A guide to the best robo-advisors in Canada for 2023
Find out which Canadian robo-advisor is right for you and your investing goals.
Find out which Canadian robo-advisor is right for you and your investing goals.
What was once a little-known investing tool for tech-savvy investors is now commonplace, with everyone from newbie savers to retired boomers using robo-advisors to help manage their money in low fee portfolios built for Canadians who want to invest without having to pick and choose their own stocks or ETFs.
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|Robo-advisor||wdt_ID||Robo-advisor||Management fees||Minimum account size||ETFs||Balanced portfolio 1-year return||3-year||5-year||SRI option|
|0.4% to 0.7% annually||$1,000||BMO||-9.95%||0.74%||3.29%||N|
|0.35% to 0.6% annually||$1,000||BMO, CI GAM, iShares||-8.98%||3.37%||4.41%||Y|
|0.4% to 0.5% annually; $4.99/month for accounts $12,000 or less||$5,000||iShares, Vanguard||-9.67%||4.48%||4.97%||Y|
|0.35% to 0.5% annually||none||BMO, iShares, Vanguard||-10%||0.7%||1.7%||Y|
|$5 to $150 a month||none||BMO, iShares, Vanguard||-14.17%||2.13%||3.79%||N|
Qtrade Guided Portfolios
|0.35% to 0.6% annually||none||Flexshares, iShares, Vanguard||-11.19%||1.47%||2.89%||Y|
|0.20% to 0.25% annually||$1,000||BMO, iShares, SPDR||-8.41%||2.94%||3.4%||Y|
|0.4% to 0.5% annually||none||BMO, iShares, State Street, Vanguard||-12.98%||-0.54%||1.52%||Y|
Note: All figures are accurate as of Dec. 31, 2022.
While 2022 was clearly a challenging year for almost everybody in the investment world, for robo-advisors it was also a test. How would these automated portfolio management services, whose primary selling point is low fees, perform in a sustained market downturn? A bear market is something that hadn’t occurred since they first appeared on the Canadian investment landscape in 2014.
They got clobbered just like everyone else.
Typical portfolios lost between 8% and 15% of their value in 2022. But so did mutual funds and other higher-fee investing vehicles. The fact that both stock and bond holdings withered in tandem—an extremely rare occurrence historically—made one of robo-portfolios’ normally attractive attributes, transparency, a liability. Compared to the competition, they didn’t do that badly.
Nonetheless, it behooves investors considering the switch to a robo-advisor to probe deeper into their options, asking tough questions around fees, performance, risk and the composition of portfolios.
For the purposes of our 2023 guide to the Canadian robo industry, we surveyed providers available coast to coast. (There are also niche robos available in a handful of provinces, such as Ontario-based Smart Money Invest, which offers a higher-touch service at a slightly higher price.)
As our findings show, they’re not all the same.
Wondering which robo-advisor offers the best returns? Consider this. Last year demonstrated the importance of diversification, including holding investments outside the mainstream asset classes of stocks and bonds. CI Direct Investing is the only robo-advisor in Canada that enables you to do that in a meaningful way. You can choose the simple option of a low-cost exchange-traded fund (ETF) portfolio with CI Direct Investing, but if you’re not convinced indexed stock and bond funds can meet the challenges investment markets face, you can opt for what it calls Private Investment Portfolios, which include other asset classes, too. That approach does incur higher fees, but it served clients well last year, when stock and bond markets both declined. While virtually all ETF-based portfolios from all providers lost money last year, CI Direct Investing’s Private Balanced Portfolio ground out a 7.32% positive return, net of the management expense ratio (MER). Impressive, considering what a tough year 2022 was.
You have options. CI Direct Investing offers three types of portfolios.
The first one is similar to what you’d find with other robos: five portfolios that range from conservative to aggressive, invested in ETFs from Horizons, Vanguard, iShares, BMO and CI First Asset.
The second is a series of three Impact Portfolios for socially and environmentally responsible investors, invested in a combination of ETFs and mutual funds.
But the third, Private Portfolios, offers something unique in the robo-advisor marketplace: three portfolios made up of pooled funds including the Nicola Core Portfolio Fund, steered by third-party manager Nicola Wealth. These combine mainstream and more rarified asset classes, including private real estate, mortgages, private equity and alternative strategies.
As you might expect, the Private Portfolios come with steeper fees than the standard ETF portfolios. As of April 30, 2022, the Balanced Private Portfolio’s MER was 1.55%. If that sounds high, consider that mutual funds will charge as much or more without giving you exposure to private asset classes.
Investors who want (or could want, as their nest egg grows) greater portfolio diversification should consider CI Direct Investing, which offers exposure to underlying asset classes beyond equities and fixed income. This robo-advisor has a sophisticated portfolio solution—at a still-reasonable robo price—that really came through for clients over the past year.
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BMO is one of two major banks with a robo-advisor service, and it is also a big player in the ETF space. So, its portfolios are almost entirely populated by its own funds. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing really depends on your perspective.
What we can say is that the selection and management fees of BMO’s funds are generally competitive with those of the other indexing leaders, iShares and Vanguard.
After you’ve answered a few risk-tolerance questions, the company matches you with one of its five model portfolios, whose asset mixes vary widely. The BMO Capital Preservation Portfolio, for instance, has an allocation of about 10% to equities and about 90% to fixed income, as of Sept. 30, 2022. Its Equity Growth Portfolio is weighted about 94% stocks and 4% bonds. The rest fall somewhere in between. It’s easy enough to change the asset mix—notify your assigned BMO SmartFolio personal advisor when a life event happens, such as marriage, a significant job change or the arrival of kids, as that may require a shift in your investing approach.
With BMO SmartFolio, you get both portfolio management and an in-house family of ETFs from a Canadian financial sector stalwart that is committed to the robo space.
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Justwealth offers a wider selection of portfolio and account types than any other robo-advisor in Canada. It is particularly good for registered education savings plans (RESPs), because it designed its target-date accounts to get more conservative as the beneficiary’s post-secondary attendance approaches. This robo-advisor has an edge in managing taxable investments, too, managing portfolios for tax efficiency and offering tax-loss harvesting at year-end.
In short, Justwealth offers all the attributes that prompted us to name it “Best robo-advisor overall” last year. But with a minimum registered account size of $5,000 and a bewildering number of choices, it’s not necessarily the most welcoming provider for novice investors.
While most other robo-advisors offer just a handful of options, Justwealth has over 70 portfolios for you to choose from. That includes accounts focused on: global growth; environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors; income; and U.S.-dollar-denominated securities.
And this robo uses over 50 ETFs from nine providers, including Vanguard, iShares and Schwab. Unlike some of its competitors in the robo space, Justwealth assigns clients a dedicated personal portfolio manager, who is responsible for overseeing their investments. You can contact that person directly if you have questions.
If you have multiple accounts and want the ability to get granular to fit your specific needs, this may be the robo for you. With so many portfolios to choose from—including tax-efficient options for non-registered accounts, income portfolios for investors who are decumulating their wealth, and target-date funds for education savings—users should be able to find a combination that works for them.
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Modern Advisor has a swagger few other Canadian robos adopt these days. If you’re a mutual fund investor considering making the switch, know that you can upload your latest statement into its Portfolio Checkup tool, which will generate a personalized report that spells out what kind of fees you’re paying, what Modern Advisor would do with your money instead, and how much you would save in the current year and over time.
The robo firm, part of the Guardian Capital Group, even has a 30-day risk-free trial, whereby it will put up $1,000 of play money for an account in your name. You can watch how the account works, and if you like what you see, you can open your own within the 30 days and keep any gains earned during the trial (just not the $1,000 principal), as well as enjoy another month without fees. Wondering about any losses with a trial account? You wouldn’t be charged, as for Modern Advisor, the whole point of the trial is to show how it works.
Modern Advisor’s apparent self-confidence extends to its methodology, which it emphasizes as a key differentiator from the competition. The site seems to pitch newbie investors who haven’t heard of a robo-advisor before. The firm applies mean-variance optimization, a practice pioneered by Nobel Prize–winning economist Harry Markowitz, to design portfolios matched to the client’s risk tolerance on a scale of 1 to 10. That leads it to feature asset classes not included in some other robos’ portfolios, such as emerging-market bonds. Modern Advisor also rebalances portfolios daily, if the allocations stray from target weights.
If you’re looking to get comfortable with automated portfolio management, know that Modern Advisor lets you try before you buy, even if only for a short time. You can cancel before you even provide your banking information, which is a safe way to test the waters.
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Nest Wealth has a unique fee schedule among Canadian robo-advisors. It charges a monthly flat fee on all accounts combined (starting at $5), not a percentage of assets. So, you’re not paying more as your total assets grow, only when your investments reach a new tier—say, $75,000 or $150,000. This robo also offers a referral platform for advisors, Nest Wealth Plus, whereby investors interested in a hybrid approach can continue to work with an advisor and benefit from the low fees and digital experience of a robo platform.
Nest Wealth uses industry-standard ETFs from iShares, Vanguard and BMO to construct basic ETF portfolios. The company allocates investor funds across six asset classes, including domestic equities, emerging market and international equities, government fixed income and real-return bonds, and real estate, depending on your risk tolerance. The robo firm’s website includes a wide set of useful calculation tools, from budgeting to comparing tax outcomes for registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs) and tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs). However, it does not offer a responsible investing option.
If you want to augment the robo-advice with that from other sources, this robo may be for you. Nest Wealth positions itself as easy to work alongside advisors and financial institutions for individual investors.
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Questrade, best known for its discount brokerage, is the largest independent brokerage in Canada. It also has a robo-advisor platform, Questwealth Portfolios. The two are designed to work in tandem, so you can have one account for your own trading and another one managed for you. This hybrid model does attract some investors, as they get more flexibility with their savings.
Questwealth puts investors in one of five standardized ETF portfolios, from conservative to aggressive, based on their risk tolerance. The portfolios hold a number of brand-name funds, including SPDR, BMO and iShares. While the ETFs themselves are mostly index funds, Questwealth actively manages the mix—for example, dialling back the higher-risk funds when the markets look vulnerable. However, the tactic didn’t result in noticeably superior returns in 2022.
Different providers have different ways of calculating portfolio management fees, but they mostly come out to $250 to $300 a year for a client with $50,000 invested; for the same-sized account, Questwealth charges just $125.
Indeed, virtually every way we configured it, Questwealth came in with the lowest fees in Canada. It’s also worth considering for investors wanting to have both the function of a robo-advisor for their core holdings and a discount brokerage account for recreational stock-picking.
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RBC InvestEase is another big-bank robo option. It adds a sense of stability and permanence that not all startups in the robo-advisor space can offer. It’s also one of the simplest options for investors, as it’s focused on the essential advantages of low-cost, passive investing.
Here, you can opt for two main types of portfolios, standard and responsible investing (RI). Within each category, there are five options that fit with various risk-tolerance levels. The portfolios are populated with a selection of 14 iShares ETFs—RBC has had a partnership with iShares since 2019—and have an average management expense ratio of 0.13%. That means RBC InvestEase’s combined fees (0.5% portfolio fee plus MER) fall at the low end of all the competition, around 0.63% of your portfolio value annually.
Having an across-the-board fee of 0.5% means you know exactly what you’re paying. RBC has no requirement for minimum account size, and it will start investing when the balance reaches just $100, too, which may appeal to investors who are just starting out.
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Qtrade Guided Portfolios, formerly known as VirtualWealth, is the robo-advisor arm of discount brokerage Qtrade Direct Investing. It offers a choice between a low-cost index ETF portfolio and a responsible investing (RI) option invested in mutual funds actively managed by NEI Investments.
This robo-advisor matches you with one of six portfolios based on your risk tolerance in either its passive or RI stream. Although Qtrade’s own portfolio management fees are the same across the board, the MERs differ depending on the underlying investments. On the ETF portfolios (mostly using Vanguard and iShares funds), costs range from 0.08% to 0.13%; on the RI funds, MERs are 0.79% to 1.01%, reflecting their active stock selection.
For devotees skeptical of ETFs using the RI or ESG label, Qtrade Guided Portfolios* is a solid option. While most Canadian robo-advisors now offer an RI option, their methodologies do differ. With NEI funds, you at least know you’re working with a Canadian pioneer of the responsible investing space with three decades of experience picking sustainable investments.
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Wealthsimple, like many a technology-enabled disruptor, aimed from the start to bring something different to its category. It has since become a diversified digital financial institution with platforms for stock and cryptocurrency trading, tax filing and payments. But automated portfolio management is still central to what it does.
This robo-advisor retains a sense of coming at finance from a new angle, focused on accessibility and user experience. That obviously strikes a chord with many investors, because Wealthsimple has the largest customer base of all robo-advisors in Canada. But it may be a turn-off for those more comfortable with the traditional financial-industry approach. For example, its website doesn’t have a breakdown of what its portfolios actually invest in; you have to ask for it or wait until after you sign up to get the info.
Wealthsimple offers a wide selection of portfolio options within standard, responsible and even halal investing streams, each with the usual conservative/balanced/growth segmentation based on goals and risk tolerance.
It also has the gamut of registered account options including RRSP, RESP, TFSA, locked-in retirement account (LIRA) and registered retirement income fund (RRIF), along with an account specifically designed for business owners. Most recently, it launched a first-home savings account (FHSA).
While Wealthsimple makes use of iShares, Vanguard, BMO and State Street ETFs, it has launched its own responsible and halal ETFs where it felt the existing options in those areas were lacking. Such is the advantage of dealing with the big dog of Canadian robo-advisors. Wealthsimple also ventures beyond stocks and bonds in a small way, allocating 3.75% of its balanced portfolio toward gold. The same portfolio also goes lighter on Canadian equities than other robos, at just 6.18%, which didn’t do its performance any favours in 2022.
Canadian investors who are more interested in ease of use than getting into the nitty-gritty of the asset mix may enjoy this robo-advisor.
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All stated returns in the performance table are for a balanced portfolio made up of 50% to 60% stocks and 40% to 50% bonds, net of fees, as of Dec. 31, 2022, except CI Direct Investing’s, which are net of MERs but not the provider’s management fee and taxes. All performance figures are denominated in Canadian currency and assume the reinvestment of distributions. Three- and five-year returns are annualized. Modern Advisor’s and CI Direct Investing’s performance figures assume daily rebalancing. The performance figures are hypothetical and may differ from clients’ actual account returns due to the timing of deposits, withdrawals, buys and sells, and the reinvestment of distributions.
Michael McCullough is an award-winning writer, editor and content strategist based in Vancouver. The former editor of Alberta Venture and managing editor of Canadian Business, he focuses on the subjects of business and investment.
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If you have questions about using robo-advisors, you’ve come to the right place. Here we answer common questions about using robos, no matter the platform.
First, you need an account. With pretty much every robo-advisor, the process of setting one up begins with an online questionnaire. This helps the robo to get to know your risk tolerance and what you will use the account for. You might have an interview or text chat with a live representative. After that, the algorithms get to work, selecting a portfolio for you to invest in. If you like what you see, you transfer money into the account and away you go. All the providers now offer an app, so you can access your account on your smartphone.
Generally, robo clients don’t have to worry about trading fees—any rebalancing or changes in the portfolio are covered by the portfolio management fee. This fee is in addition to the management expense ratio (MER) charged by the ETFs themselves. Between the robo’s fee and the ETFs’ fees, you shouldn’t end up paying more than 1% a year for the management of your investments—which compares favourably to the average 2% for mutual funds—unless you opt for a robo and account offering investments other than ETFs, which typically come with higher fees.
Now that all the nationwide robo-advisors have a five-year track record, we’ve added back-dated performance data in the table above, for comparison. As robos are meant to match the portfolio to the investor, it should be understood the comparisons do not reflect how all their customers’ investments performed, and as such, this is only a starting point in any discussion around relative performance.
If you’re considering setting up an account with a robo-advisor, look on its website for performance data for the kind of portfolio you expect to set up. If it’s not posted, you can request it. You want to feel comfortable knowing that the robo has a history of capturing the kinds of returns it promises and the kinds of returns you need to achieve your goals.
It depends on how much you’re looking to invest, suggest some experts. Dale Roberts, a MoneySense columnist and the investing blogger behind cutthecrapinvesting.com, believes robo-advisors still provide some of the best investing solutions for a vast swath of Canadians who lack both the investment knowledge to manage their own portfolio and a nest egg large enough to make a fee-based advisor worthwhile. “You need real money (minimum of $500,000) to get real advice, and most Canadians don’t have real money,” he says flatly.
Asset-allocation ETFs, which offer a diversified portfolio in a single security, aren’t really competition, in his mind. Choosing which fund to buy amounts to self-directed investing, something few investors are in a position to do. Roberts says that most “need someone to hold their hand,” by choosing the asset mix and answering questions. Robos do that cost-effectively.
If you’re thinking about shifting your assets to a robo-advisor, note that doing so may trigger taxes or incur fees for divesting from your mutual funds.
If all you have are registered accounts, like an RRSP and a TFSA, go for the robo-advisor with the lowest fees for your account size, suggests Roberts. But if your situation is more complicated, and you have taxable non-registered investments, choose a provider that will handle the transfer in the most tax-efficient way possible. Justwealth, Wealthsimple and CI Direct Investing all offer financial planning services, he notes.
When the word robo-advisor first entered the investing lexicon, it referred to a company that offered a robo-advisor tool and the platform itself. With many traditional financial institutions providing robo options today, the term refers to the technology involved. Now, essentially, a robo-advisor is a cloud-based technology platform that, in many cases, invests on behalf of a user.
There are other ways to invest online, of course. For example, with discount brokerages, you put money into an account and then you have to divvy up those funds among securities on your own. Robo-advisors automatically split up the assets in your robo account (again, it could be an RRSP, RESP, TFSA or other account type) into various ETFs based on your risk tolerance and goals. (An ETF is a basket of securities that’s similar to a mutual fund but usually isn’t actively managed; often, it’s set up to track, or mimic, a specific market index, such as the S&P 500. ETFs are also different from mutual funds in that they can be traded on the market, like an individual stock or bond.)
It’s the ease of use that’s made robo-advisors so popular. Most work in a similar way: You fill out a questionnaire to determine your tolerance levels, then you connect your bank account to the software and enter the amount you want to invest. The robo-advisor will then put your money into its funds and continually rebalance your dollars to keep your asset mix where it should be. —Bryan Borzykowski
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There used to be a perception that robo-advisors were for newbie investors or those without a lot of money, but that couldn’t be further from the truth now. An increasing number of high-net-worth investors—those who don’t want to pick securities on their own—are seeing the value in using this kind of digital investing platform. In fact, many robos are now catering to this investor set, with some offering more sophisticated tax-loss harvesting, as well as accounts for incorporated professionals.
Whatever end of the income spectrum you’re on, it’s a lot more efficient to use a program that divvies up your money for you into the right buckets for your risk tolerance, and automatically rebalances when market values either climb too high or drop too low.
Robo-advisors are also ideal for fee-conscious investors, which is just about everyone these days. While fees do vary, and it’s possible to invest more cheaply by buying an all-in-one ETF than by using a robo (though you’d have to do all the investing work yourself), costs are still well below the average mutual fund fee of about 2%. As ETF fees continue to fall, and with most robos using ETFs to build portfolios, robo-advisor costs could decline over time, as well.
There are some situations in which a robo-advisor may not be a fit. One is if you’re saving for short-term needs, where your money could be better served by sitting in a savings account or a guaranteed investment certificate (GIC). Some robos do offer non-market-based products, so in some cases it’s possible to keep all of your money with one firm, but most don’t offer anything other than investing.
Also, a robo won’t be right for you if you have a complicated estate and might make use of insurance products, or if you want to invest in real estate or other specialized products and securities. And while some robos now offer security-trading capabilities, more sophisticated investors may still want to use brokerage firms that have analyst reports and better trading tools.
Ultimately, though, robo-advisors now cater to pretty much everyone, and there’s no good reason as to why you shouldn’t at least explore using one. —B.B.Watch: Should I use a robo-advisor?
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In some ways, the term robo-advisor is misleading. It is, for the most part, the financial companies that have found a way to simplify the investing process. It doesn’t provide in-depth financial advice, and it doesn’t take into account your big life events that might affect how and how much you should invest (e.g., buying a home, having children, retiring). Human advisors, on the other hand, can both invest funds on your behalf and help you figure out a personalized financial plan.
However, more companies are offering some hybrid of robo and human advice, where the software does the investing and the human provides the financial advice. We’ll likely see more of that in the future, as it appears to be what people want: A Capital One survey found that 69% of investors would like to use a digital-human hybrid to manage their money, while 74% say they want a financial advisor to help them get through turbulent markets. —B.B.
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A lot of people compare robo-advisors to mutual funds, but that’s not a fair comparison. A robo-advisor is a technology platform, while a mutual fund is an investment product. What people are really comparing when they talk about robo-advisors versus mutual funds is ETFs versus mutual funds, because the vast majority of robo-advisors build client portfolios with ETFs.
It’s highly likely that there would be no robo-advisors without ETFs, at least in the robos’ current form. Why? Because it’s really easy to create a portfolio with passive funds. Since ETFs are priced and traded during the day and on stock exchanges—rather than being priced once a day at market close, like mutual funds are—robos can quickly move people in and out of these investments. That makes automatic rebalancing, a key robo-advisor feature, simple to do. As well, because most ETFs are not actively managed like mutual funds are, they’re a lot less expensive to own. That can make using a robo a more affordable alternative to a human advisor.
ETFs, like mutual funds, are diversified baskets of stocks or bonds. However, while mutual funds are actively managed with the aim of beating the market (spoiler alert: they often don’t), ETFs passively track the market. An S&P/TSX Composite Index–tracking ETF, for example, will hold all the funds in that index. Put a few of these together into one portfolio—Canadian, U.S., European, emerging market and bond funds, for example—and you’ll set yourself up for the long term. You could create a similar portfolio with actively managed mutual funds, but it’s better to use ETFs. Decades of research have shown that ETFs consistently outperform actively managed stocks—in large part because mutual fund fees, which in Canada average about 2%, take too much of a bite out of total returns. Many big-time investors, including Warren Buffett, advocate for ETFs.
Robo-advisor technology was built to quickly create an ETF portfolio based on an investor’s risk tolerance level and time horizon. Most robos use a predetermined number of ETFs (they’re not mining the entire ETF universe) that can fit into most people’s portfolios. And then they split up how much of each ETF a person should own based on a risk-tolerance questionnaire. A conservative investor would have, say, more money in a bond ETF than an aggressive investor would. The ETF structure makes it easier to automate this process than if they used mutual funds.
In the future, all sorts of securities could end up in a robo-advisor portfolio, but for now ETFs trump mutual funds. —B.B.
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