of Nevada, so Nevada residents get an additional $15,000 managed free, for a total of $25,000. Wealthfront Brokerage Corporation serves as the distributor and the underwriter of the 529 Plan. The Plan is administered by the Board of Trustees of the College Savings Plans of Nevada (the “Board”), chaired by the Nevada State Treasurer. Ascensus Broker Dealer Services, Inc. (“ABD”) serves as the Program Manager.
- Portfolio Line of Credit — A unique feature to Wealthfront. For accounts larger than $100,000, take out a line of credit against your investments. Loan rates are currently 3.25% – 4.50% APR and can borrow up to 30% of the current value of your account.
- Advanced Indexing — Wealthfront’s service that helps enhance returns over the market indexes, otherwise known as “Smart Beta” in the industry. You need at least $500,000 to enable this feature.
- Path by Wealthfront — Plan for your major life goals. Get answers to the major questions in life such as: What’s the impact of saving more today? And consolidate all of your financial accounts with one view. All this can be done via their mobile app.
- College Planning with Path (New) — Plan for your child’s college education via the Path app. Pick the college, and any possible financial aid. Wealthfront will tell you if you on track.
- Home Planning for Path (New) — Plan and save for your next home purchase, along with receiving custom help and recommendations from professionals. Get mortgage estimates, do some “virtual house hunting” and learn the best way to save for your personal situation.
- Risk Parity (New) — Wealthfront’s newest portfolio addition is a mutual fund that uses a risk parity-based strategy. This means a deviation from the standard 60/40 stocks/bonds breakdown in an effort get higher risk-adjusted returns. All accounts with a minimum of $100,000 will automatically participate; however, you can opt out. See below and this article for more information.
The minimum account size is $500, and there is also a minimum withdrawal amount, which is $250. You cannot draw your account below the $500 minimum.
Fees. There’s a lot of good news here. From our research, for accounts under $10,000, Wealthfront is one of the cheapest robo advisor, including ETF fees. With our link, the first $5,000 in your account is managed free, and amounts above $5,000 have an annual 0.25% fee.
On a $100,000 account, for example, the fee would be $212.50 for a full year — the first $15,000 is excluded from their annual fees, using our exclusive promotional link. The amount of the annual fee will be prorated and withdrawn on a monthly basis. Wealthfront is cheap when compared to the thousands of dollars in fees typically charged by financial advisors.
And as mentioned above, there’s another way to have more than $10,000 managed free under Wealthfront. After becoming a Wealthfront customer, refer friends to their service. Each new signup grants you an additional $5,000 of free management.
The only other fee you incur is the very low fee embedded in the cost of the ETFs. From our 60% stocks, 40% bonds portfolio test we found the ETF fees averaged 0.18%. That gives Wealthfront an advantage over even the deepest discount brokers.
|Fees||First $10k managed free; 0.25%/year for $10k+||Digital – 0.25%/year; Premium – 0.40%/year||Under $5k – FREE; $5k-$100k – 0.50%/year; $100k+ – 0.40%/year|
|Promotions||$5k Managed for Free||Up To 1 Year Free||Up to $100 Bonus|
|Review||—||Read the Review||Read the Review|
How Wealthfront Works
Wealthfront uses a team of “world-class financial experts” led by legendary economist Burton Malkiel. He’s the author of the investment classic, “Random Walk Down Wall Street,” which I recommend reading. Malkiel is Wealthfront’s Chief Investment Officer.
Wealthfront has some similarities to Betterment and other robo advisors, in that you start by completing a questionnaire. Wealthfront’s has four objective questions and six subjective ones. The purpose of the survey is to determine your risk tolerance and to set asset allocations.
Once established, the allocations will remain constant regardless of the amount of money you have invested. After specific thresholds are crossed within your account, the portfolio will automatically be adjusted to ensure it stays in line with the proposed asset mix.
Wealthfront Direct Indexing
This service is available in taxable accounts. The purpose is to save on taxes, and annual fees an ETF charges. In effect, Direct Indexing is something like an ETF but managed directly by Wealthfront.
Wealthfront clients can access Direct Indexing at three levels:
- Wealthfront 100 — Available to taxable accounts with a minimum of $100,000. Wealthfront uses individual stocks in up to 100 of the largest US companies, and the Vanguard Extended Market ETF (VXF) and the Vanguard S&P 500® ETFs (VOO) to represent smaller companies.
- Wealthfront 500 — Available with a minimum of $500,000. The account uses up to 500 individual large company stocks, and the Vanguard Extended Market ETF (VXF) is used to represent non-S&P 500 smaller companies.
- Wealthfront 1000 — Available with a minimum of $1 million. It extends the previous options and uses up to 1,000 stocks in large companies, and the Vanguard Small-Cap ETF (VB) is used to represent small-capitalization stocks.
Wealthfront Emphasizes Tax Efficiency
Tax loss harvesting works by taking advantage of investments that have declined in value. A tax deduction is generated by selling investments at a loss, which lowers the investor’s taxes. Tax loss harvesting could result in a larger benefit than what comes from the manual end-of-year approach taken by traditional financial advisors. All clients receive this feature at no additional cost.
Wealthfront’s automated investment service offers five levels of tax minimization:
- Wealthfront Direct Indexing — Uses a mix of individual stocks and ETFs to mirror the US stock market.
- Index Funds — Unlike actively managed mutual funds, index funds have very little turnover, which means you incur much lower capital gains taxes.
- Intelligent Dividend Reinvesting — Using dividends to rebalance your portfolio throughout the year minimizes sales, leading to lower realized capital gains.
- Tax Location — Clients receive different asset classes and asset allocations for taxable and retirement accounts to optimize their after-tax performance.
- Daily Tax Loss Harvesting — Available in taxable accounts to cover the gains in ETFs with the loss of other ETFs owned with Wealthfront.
These are important things every passive long-term investor should be considering but in most cases don’t. It’s because either there’s no easy way to deal with these, or it takes too much time to research this information. Wealthfront makes the process trivial.
Wealthfront states tax loss harvesting and use of its Wealthfront Direct Indexing could add more than 2.03% to your portfolio’s annual after-tax investment return, though of course this return is not guaranteed and is partially dependent upon market performance.
Advanced Indexing is Wealthfront’s entry into “Smart Beta” to enhance returns over the core market indexes. This option is available to customers who have at least $500,000 with Wealthfront. Best of all, unlike Charles Schwab’s robo advisor service and the ETFs they use, Wealthfront Advanced Indexing is available at no additional charge. Advanced Indexing is paired with Direct Indexing to reduce the impact of taxes on your returns. According to Wealthfront, no other Smart Beta service or fund offers this option.
Wealthfront also announced that their Tax Loss Harvesting, Direct Indexing, and Advanced Indexing are all merged into one combined service called PassivePlus.
Path by Wealthfront (New)
In competing with Betterment and Personal Capital, Wealthfront finally introduced a goal-setting and financial planning. Wealthfront Path allows you to plan for your future income and spending needs. With the accounts you have with Wealthfront and combined with linked external accounts, they create a “what-if” scenarios.
Path can help answer these questions:
- How much should you save today?
- How much will you be worth then?
- Could you live your current lifestyle at retirement?
- Are you on track for your child’s college education?
- Are you saving enough to purchase a home?
The service is free to use by anyone and does not require you have an existing account with Wealthfront.
Wealthfront checks your investment accounts against these four important metrics:
- Fees — Your portfolio’s total annual expenses, which include advisory fees, transaction fees, and product fees.
- Tax Efficiency — If in a taxable account, the portfolio’s ability to minimize your tax burden each year.
- Cash Drag — The amount of excess cash held in your portfolio, either temporarily or as a permanent allocation, beyond what is required to address potential short-term liquidity needs.
- Diversification — Your portfolio’s use of a broad cross-section of relatively uncorrelated investments as measured along three sub-dimensions
In my opinion, the cash drag metric is an often missed metric when comparing investment options.
To get started, you just supply Wealthfront your brokerage account login information. This is no different from what other financial aggregators, like Mint and Personal Capital, do. Once you validate your information, Wealthfront will display its findings and how to fix any problems. The report shows from now till your retirement age how much money might be possible with Wealthfront’s recommended plan.
Depending upon whether your account is taxable or tax deferred (e.g., an IRA), the asset allocation and fund selection may be slightly different.
It’s interesting to note Wealthfront’s portfolio does not contain a US bond fund, but you aren’t completely out of the US bond market. Wealthfront does use a US TIPS ETF. I suppose they did this because of the 30+ year bull run in the bond market. In all likelihood, rates will eventually go higher, and US bond funds could yield negative returns.
The portfolio they create for you will be based on the ETFs listed below.
|US||Vanguard US Total Stock Market||VTI|
|Foreign||Vanguard FTSE Developed Markets||VEA|
|Emerging Market||Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets||VWO|
|Dividend||Vanguard Dividend Appreciation||VIG|
|US TIPS||Schwab US TIPS||SCHP|
|Muni||iShares National AMT-Free Muni Bond||MUB|
|Corporate||iShares Corporate Bond||LQD|
|Emerging Market||iShares JPMorgan Emerging Markets Bond||EMB|
|Real Estate||Vanguard REIT||VNQ|
|Natural Resources||Energy Select Sector SPDR||XLE|
Risk Parity Fund
The newest investment product offered by Wealthfront — and the company’s first mutual fund — the PassivePlus Risk Parity fund aims to deliver higher risk-adjusted returns in different market conditions. It does this by giving your portfolio more exposure to asset classes with higher risk-adjusted returns.
The fund is based in part on a similar offering from Ray Dalio’s hedge fund, Bridgewater, which requires a $100 million account minimum. It will take up 20% of your portfolio or less, depending you your personal settings. Wealthfront aims to democratize this strategy with a requirement of only $100,000.
All Wealthfront clients with a minimum of $100,000 deposited will be gradually entered into the Risk Parity fund by default. However, you may opt out if you wish. The fund has an annual fee of 0.25%, which will translate to only a 0.05% fee hike. If you do not opt out of Risk Parity, your Wealthfront total fees will be around 0.30% annually.
All Wealthfront clients are entered into the Risk Parity fund by default. However, you may opt out if you wish.
The Risk Parity fund is available only for taxable accounts (no IRAs) at the moment.
|Structure||Investment Minimum||Expense Ratio|
Pros and Cons
- Free for Accounts Under $5,000 — With our special promotion link. Even more is possible with the refer-a-friend offer.
- Tax-Loss Harvesting for All Accounts — This is Wealthfront's specialty. It helps with taxable accounts and according to Wealthfront helps increase returns.
- Direct Indexing — When investing over $100,000, it's a further way to decrease taxes and fund expenses by avoiding ETF fees.
- Risk Parity — The recently added risk parity option may smooth out returns compared to the traditional 60% stock/40% bond portfolio. However, we question at what cost, and Wealthfront's performance remains untested.
- 529 Plan Option — This option makes Wealthfront somewhat unique in that most robo advisors focus only on retirement planning.
- Free Portfolio Review — Analyze external accounts to determine if you can lower your fees or save on taxes, or it can give recommendations on improving your returns. It’s free for new and existing clients.
- Two-Factor Authentication — Either via a SMS text message or an app installed on your phone, you can be assured that your account is protected from hackers gaining entry.
- No Fractional Shares — It's possible to have cash sitting in your account, not invested.
- Portfolio Review Not Comprehensive — Wealthfront's free tool, while not bad, isn't as flexible as Betterment's or the recommended free tools from Personal Capital.
Wealthfront’s diversification has improved substantially in a short space of time. It could function as a primary investment account for a beginning investor. Since all the investment management is done for you, it could be excellent for a novice investor who lacks the inclination to jump into individual security selection and management. Or it could also work for a more active investor if supplemented with a self-directed account.
It will be a superior vehicle for investors who prefer truly passive investments since selection and maintenance of individual securities is completely unnecessary. Such an investor should supplement the Wealthfront position with substantial cash-type holdings outside.
Wealthfront’s service shines with taxable accounts. Now that Wealthfront offers tax-loss harvesting for all accounts, its service can minimize your annual tax expenses.
Overall, Wealthfront appears to be an excellent investment service. The major limitation is the lack of recognition of non-Wealthfront assets in the investment mix.
In the battle between Betterment vs. Wealthfront, we now give Wealthfront a slight edge. Wealthfront is now our recommended robo advisor. Wealthfront is now rated 9.5 stars, whereas Betterment is now rated 9 stars. We made this change for for two reasons:
- Wealthfront’s introduction of their Path feature
- Betterment changed in pricing as they are no longer the best deal
If you are looking at goal setting, Betterment might be a slightly better fit. For individuals who are looking for a more comprehensive online financial planning app with optional financial advisor advice, Personal Capital is a good option as well.