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The rise of the Robo Advisor: interrupted

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Fintech continues to threaten traditional business models, from banking and credit through to digital escrow’. Word on the street is Fintech is on the verge of disrupting the pensions industry. Call it Pentech (Pensions Technology) or TechFin (technology firms entering the financial arena), the threats are endless. On this basis, the Pensions Dashboard, Blockchain and Robo-advice should be just around the corner. 

So where will we see digital innovation first? How is it going to impact traditional workplace pensions? And what are the likely returns?

We already have a number of case studies; PensionBee has positioned itself as a ‘pension consolidator’; Smart Pension is positioning itself as an ‘automated workplace pension solution’; while Nutmeg has launched as a ‘digital wealth manager’.

Where does this leave us at the more traditional DB and DC end of workplace pensions? We manage over £2trn of assets for members and you would hope our technology investment would be proportionate to this.

We should be leveraging technology to engage with members, inform them about their pension options and offer them enriched online functionality. Unfortunately not. A number of hurdles seem to block these investments.

The first hurdle is technophobia. There is a generally held assumption that members of pension schemes are far more comfortable with paper, they don’t have access to computers and personal email addresses aren’t secure. This flies in the face of all reason. Given ready access to computers at home, the rise of the smartphone and the transition to largely online-only banking delivery.

If members log into websites to view credit card bills, bank statements and updates on deliveries from Amazon, why would they not do the same with their pensions? Would they really not go online to run an early retirement calculation, view a benefit statement or model retirement options?

The second hurdle is compliance. It could be argued trustees have a duty to ensure members need to engage with members and inform them of their legitimate options, with appropriate risk warnings.

But trustees face potential legal risks if they are viewed as encouraging activity that were retrospectively found to be not in a member’s interest (transfers, switches, etc). It is appropriate for trustees, Pension Managers and sponsors to take advice, to ensure they balance their duties to educate members against the legal risks around potential misspelling claims.

The final hurdle is investment. Many trustees and Pension Managers are keen on online services: self-service retirement calculations, modelling retirement choices and email-based communication. However, they are not willing to invest in cleaning their data or collecting member email addresses.

You cannot have one without the other.

Automating calculations is valueless without bullet proof data. Communicating infrequently by post is never going to drive adoption of online member services.

The investments required to scan in legacy paper files, clean member data and automate calculations is a fraction of the annual scheme management costs and even less as a percentage of assets under management.

Trustees need to grasp the nettle and prepare their schemes for the exciting future Fintech can bring to their members.

Until trustees overcome these three hurdles; technophobia, compliance concerns and an unwillingness to invest in administration; the rise of the Robots is destined to failure.

Members of our schemes will not enjoy the amazing benefits technology has brought to other areas of their daily life.

Girish Menezes is a Board Director of the Pensions Administration Standards Association and Head of Administration at Premier Pensions