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Robo-investing firms serve millennials – and their parents

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Stereotypes abound in the investment world. Read any story about automated online investing, for instance, and the assumption is that we're talking about millennials, those who were babies in Joe Clark-to-Kim Campbell times. But that's not the reality.

Older investors, those who clearly remember John Turner and Brian Mulroney from their high school days – or even have children who remember them from their high school days – are just as interested in the new low-fee robo-advisory services.

The average age for clients at Invisor Investment Management Inc. in Oakville, Ont., for example, is 45. Its oldest client is around 70.

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"We clearly see a trend that's building up now with pre-retirees, anybody between 55 to 70," said Pramod Udiaver, Invisor's co-founder and chief executive officer. One reason is that "these are the folks who really care about costs," meaning investing fees, he said.

Their needs are both the same and a little different from younger robo clients.

First, the old logic of shifting out of growth stocks and into stable income-generating investments to prepare for retirement no longer applies for most. Online services often advise older clients to continue with a balanced portfolio of dividend-bearing investments and even growth stocks into retirement age.

"If they're 65, they may still have another 25 or 30 years to go. They need to make sure there is some amount of growth in the portfolio," Mr. Udiaver said.

Tea Nicola, co-founder and chief executive officer at the online investment firm WealthBar in Vancouver, warned that securing against volatility is also important. Investors approaching retirement don't have enough time to absorb multiple market downturns, and their investments must reflect that, she said.

One strategy is to have a basket of widely balanced assets, as opposed to exchange-traded funds.

"They're called private investment portfolios, and they contain asset classes that are normally not available to smaller retail investors, like private equity and hard-asset real estate," she said. "And they have a broad diversification of assets."

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The idea, in short, is to try to replicate the volatility-conscious investing that pension plans do, a kind of "portfolio for all seasons," she said.

Pre-retirees also face tax considerations, such as the best places to hold income stocks and growth stocks.

"In a registered plan, you'd put in your more income-oriented products, because those would have higher taxability otherwise," said Mark Raes, head of product for ETFs and mutual funds at BMO Global Asset Management in Toronto. "In your non-registered plan, that's where you'd typically put your more growth-oriented investment products, like broad-market equity ETFs."

Although ETFs are popular for the ease with which they can be bought and sold, he warns ordinary investors against paying too much attention to market movement and not enough to one's longer-term retirement objectives.

"The risks are not necessarily short-term market risks. The biggest risk is not reaching your goals," Mr. Raes said. Broadly diversified ETFs are still good building blocks for a investment portfolio heading to retirement, but investments focused on dividends and income also have a place because they are typically less volatile than the broader market.

This then leads to the question of how much advice an older investor wants or needs. "I think for certain people, advice has extremely valuable connotations, and people want the support to guide them through it," Mr. Raes said.

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Still, Ms. Nicola argued that robo-advising doesn't necessarily mean having to do without the kind of personal attention a traditional money manager gives. "We do have an adviser to answer questions, and they are your dedicated adviser. You just don't come to the office physically.

"Robo-advising and this style of tech-enabled investment management is an opportunity for the older demographic to save money without giving up much in terms of face-to-face relationships," Ms. Nicola said.

Personal finance columnist Rob Carrick tells you if robo-advisers will work for you.
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