Bono Goes Robo (But Look At These Account Acquisition Costs)

The idea that U2 frontman Bono is the very antithesis of rock'n'roll is well worn. He is a fan of tax optimisation, a keen private-equity investor and his real name is Paul. But maybe he is more in tune with the new generation than we had thought.

His latest investment is in the millennial-friendly fintech firm Acorns Grow.

Fellow investors include movie star Ashton Kutcher and basketball star Kevin Durant.

That's pretty hip by the standards of today's youth, who prefer technology over music and whose priority is often trying to become financially independent.

The idea is that by setting aside nickels and dimes with the Acorns Grow app, even cash-strapped kids can save for retirement.

Still, assuming Bono's aim is also to dodge the graveyard of fintech failures and reach a Joshua-Tree destination of big profits, it's hard to be confident that he's found what he's looking for.

The Acorns business combines two fintech favourites: collecting customers' spending data and offering them simple and cheap savings products.

The service lets people link their bank card to the app, which then adds pennies to transactions and reinvests them in stocks and bonds ETFs.

All that knowledge about customer habits also helps Acorns strike deals with retailers to offer its customers savings or cashback on purchases.

The savings platform is similar to robo-advisors, such as Betterment. The service costs $1 (€0.82) a month, or 0.25pc for bigger balances.

However, it is not clear whether Acorns has sufficient scale to grow profitably.

A frequently seen strategy of VC-backed fintechs is to burn cash on luring a critical mass of customers, then start charging more for services and other products once the installed base is big enough. But it's a tricky transition to get right, largely because the cost of acquisition is high relative to the potential revenues.

Client balances at robo-advisor firms are typically small, as you might expect, so that often leads companies to spend unprofitably to acquire more customers.

A 2016 review by SCM Direct estimated that the average UK robo-advisor spent at least £180 (€200) a year to acquire £147.50 (€165) of equivalent revenue.

Acorns certainly has many people using its app - more than two million - so its $100m (€82m) of VC funding has been put to good use. But all that spare change only adds up to more than $500m (€409m) in assets under management. That's some way from the estimated $16bn to $40bn needed for robo-advisors to break even, according to a 2015 Morningstar report.

Perhaps Bono is on to something and millennials will take to the micro-savings concept and eventually pay more for the privilege.

But there is also the danger that if financial market volatility stages a comeback and the value of its stock and bond portfolios fall, then the cost of nickel-and-dime investing will end up higher than the benefit.

As the boilerplate investment warning says, markets can move in mysterious ways. 


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