February 17, 2011 – While just about everyone these days seems to be tethered to one mobile device or another, the overwhelming majority of investors still prefer to either log onto their accounts from a PC or make trades and check their balance over the phone.
According to Forrester Research's "The State of The Mobile Investor" report, released Wednesday, only 11 percent of more than 4,600 investors surveyed use a mobile device to check their portfolio, trade securities or transfer investment funds.
That means 89 percent still aren't which, depending primarily on your age, is either just about right or a knee-buckling shocker.
For the older set, the Baby Boomers and seniors, clicking away on an iPhone, BlackBerry or Android-powered mobile device just doesn't seem as safe as logging onto a website or picking up a phone – mobile or otherwise – to check their portfolio balances, make a trade or get some investment advice.
Meanwhile, the Gen Xers and Gen Yers who seem to live on their smartphones are starting to pester their investment firms to deliver at least at mobile Web app they can log onto from any smartphone and, preferably, investment apps for their specific mobile devices.
To Bill Doyle, a Forrester Research analyst and the author of the report, the 11 percent adoption rate isn't all that surprising considering both the culture of the large investment firms and the behavioral habits of the majority of their clients.
"I wasn't that surprised by the 11%," he said. "You see how ferocious the pace of innovation is here and there really hasn't been a cataclysmic event compelling firms to do more in the mobile investing area."
A couple of factors are, in a sense, buying most of the full-service financial services firms some time. These goliaths are still predominantly running big iron – old, stable and mostly secure mainframes – to power their IT systems and thanks to the lousy economy of late, they haven't had the budget to update and improve upon their existing systems for advisors and traders much less branch out into the great unknown of mobile development.
Second, and perhaps more important, their clients aren't exactly holding a gun to their heads demanding comprehensive trading apps for mobile devices. It's a generational thing and the older generations, the seniors and Baby Boomers, hold the lion's share of the assets.
The report found that only 17 percent of young Baby Boomers, defined as those at the lower-end of the 55 to 65 years of age range, access the Internet from a mobile device. That figure slips to 12 percent among older Boomers and craters at 4 percent for seniors over 65.
"It falls right off the cliff," Doyle said, adding that "the heat has not been on these investment firms" the way it has been on banks and direct, discount brokerages which benefit from immensely from transaction volume and the ability to cut costs for tellers and call center reps by having customers conduct their business online.
But the times they are a changing and sooner or later virtually all investment firms are simply going to have to adjust to the culture and technology with which its next generation of clients are most comfortable and familiar.
In December, FTI Consulting served up an eye-opening report that found Gen Yers, those folks born between 1977 and 1995, will eventually become the wealthiest generation in U.S. history. Their combined annual income of $500 billion will explode to more than $3.4 trillion by 2018 and, especially of interest to the high-net-worth and ultra-net-worth shops, this generation stands to inherit more than $30 trillion.
"If history is any guide, Gen Yers will accumulate assets and represent the sweet spot for investment firms, if not now, soon," Doyle said. "We know folks don't change their channel preferences as they age. All this mobile access is ingrained with Gen Y and Gen Xs and thus far investment firm's best customers haven't needed or insisted on mobile access."
"The next generation won't give it up," he added.
To make it happen, particularly in a mobile application, development and device environment that is still in its infancy, will require CIOs at large financial services firms to make some difficult decisions. It's virtually impossible to be all things to all people, in other words, it's expensive and fairly impractical to begin developing mobile apps for Apple's iOS, BlackBerry OS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 and Nokia's Ovi.
Forrester is recommending investment firms move quickly to protect their turf, a suggestion that some firms like Bank of America Merrill Lynch have taken to heart by incrementally building out a more feature-rich and mobile platform-agnostic platform so investors can at least do the basic blocking and tackling of portfolio management from their mobile devices.
Next, Doyle recommends doing some research and then picking one of the leading mobile operating system platforms -- today it's probably a slam-dunk choice between either Apple's iOS for the iPhone and iPad or Google's Android for the slew of tablets and smartphones it powers – and get started. Once the CEO, CIO, rank-and-file traders and, most important, clients have come on board and begin using the mobile app for checking balances and making trades, then it's time to start rolling out more complex features like options trading and the like.
Either way, there's no way to get around risk.
For the firms, there's the almost certain ongoing costs associated with updating systems in lockstep with Apple or Google as they refresh their mobile operating systems and devices.
For clients, 25 percent of which said security was the No. 1 reason they've yet to embrace mobile devices for managing what amounts to their entire net worth, the persistent tales of phishing, hacking and identity theft are enough to keep most on the sidelines until they can be convinced these new devices and apps are as secure and reliable as calling their advisor or broker from the land line.
"Most of these guys are waiting out the maturation of the [mobile industry]," Doyle said. "The financial services industry has a history of waiting until someone makes a move before making any bold commitments. Right now, mobile investing is still pretty far down on their technology list."
This story originally appeared on Financial Planning.
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