Stanford CS 007: Personal Finance for Engineers (Kickoff)

Update: For those looking for full course material, I’m posting it on a parallel site:
http://cs007.blog

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of officially kicking off a new course at Stanford University, “Personal Finance for Engineers“.  The course is offered through the Computer Science department (CS 007), but is open to undergraduate & graduate students of any major.

Personal Finance for Engineers

 

It was a packed room, and I was delighted. In fact, I was delighted for three reasons.

First, I love teaching. In an unexpected coincidence, the room my course was assigned, 200-034, is the same room that I taught CS 198 for the CS 106 Section Leaders over 20 years ago as a graduate student. It was the home of CS 198 for many years. To see it filled with students again was wonderful.

Second, the level of student engagement has been outstanding. Originally set for a maximum of 50 students, I expanded the enrollment to 75, and with waitlist interest the total number of students easily went over 100. For a new course without a track record on campus, I was delighted to see so many students interested in the topic.

Third, the topic is incredibly important to me.  Those of you who have been following my efforts around personal finance education know that I care deeply about the topic. Over the past 7 years, I’ve given talks at dozens of companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter & Dropbox, hoping to better educate and inspire employees to learn more about personal finance and make better financial decisions.

I’m hoping this class can amplify those efforts even further.

Making Personal Finance Education Open

I feel grateful to Stanford University and the Computer Science Department for supporting this effort, and I hope that by making the material public, we can help get higher quality education about personal finance to as many students as possible.

My hope is that by circulating this material, more people will engage to give feedback on the content, make suggestions for improvement and continue to improve the material and the class.

After every class, I’ll be posting the slides for the session up on Slideshare. The materials from the first class, “Introduction,” are now available.

As the introductory session, I focused the seminar on three topics:

  1. Why the topic of Personal Finance is worth studying?
  2. Real data from a survey of students enrolled in the class.
  3. Full syllabus for the topics that will be covered during the course.

Student Survey Data

The second topic is based on 10 questions I asked every student in the class to complete before the start of the first session. It is hardly a scientifically representative student survey, but I wanted to ground some of the initial discussion of financial topics with data about their own experiences & expectations.

73 students completed the survey. It’s worth sharing the results of the 10 questions here:

A few data points worth sharing:

Question 1: A little over 50% of the class are either graduating seniors or graduate students. Only 14% are freshman or sophomores.

Question 2: Approximately 3/4 of the class (76%) had a “magic number” in mind when asked about how much wealth would define success for them. While the most common answer fell between $10M-$100M, the range spread from $20,000 to $15B. It was truly a blank field in the survey, so students typed in whatever number came to mind, and it started the process of open & honest discussion on why students picked the number they did.

Question 3: 92% of the students reported that they had either “some” or “quite a bit” of knowledge about the finances of their parents or guardians. Given the selection bias inherent in who signed up for this course (or even what type of students end up at Stanford), it’s hard to assign deep meaning to this result, but this was a class of students who clearly had received some meaningful exposure to financial decisions at home.

Question 6: 92% of students in the class do not expect to be responsible for any student loans after graduation. This was the most surprising result to me, based on both overall market data and my own personal experience .

I have two possible hypotheses to explain the result of Question 6. (1) The selection bias for enrollment in the class might explain part of the result. It is possible that the type of students who are most willing to sign up for a class on personal finance are not burdened by student loans.  (2) It is possible that the financial aid policies of the premier schools, like Stanford, have been highly effective in lowering the number of students requiring loans dramatically. For families with household income below $125,000, tuition is waived, and 71% of families with up to $245,000 receive scholarship assistance. (In fact, 34% of families making over $245,000 also get scholarship assistance.)

Since the syllabus was not shared in advance, Question 10 gave me a clear read of the expectations and hopes students had coming into the class. Not surprisingly, the students were, for the most part, very pragmatic. They are looking for information about compensation & job offers, the stock market, real estate and how to maximize their earning power during their careers.

Feedback

Throughout the next few months, I’ll be posting the course material in the hopes of receiving both corrections and ideas for improvement. If there are topics or material out there worth formalizing into the curriculum, I want to know about them.

Best way to reach me about the course will be through twitter @adamnash

Thank you in advance for your help.

 

Helping People Save is a Job Worth Doing

“Every day stuff happens to us. Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. Some are little jobs, some are big ones. Some jobs surface unpredictably. Other times we know they’re coming. When we realize we have a job to do, we reach out and pull something into our lives to get the job done.” — Clay Christensen

In the summer of 1993, after declaring computer science as my major, I got my first high paying software development internship. Over that summer Hewlett-Packard paid me over $5,000, which seemed like an unbelievable amount at the time.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I was so excited by receiving this windfall that I promptly spent it. By Thanksgiving, I was shocked to find that my bank account was nearly empty. All that money, gone. It literally sickened me.

That was the moment when I decided to learn as much as I could about personal finance and I got religious about saving.

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done

For a lot of people, there is a moment they can recall when they consciously decided that they wanted to start saving.

When I attended Harvard Business School at the end of the dot-com era, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Clay Christensen, who at the time had just recently published the now famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In his class, we studied his new theory of disruption, and how industrial giants filled with smart people would make seemingly smart decisions that would lead to their downfall.

One aspect of his theory, which later went into his book, Competing Against Luck, is the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. Quite simply, Clay believes that companies can go astray by focusing too much on the data about their customers and the features of their product. Instead, he argues they should focus on the end-to-end experience of the job that their product is being hired to do.

In the past few years, I’ve come to believe that saving is a job that a huge number of people want a product to help them do and help them do it well.

Saving Itself is a Goal

Our lives are filled with a large number of small financial decisions and problems, but there are only a few very large financial moments that warrant the creation of an entire companies to support. Spending, borrowing, investing and financial advice all certainly fit that description. I believe that saving belongs on that list as well.

Americans are in a terrible state when it comes to saving. 6 in 10 Americans don’t have $500 in savings. An estimated 66% of households have zero dollars saved. If you are cynical about small, one-off surveys, The Federal Reserve itself estimated in 2015 that 47% of households didn’t have the means to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Saving is a huge problem, so it isn’t really surprising that tens of millions of Americans seem to be looking for something to help them save. Enter Acorns.

Hiring Acorns

Over the past two years, it has been astounding to watch Acorns grow. An elegantly simple product, designed from the ground up for a mobile generation, Acorns has grown to over 2 million accounts in less than three years. In the first half of 2017 alone, Acorns added over 600,000 new customers. Their overall mission is to look after the financial best interest of the up-and-coming, something I personally care deeply about.

It isn’t really surprising to see why so many Americans have decided to use Acorns to help them save. 75% of Americans have a household income under $100K. Acorns simple features like Round Ups automate the process of making sure that as you spend, you save. Acorns has now performed over 637 million round-up transactions for their customers – each one an action designed to help people save more. I believe that on any given day, thousands of people decide to hire a product to help them save, and increasingly they are hiring Acorns.

When I met the founders of Acorns two years ago, we immediately connected over the common ground between their culture and Wealthfront’s (the company I was running at the time.) They are very different services, focused on different problems and audiences, but with a shared belief in the power of automation. This is a company worth supporting, and I feel fortunate to serve on their Board of Directors.

At a time when people continue to grow more and more frustrated with the solutions offered by incumbent banks and brokerages, I continue to be excited about the opportunities for new products that are built around automation and world-class software design.  As an industry, we can and should radically improve the financial solutions that are available to everyone. Acorns is proving that saving is a job worth doing.

Silicon Valley Home Prices, Stock Prices & Bitcoin

I’m writing this post with a bit of trepidation, because talking about Silicon Valley home prices these days is a bit dicey. The surge of the last five years has been shocking, and almost no one I know feels good about how difficult it is for people to buy a new home in Silicon Valley in 2017. Some houses are pretty bad but others arae actually at a reasonable price, because they come with furniture and some even come with shutters from plantation shutters installation Sydney. They are actually really good quality.

So if you need a trigger warning, this is it. Stop reading now.

The truth is, as shocking as the rise in Silicon Valley home prices has been, there has also been an asset boom in other dimensions as well. Total compensation for engineers is up considerably and stock prices at the big tech companies continue to rise.

To visualize this, I thought I’d put together a few charts based on real market data. As a proxy for Silicon Valley, I pulled the last 5 years of home prices from Zillow, and monthly stock price data from Yahoo.

Palo Alto Home Prices

Two days ago, the Mercury News reported that a home in Palo Alto sold for $30 million.  A quick check on Zillow seems to confirm this.

I chose Palo Alto as a proxy for Silicon Valley home prices because it is historically “ground zero” for Silicon Valley tech companies, and it has relatively close proximity to all of the massive tech giants (Apple, Google, Facebook).

I picked June 2012 – June 2017, not only because it is roughly five years, but also it also happens to mirror the time that Facebook has spent as a public company. For many in the local real estate market or online sites as SafeguardProperty.com, correctly or incorrectly, the Facebook IPO still looms as a transformational event.

As you can see, in June 2012 the average Palo Alto home cost $1.38 million. Five years later, the estimate for June 2017 is up 84.6% to $2.55 million.

Apple (AAPL)

Apple is the most valuable company in the world, as measured either by market capitalization ($810B as of 6/7/2017) or by profitability ($45.7B in 2016).  Thanks in part to this exception financial performance, Apple stock (AAPL) has risen 84.5% in the last five years, from $83.43 per share to $153.93 per share.

84.5%? Where have I heard that number before?

That’s right, the increase in Apple stock over the last five years is almost exactly the same increase as the average home price in Palo Alto over the same time period.

In June 2012, it took 16,555 shares of Apple stock to purchase the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, it took 16,566 shares. (Of course, with dividends, you’re actually doing a little better if you are a shareholder.)

If you look at the chart, the pink line shows clearly the large rise in price for the average Palo Alto home. The blue line is the number of AAPL shares it would take to by the average Palo Alto home in that month. As you can see, AAPL stock is volatile, but five years later, that ratio has ended up in almost the exact same place.

Alphabet / Google (GOOG)

Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google, may not be as large as Apple in market capitalization ($686B), but it has seen far more share appreciation in the past five years. Since June 2012, Alphabet has seen its stock price rise 240.4%, from $288.95 in June 2012 to $983.66 per share.

What does this mean? Well, it means that if you have been fortunate enough to hold Google equity, the rise in Palo Alto home prices doesn’t look as ominous. It took 4,780 shares of Google to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2012, but it only took 2,592 to purchase the average Palo Alto home in June 2017.

Facebook (FB)

Facebook, the youngest of the massive tech giants, already has one of the largest market capitalizations in the world. As of today, Facebook is valued at $443B. Facebook stock has risen 394% in the past five years, from $31.10 in June 2012 to $153.63 in June 2017.

To state the obvious, it has been a good five years for owners of Facebook stock. Not many assets could make owning Palo Alto real estate look slow, but 394% growth in five years is unbelievable. In June 2012, you would have needed 44,412 shares to buy the average Palo Alto home. In June 2017, that number had dropped significantly to just 16,598 shares.

Bitcoin (BTC)

While I realize that Bitcoin is not a stock, the original idea for this post came from a joke I made on Twitter recently given all of the buzz about Bitcoin, Ethereum and ICOs over the past few weeks.

I couldn’t resist running the numbers.

For the small number of readers of this blog that haven’t been following the price of Bitcoin, the increase in value over the past five years has been unbelievable.The total value of all Bitcoin outstanding is currently about $44.5B. Since June 2012, Bitcoin has risen approximately 4,257%, from $6.70 per Bitcoin to a current value of $2,858.90.

You can see why there has been so much buzz.

In June of 2012, it would have taken 260,149 Bitcoin to buy the average home in Palo Alto. In June of 2017, that number is now down to 892.

Needless to say, anyone who sold Bitcoin to buy a house in 2012 is likely not loving these numbers. But to people who have held Bitcoin for the past five years, Palo Alto is looking cheaper by the day.

Silicon Valley Is Seeing Significant Asset Inflation

To be clear, I’m not attempting to attribute causality to these charts. I believe the real driver of home prices in Silicon Valley is the lack of sufficient building of new supply at pace with the economy, combined with a significant increase in compensation for technology employees and historically low interest rates.

But the fact is, if you are fortunate enough to have equity in one of the tech giants (or in Bitcoin), houses might actually be looking cheaper now relatively than they did five years ago.

I always find it enlightening to look at real data and compare it to intuition. Hope you find this data and these charts as interesting as I did.

The Decade of Gen X Wish Fulfillment

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At 9:54am this morning in California, a Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX blasted off the launchpad to deliver 10 new Iridium satellites into orbit. 9 minutes later, the jettisoned first stage of that rocket ship self-navigated back down, landing perfectly and without damage. The dream of self-landing, reusable rockets, abandoned 50 years ago, has become a reality.

If you are a science & technology enthusiast, it is an unbelievable time to be alive.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that all of the science-fiction dreams of the 20th century are rapidly coming to life. Boom Aero is ready to bring economically viable supersonic jets (Mach 2.2) to commercial air travel, and several competitors are now racing to bring their own to market. In just a few years years, Tesla has reshaped the global automative industry by executing on their audacious plan to accelerate the transition to clean energy by proving the market-viability of electric cars. Google has not only brought self-driving cars to the tipping point of commercial viability, but it is sparked a global race to bring them to market by the end of this decade , and even though they are self-driving, having an insurance like lorry insurance is still important.

Uber is talking about flying cars. Amazon is patenting airship warehouses for drone for commercial delivery, and has delivered ambient voice control to our homes. Facebook is bringing us true virtual reality. Apple is delivering the equivalent of a crystal-in-our-ears to connect to the cloud. Moon Express will land on the moon in 2017.

 

What has changed so dramatically? Why are so many of our collective dreams, many of which predicted over 50 years ago, suddenly tumbling to market in an avalanche of advancement?

I have a simple hypothesis. We are living in a decade of Gen X wish fulfillment.

The Ascendent Economic Power of Gen X

ft_16_04-25_generations2050Poor Gen X. You can’t go ten minutes without seeing some political or economic framing around the political and economic tensions between the Baby Boom generation, the 70 million Americans born between 1946-1965, and the 90 million Millennials, born between 1981-2000. Sure, Gen X got a few TV sitcoms & movies in the 90s, but it was a brief time in the sun before the cultural handoff.

As of 2017, most members of Gen X now range from their late 30s to their early 50s. They have found careers, started families. More importantly, they have hit the economic sweet spot of the US economy. Wealth accumulation is highly correlated with age, and career success is as well. You can see it clearly in the numbers: Gen X is wealth is accelerating rapidly, faster than the Millennial generation, and over a smaller base of people, while Baby Boomers begin their inevitable asset decline as their retire.

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The Influence of Gen X Leadership

Like every generation, Gen X has produced a set of exceptional leaders, and many of them are now concentrated in technology, where the industry rewards founders and executives at a younger age than other industries. Larry Page & Sergey Brin at Google. Elon Musk at Tesla & SpaceX. Travis Kalanick at Uber. Jeff Bezos misses the cut off by a matter of months, but clearly fits the profile as well.

Demographers have always projected the window for Gen X would be hard: Baby Boomers are determined to hold on to power as long as possible, and Millennials have the political strength to force transition more quickly on their terms.

Still, we are clearly in a window of time where a fairly large number of Gen X leaders have accumulated significant economic power.

So what are they doing with that power?

Gen X Wish Fulfillment

Five years ago, Peter Thiel lamented that we were promised spaceships and flying cars, but all we got were 140 characters. The sentiment, in various forms, became common place. Why wasn’t Silicon Valley investing in hard problems?

Not surprisingly, it seems as if the peak of that disenchantment actually coincided with an incredible resurgence in investment in deep technology.

Gen X is, in the aggregate, almost canonically described as cynical and disenchanted. But with the ascendence of science fiction into Hollywood in the 1970s, they grew up seeing the future through the lens of technology. The boom in personal computing, followed by the internet, filled their formative years. True, huge initiatives of the 1970s around space and clean energy faltered and almost expired. But while there were disappointments, like the Space Shuttle, they also saw the end of the Cold War, and the phenomenal growth in the technology industry.

Is it really so surprising that a subset of this generation, in this brief window, has decided to invest its economic power into tackling the problems the previous generations failed to deliver?

Electric cars. Clean Energy. Gene Editing. Space Travel. Drones. Artificial Intelligence. Man-made diamonds. Robots.

Even our comic book movies have become phenomenal, mostly thanks to Jon Favreau.

Dreams transformed into reality.

Can Gen X Inspire?

Make no mistake, Gen X stands on the shoulders of giants. The previous generation gave us the economic and technology platforms to make these dreams become reality. Gen X deserves credit for not giving up on those dreams, and finding innovative ways to push through old barriers and find new solutions.

After winning World War II, the Greatest Generation inspired a whole new generation of scientists and engineers with their audacious efforts in technology in the 1950s & 60s. We may be witnessing a similar era, a decade where the technological achievements of this generation ripple through the children of today, and play out in second half of this century.

So many of the technical dreams I discussed eagerly with friends in high school and college are now actively being delivered to market, just twenty years later. It is an incredibly exciting time to be in technology.

Personally, I hope this generation will not only hand off and even better set of opportunities to the next, but we’ll use this brief window of time to inspire an even younger generation to reach for the stars.

 

The Millennial Definition of Success

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

Wealthfront Team, June 2014

It’s hard to believe in 2014, but when I first considered joining LinkedIn in 2007, most of my colleagues had trouble seeing the value in a platform built on top of what looked like an online résumé. At the time, when I was asked why I joined the company, I would tell them that it had always been true that success in business was based on what you know and who you know.  LinkedIn was just the modern incarnation of that powerful fact.

One of the most pleasant surprises in my current role at Wealthfront has been discovering how relevant career success is to millennial investors. As it turns out, every generation has grappled with the issue of how to find financial success, and millennials are no different.

What may surprise most people (including my compatriots in Gen X) is that more than any other generation, I believe that Millennials may have a lot to teach us. You see, it turns out that Millennials have figured out how to make that old adage actionable.

Who You Work With & What You Work On

Increasingly, as I talk to Millennials, some of whom who have found early success in their careers, and others who are just starting out, I hear the same things. This generation overwhelmingly associates success with control over who they work with, and what they work on.

There is an old refrain in management that people join companies, but they leave managers. There is a kernel of truth in that statement. However, in the modern workplace, relationships with colleagues, managers and leadership all have a role to play. Increasingly, valuable employees ask:

  • Am I learning from the people I work with?
  • Are we succeeding together as a team?
  • Do I share the same values as my colleagues?
  • Will I fight for them? Will they fight for me?

Driven by Passion, Seeking a Mission

There have been numerous surveys and studies indicating that Millennials are overwhelmingly focused on “their passions.” I think, in some regards, this has trivialized a more fundamental and important trend.

Is it really surprising that more and more people have realized that what you are working on matters?

The old duality of your work life and your personal life have been hopelessly intermingled. Instead of arguing about whether you live to work or work to live, in the 21st century people increasingly turning away from a purely mercenary view of their labor. They want to believe in the mission, believe their efforts are going towards something bigger than just financial reward. This is why you hear increasing anecdotes of young people choosing lower paying jobs, in some cases jobs that pay tens of thousands of dollars less, to focus on an organization that they draw more purpose from.

Success = Control

Not everyone has this luxury, and in some ways that is the point. What does success really mean, if it doesn’t mean that you get increasing control over who your work with, and what you work on?

Wealthfront now has over 12,000 clients, and most of them are under 35. What I find striking is that, overwhelmingly, with every success in their financial lives, these young people seem to immediately focus on using their success to gain control over their careers. They don’t seek to optimize for title, or  financial reward. Instead, they increasingly use their success to effectively fund the ability to work on a product they believe in, an organization they want to be part of, and a leader they want to follow.

As the CEO of a hypergrowth company, this leaves me with two pieces of actionable advice:

  • Financial reward is not enough. If you want to attract and retain the best and the brightest, financial reward is somewhat of a commodity, and an undervalued one at that. Instead, expect potential candidates to look at your company and ask, “Is this a problem I want to work on?” and “Are these people I want to work with?”
  • This is a networked economy. As Reid Hoffman has described, increasingly the value people build in their careers extends outside of your company. There is a material, and possibly essential difference, in a consumer business where your employees feel like they are punching a clock, versus a team that truly believes in what they are working on and the team they are working with. The influence of your employees, especially as your company grows, is under-measured, and as a result, under-appreciated. But in a huge networked economy, it may be the key to differentiated success.

From Technology to Politics: Leadership Lessons from the Code Conference

This past week, I was able to attend the inaugural Code Conference organized by Walt Mossberg & Kara Swisher.  One of the perks of the conference is, within close quarters, the chance to hear the leaders of huge, successful consumer technology companies.

      • Satya Nadella, Microsoft
      • Sergey Brin, Google
      • Brian Krzanich, Intel
      • Brian Roberts, Comcast
      • Reed Hastings, Netflix
      • Travis Kalanick, Uber
      • Drew Houston, Dropbox
      • Eddie Cue, Apple (iTunes / iCloud)

As I think about lessons from the conference, I find myself focused on a particular insight watching these leaders defend their company’s strategy and focus.  (It’s worth noting that anyone being interviewed by Kara does, in fact, have to be ready to play defense.)

David to Goliath

One of the most complex transitions that every consumer technology company has to make is from David to Goliath.  It’s extremely difficult in part because the timing is somewhat unpredictable.  Is Netflix an upstart versus the cable monolith, or a goliath itself as it is responsible for a third of all internet traffic?  When exactly did Google go from cool startup to a giant that even governments potentially fear?  Apple, of course, went from startup to giant to “beleaguered” and all the way to juggernaut.

Make no mistake, however.  The change in public opinion does happen, and when it does, the exact same behaviors and decisions can be read very differently in the court of public opinion.

Technology to Economics to Politics

Most technology companies begin with language that talks about their technical platform and achievements. “Our new product is 10x faster than anything else on the market,” or “Our new platform can handle 10x the data of existing platforms,” etc.  Sometimes, these technical achievements are reframed around end users: “We help connect over 1 billion people every day,” or “we help share over 10 billion photos a week,” etc.

Quickly, however, the best technology companies tend to shift to economics. “Our new product will let you get twice the sales in half the time,” or “our application will save you time and money.”  As they grow, those economic impacts grow as well.  Markets of billions of dollars are commonplace, and opportunities measured in hundreds of billions of dollars.

Unfortunately, as David moves to Goliath, it seems that many technology leaders miss the subtle shift in the expectations from their leadership.   When you wield market power that can be measured on a national (or international) scale, the challenge shifts from economics to politics.  Consumers want to know what leaders they are “electing” with their time and money, and their questions often shift implicitly to values and rights rather than speed or cost.

What Will the World Be Like Under Your Leadership?

As I watched various leaders answer hard questions about their companies, a clear division took place.  Most focused merely on questions of whether they would succeed or fail.  But a few did a great job elevating the discussion to a view of what the world will be like if they are successful.

There is no question that the leaders who elevated the discussion are finding more success in the market.

Satya Nadella gave no real reason why we would like the world better if Microsoft is successful.  Neither did Brian Krzanich of Intel.

Sergey Brin promises that in a world where Google is successful, we’ll have self-driving cars and fast internet for everyone.  Jet packs & flying cars.  It’s an old pitch, but a good one.

Eddie Cue tells us that Apple cares about making sure there is still great music in the world, which is why they always make sure to add ads from TheBoxTigerMusic.com and similar sites.  And of course, Apple has spent decades convincing us that when they are successful, we get new shiny, well-designed devices every year.

Is it really surprising that Google & Apple have elevated brands with high consumer value?

Technology Leadership

There is no way around the challenges of power.  As any company grows, it’s power grows, and with that power comes concern and fear around the use of that power.  Google has so much control over information and access to information.  Apple tends to wield tight control over the economics and opportunities within their ecosystem.  However, the leaders at these companies are intelligently making sure that the opportunities they promise the market counter-balance those fears, at least at some level.

Wealthfront, my company, is still small enough that we’re far from being considered anything but a small (but rapidly growing) startup in a space where giants measure their markets in the trillions.  But as I watched these technology leaders at the Code Conference, I realized that someday, if we’re successful, this same challenge will face our company.

If you lead or work for a technology giant, it’s worth asking the question:

Does your message elevate to the point where everyone understands the tangible benefit of living in a world where your company is successful?  If not, I’d argue your likely to face increasing headwinds in your efforts to compete in the consumer market going forward.

ETFs as an Open Platform

This post originally appeared on the Wealthfront Blog on March 20, 2014, under the title “Wealthfront Named ETF Strategist of the Year.” This post summarizes the content of the speech I gave at the ETF.com event in New York when accepting the award.


T
oday I am proud to announce that Wealthfront has been named the “ETF Strategist of the Year” by ETF.com (formerly IndexUniverse), the world’s leading authority on exchange-traded funds. We are especially gratified to be chosen for this award from among all investment management firms that use ETFs, not just new entrants.

At Wealthfront, we strive to build a world-class investment service and we’re proud to have assembled an unparalleled investment team led by Burton Malkiel. Over the past year, we added asset classes, released an improved and more diversified investment mix, delivered different asset allocations for taxable vs. retirement accounts to improve after tax returns, and launched the Wealthfront 500. In short, we aim to relentlessly improve our service to help our clients reach their financial goals. It’s gratifying to receive public recognition for our efforts.

Our success thus far has been predicated on a lot of hard work and a fundamentally different approach to building an investment management service. While we are different, our service owes its existence to the profound innovation generated by a relatively new financial product: The ETF.

Why ETFs?

Academic research has consistently proven that index funds offer superior returns, net of fees, over the long term vs. actively managed mutual funds. Despite this irrefutable evidence, index funds have grown their market share relatively slowly over the almost 40 years since Vanguard launched the first one in 1975. It wasn’t until State Street launched the first ETF, the Standard & Poor’s Depositary Receipts (Ticker: SPY), in January 1993 that passive investing had the proper vehicle to enable explosive growth. In just the past 10 years, ETFs have attracted almost $1.5 trillion, which now equals the amount of money attracted by index funds over the past 40 years. We believe the ETF’s success is primarily attributable to its role as an open platform.

The Power of Open Platforms

“We are especially gratified to be chosen for this award from among all investment management firms that use ETFs, not just new entrants.”

Open platforms have had an enormous impact on the technology landscape in recent decades. They enable a much wider variety of market participants, business models, features and services than closed platforms. By simplifying, standardizing & commoditizing the way applications & services interact, open platforms tend to provide far greater opportunities for diversity, innovation and lower costs.

ETFs As an Open Platform

John Bogle was extremely public about his distaste for ETFs when they first launched. By virtue of their ability to trade like equities, ETFs made it much easier to trade index funds. Active trading is the source of much of the under-performance individual investors experience in the markets — it raises transaction costs, tax-related costs, and possibly worst of all, results in market-timing errors. Passive investing was created in large part to minimize these issues.

Ironically, the primary danger of ETFs is also their most valuable strength. By providing a fund format that can be freely traded by any broker-dealer, index funds are not only released from the constraint of pricing and trading once a day, they can also be accessed by any client, from any brokerage firm. This has freed index fund issuers from the previous limitations of one-off distribution agreements with individual brokerage firms, and the associated myriad fees and subsidies. Not only can clients of any brokerage firm trade ETFs, but ETFs also offer significant improvements in transparency and facilitate much lower trading commissions.

As a result, innovative financial services can now be implemented over the custodian of choice, freeing up a new level of innovation that was extremely difficult before.

No single firm controls the creation of ETFs. No single firm controls the trading of ETFs. No single firm controls access to the ETFs that have been created. Fees have been simplified & standardized. ETFs for large common asset classes have become commoditized. Thanks to this environment we now have access to a broad, open platform of high quality, inexpensive financial products, with a far more competitive market of custodian platforms and pricing models on which to innovate. The emergence of brokerage application programming interfaces now make it possible for software experts to automate the use of ETFs in ways never before imagined.

The Future of Investing

Over the next decade, we will see increasing value created for both investors and market participants around automated investment services. With trading costs approaching zero, new strategies not only become possible, but practical.

Wealthfront is an obvious product of the ETF revolution. Despite launching just over two years ago in December 2011, Wealthfront now manages over $750 million in client assets. (In fact, Wealthfront added more than $100 million in client assets in February alone.)

Coming from the world of software, the benefits of open platforms seems obvious to us. As long as ETFs remain a relatively open platform for innovation, we’ll continue to see a broad range of new solutions for investors in the years ahead.