Over the years, the T3 conference – now in its 19th year – created and still run by tech advisor Joel Bruckenstein, has become something of a homecoming and reunion for me – in addition to meeting new tech entrepreneurs and advisors.
It really is as much a community meeting as it is a conference. As a journalist, I’m lucky that I don’t have to navigate the business side and its hiccups like the constant price and cost increases that vendors and exhibitors experience and complain about, an ongoing shortage of advisors, and occasionally running out of food for lunch. or the coffee that is always taken away too soon.
Most of it is all good-naturedly accepted because the real value comes in seeing both old friends (and in my case, sources) and tech companies (both established and new), and the generally strong programming that Bruckenstein assembles.
While discussions of last week’s bank crash and ongoing market volatility certainly dominated thoughts and conversations to some extent, the focus always returned to the current sessions, and with that I will discuss some of what I thought were the highlights.
“AI is stupid,” was my favorite quip of the event and came out of the mouth of Dynasty CTO Frank Coates. He didn’t mean it literally; like many things Coates says, I think it was meant to grab attention and wake and excite everyone. The sentiment in its non-literal form is one that I agree with, and one that Coates went on to elaborate on: Advisors and technical advisors in particular (especially marketers) also love the idea of threats against advisors.
We’ve lived through similar cycles with robo-advisors, migration to cloud-based and cloud-native technologies, and cybersecurity breaches and fears (more on this later).
I firmly believe that – like the fear of robo-advisors before it that drove a massive amount of innovation in the advisor technology sector – artificial intelligence, including machine learning, natural language processing and generative AI (for example, ChatGPT and its already dozen or so competitors) will be transformative, disruptive at times, but ultimately a force multiplier and additive to the work of financial advisors.
Coates later noted that a major challenge, and one even AI builders recognize, becomes “how do I footnote?”
“When you think about conversational AI, how do I verify that?” Coates said, adding “there’s not an easy way today to tell what the source is and is it valid.”
Another speaker on the panel reassured advisors in the audience in a manner reminiscent of the dawn of the robo-advisor.
Spenser Segal, founder and CEO of technology consulting firm and provider ActiFi, Inc., said much of the debate about AI and the advisor industry boils down to “judgment and wisdom.”
“Separating what can be automated and easily applied to the technology you’re using, but AI can’t read your client,” he said.
These technologies will, and already are, helping advisors and their firms build efficiency and automate processes in ways never seen before.
A first-day session helped illustrate this: “HIFON Talks Tech AI Comes to RIA.” It was moderated by Shaun Kapusinski, founder of the HIFON Technology Network, with panelists Trevor Chuna, CTO of Sequoia Financial Group, and Vib Arya, COO of Shufro Rose, and brought an audience that filled the room.
I was surprised to have Chuna share how Sequoia had discovered AI-based chatbot provider Cognicor from a piece its founder Sindhu Joseph had written for WealthManagement.com.
Chuna went on to describe his and Sequoia’s approach to deciding how to leverage AI: “Start with what’s the most painful part of my world today,” he said.
In short, taking the most mind-numbing, cumbersome, previously manual processes and workflows that advisors and staff had to perform and having AI perform them and perform them in a demanding, repeatable manner, thereby increasing efficiency, eliminating NIGOs by taking the humans out of the mix. This allows for what has been discussed and not realized for the past decade: enabling advisors to spend more time with their clients or focused on ways to maximize other aspects of the relationship such as helping them achieve their Goal.
FP Alpha Estate Planning and P&C modules
It is in the same way that I can move on to discuss what appears to be a rollout with significant business development or expansion potential for most RIAs. FP Alpha, which won a 2022 technology innovation award at WealthManagement.com’s annual Wealthies, issued a three-pronged announcement at the show, which included the separation of its estate planning module from the rest of its platform.
This allows advisors who may already have tax and financial planning applications they like to reduce their spend on duplicative or redundant software and still reap the benefits of FP Alpha’s real estate technology.
Within that technology is the release of Estate Lab 2.0 and its many improvements, among them the application can now automatically transfer key data points from wills and trusts directly to the Estate Planning Lab.
With it, advisors can more easily compare alternative estate planning scenarios to the current one—which may be years out of date—by pulling in assets to illustrate how those funds would transfer at death today—yes, an uncomfortable but necessary conversation—and at the death of the other spouse (if there is one).
In a session at the conference, Wood Boone, a wealth planning associate at Baird, discussed the advantages of the platform.
“We have six or seven estate planning specialists (at Baird), but we have 1,400 advisors and that large capacity — it’s hard to get to everyone,” he said.
“A complex estate plan could take four or five hours to create a diagram we could share with an advisor,” Boone said.
The homegrown machine learning and natural language processing technology and algorithms built into FP Alpha’s software can read and extract data from even a 100-page property plan and build such a chart within minutes.
In other words, it can give advisors the ability to stay far more involved in a process, even if just reviewing the key financial aspects of an estate plan, which many advisors would previously hand over entirely to someone else.
In the 2023 T3/Inside Information Advisor Software Survey, just under 16% of advisors use estate planning tools, up from 2022 when just under 11% used the software.
And, as noted during the session, younger clients are asking about estate plans and looking to the future, expecting their advisor, if they have one, to be the “financial quarterback” of the process.
The third part of the announcement is the introduction of FP Alpha’s new P&C Snapshot, a tool that uploads home and auto insurance documents that can prove to be a huge time saver for advisors, helping to spot red flags and improve clients’ current situation.
“I would argue with Joel and Bob (Veres) that there is one category missing (from their annual technology survey) and that’s insurance,” said Andrew Altfest (see my colleague Ali Hibb’s recent RIA Edge 100 profile of Altfest Personal Wealth Management).
“Around 70% of clients want their advisers to help them with insurance and only 3% of advisers currently do.”
I have to give Joel credit, he beats the drum for advising digital security at every conference, something I have long applauded. ONE fellow technology journalist made light of his approach, which some might perceive as terrifying, on Twitter. I would agree if it wasn’t that counselors as a body remain so woefully unprepared.
FCI founder and CEO Brian Edelman gave a simple, straightforward presentation of 13 questions advisors will be asked by regulators, beginning with, “Do you know for sure that your company has an active cyber program?” and ends with “Does your cybersecurity team have a dashboard to view all devices and events?” It provided a nice wakeup call for unprepared companies and a good review for the few that are.
Edelman pointed out that even smaller RIA shops have as many as 25 relationships with outside technology providers and advisors, who must at least have a clear list of contacts available in the event of a breach.
Another cybersecurity speaker, Mark P. Hurley, CEO of Digital Privacy & Protection, touched on how advisors are expected to play a “key role” in managing cyber risks for their clients in the future as well. I plan to cover this in more depth in a future column.
I first met Martin Tarlie, the product manager of Nebo by GMO, at our own WealthStack conference in 2022. He has spent the last 10 years working on the ideas behind the platform, which he says can be thought of “as a startup within a mature asset management firm.”
To be honest, I’m still digesting this presentation, which Tarlie said was new but thought provoking and clearly held the audience’s attention.
Tarlie presents the case that building portfolios today is both a human problem and a lack-of-modern-portfolio-theory problem.
“Nebo sits at the center of a multidimensional goal-based process … (acts as) … the ‘engine’ that connects the plan to the portfolio,” testing risk as you build a portfolio.
If for no other reason, advisors still building their own portfolios or those interested in following the latest philosophical and methodological underpinnings that bring behavioral economics into the process should check out the resources Tarlie has created.
AdvizorPro and PlanPro
I also met several new technology providers at the conference. The most interesting was Michael Magnan and Hesom Parhizkar, co-founders of AdvizorPro and PlanPro.
Of greatest interest to financial advisors will be PlanPro, which provides data, tools and a plethora of filters to effectively engage plan sponsors. The dozens of filters, including red flags, plan details, geography and others can help advisors find plans in their area and view in-depth plan profiles. The data they collect can be used to find plans with high fees and savings potential, as well as weaknesses in the plan’s funds or diversification issues, among others.
Magnan, with more than six years of experience in the financial sector as a data scientist and product manager before building his own startup, said it was personal experience that led him to start PlanPro.
While the application starts with Form 5500 data, it has investment data on plans with more than 100 employees and lets plan advisors find plans in the sweet spot of having at least $10 million in assets.
“We provide all sorts of ways and filters for you to search to find companies that need your help,” said Magnan, who lightly drilled plans that had unnecessarily high fees during a demo of the product.
“Two things we really specialize in are reports with extensive plan and performance data and our lead lists,” he added.
More to say
There’s a lot more I came away with from T3 this year that I’ll unpack in future columns and stories.