Are You Confused About Investment Costs? Part 1: Fund Management Fees

What are your investments really costing you? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. It’s not like you’re handed a menu of charges to choose from when it’s time to place your order. Even when you know where to look for investment costs, the information can be difficult to digest.

Let’s fill in some of the blanks by covering two significant sources of investment costs: fund management fees, and custodian/brokerage (trading) costs. Today, we’ll talk about fund management fees. We’ll cover custodian/brokerage costs next.

Fair Fund Management Fees

One reason we typically recommend investing in a mix of index or index-like funds is their ability to efficiently capture global market returns without your having to personally juggle thousands of individual securities at a time.

What a hassle that would be. That’s why you instead hire a fund manager, investing in their funds, and letting them do the heavy lifting for you. In exchange, fund managers deserve reasonable compensation for services rendered.

What’s “reasonable”? To discover how much fund management is costing you, start by looking for each fund’s expense ratio (or, in Canada, its management expense ratio, or MER). You can find this information in the fund’s prospectus, or by searching online for its name or ticker symbol. Many broad market index mutual funds or ETFs have annual expense ratios of 0.02% (2 basis points) or less. If a fund’s annual expense ratio approaches 1% (100 basis points) or more, you should probably think twice about investing in it.

Some fund managers also pile on extra fees, or loads, beyond the ones reflected in their expense ratios. These should also be disclosed in the fund’s prospectus, and can include:

  • A one-time front-end load when you buy shares of the fund
  • A one-time back-end load when you sell shares of the fund
  • Similar contingent deferred sales charges (CDSCs) and other redemption fees

Hiding and Seeking Fund Fees

Because fund management fees are typically bundled into each fund’s share price, you’ll barely notice they’re there. But they still cost you real money.

For example, in a recent working paper, “Obfuscation in Mutual Funds,” academics from the University of Washington, MIT, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania compared the 2019 costs and performances of two S&P 500 Index mutual funds. Before fees, their gross returns were nearly identical at 31.46% vs. 31.47%. But one fund manager charged a lean 0.02% (2 basis points). The other one charged up to an all-in 5.08% (508 basis points). Once you know that, it’s easy to tell which fund will leave more money in your pocket after fees.

Are you having trouble finding a fund manager’s fees to begin with? Consider this central finding from the same paper:

“Using bespoke measures of complexity designed for mutual funds, we find evidence consistent with funds attempting to obfuscate high fees.”

In other words, the study found that lower-cost funds usually provided short, easy to understand fee disclosures; the higher-cost funds often buried their costs in lengthy and complex legalese.

Why complicate things? When searching for a particular type of investment, there are almost always funds available that do not charge loads and similar add-ons, and do clearly disclose their costs. That’s why we prefer simple and thrifty over complex and expensive fund management.

Comparing Costs

Low costs are important. But they’re not the only reason to favor one fund over another. Some funds cost more to manage because it’s more expensive to participate in their target market.

For example, an emerging markets fund will usually have higher expense ratios than a general U.S. market fund. So, first, identify available funds that fit your unique investment goals. Compare their expense ratios, apples to apples. Weed out any funds that charge loads, or bury their fee disclosures in long-winded blather. Then select suitable funds with the lowest costs.

Up Next: Custodian/Brokerage (Trading) Costs

In addition to your fund management costs, custodians, brokers, and trading platforms also make money off your investment activities. We’ll cover what those costs look like next.

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This commentary reflects the personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC employees providing such comments, and should not be regarded as a description of advisory services provided by Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC or performance returns of any Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC client. The views reflected in the commentary are subject to change at any time without notice. Nothing in this commentary constitutes investment advice, performance data or any recommendation that any particular security, portfolio of securities, transaction or investment strategy is suitable for any specific person. Any mention of a particular security and related performance data is not a recommendation to buy or sell that security. Fischer Investment Strategies, LLC manages its clients’ accounts using a variety of investment techniques and strategies, which are not necessarily discussed in the commentary. Investments in securities involve the risk of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Financial Advisor at Fischer Investment Strategies | Website | + posts

Ted Fischer is a Fee-Only Certified Financial Planner® & fiduciary, and the founder of Fischer Investment Strategies.

Drawing from more than 25 years of experience in the financial services industry, Ted's expertise includes retirement planning, investment analysis, tax planning, estate planning, and insurance.

Ted has an extensive academic background. He received his Certified Financial Planning (CFP®) designation from UCLA in 2011. He became a Qualified Plan Financial Consultant (QPFC®) and an Accredited Investment Fiduciary (AIF®). Ted has a Bachelor of Science in Marketing, with a minor in Finance, from San Diego State University.

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