Investment expenses reduce your investment returns. While nobody should expect investment managers, financial advisors or other service providers to offer their services for free, investors should understand all costs and fees involved and work to reduce their investment expenses to the greatest extent possible.
Here are 6 investment expenses you need to understand in order to maximize your returns.
Mutual fund and ETF expense ratios
All mutual fund and ETFs have expense ratios. These fees cover such things as trading costs, compensation for fund managers and support staff and the fund firm’s profit. Expense ratios matter and investors shouldn’t pay more than they need to.
Vanguard’s site, as you might expect, deals with this topic at length. In one example, it shows the impact of differing levels of fees on a hypothetical $100,000 initial account balance over 30 years with a yearly return of 6%. After 30 years the balance in the account would be:
$574,349 with no investment cost
$532,899 with an investment cost of 25 basis points
$438,976 with an investment cost of 90 basis points
These numbers clearly illustrate the impact of fund fees on an investor’s returns and their ability to accumulate assets for financial goals like retirement and funding their children’s college educations.
Mutual fund expense ratios are an example of where paying more doesn’t get you more. Case in point, Vanguard Value Index Adm (VVIAX) has an expense ratio of 0.05%. The Morningstar category average for the large cap value asset class is 1.03%. For the three years ending September 30, 2018 the fund ranked in the top 10% of all funds in the category; for the trailing five years it placed in the top 6% and for the trailing ten years it placed in the top 24% in terms of investment performance.
Sales loads and 12b-1 fees
Front-end sales loads are an upfront payment to a financial advisor or registered rep. Front-end sales loads reduce the amount of your initial investment that actually goes to work for you. For example, if a rep suggests investing in a mutual fund like the American Funds EuroPacific Growth A (AEPGX) for every $10,000 the investor wants to invest, $575 or 5.75% will be deducted from their initial investment balance to cover the sales load. Over time this will reduce the investor’s return versus another version of the same fund with a similar expense ratio that doesn’t charge a sales load.
Some will argue that this load is a one-time payment to the advisor and their firm for their advice. This strikes me as dubious at best, but investors need to decide for themselves whether the advice received in exchange for paying a sales load warrants this drain on their initial and subsequent investments. This share class has an expense ratio of 0.82% which includes a 12b-1 fee of 0.24% (see more on 12b-1 fees below).
Level loads are associated with C shares. The American Funds EuroPacific Growth C (AEPCX) fund has a level load of 1% in the form of a 12b-1 fee and an overall expense ratio of 1.60%. Brokers and registered reps love these as the level load stays in place for ten years until the funds convert to a no-load share class of the fund. There is a 1% surrender charge if the fund is redeemed within the first year of ownership.
12b-1 fees are a part of the mutual fund’s expense ratio and were originally designated to be marketing costs. They are now used as trialing compensation for financial advisors and reps who earn compensation from selling investment products. They can also be used to provide revenue-sharing in a 401(k) plan. While 12b-1 fees don’t increase expenses as they are part of the fund’s expense ratio, typically funds with a 12b-1 fee will have a higher expense ratio than those that don’t in my experience.
For many of us our 401(k) plan is our primary retirement savings vehicle. Beyond the expense ratios of the mutual funds or other investments offered, there are costs for an outside investment advisor (or perhaps a registered rep or broker who sold the plan) plus recordkeeping and administration among other things. If your employer has these costs paid by the plan they are coming out of your account and reducing the return on your investment.
Be sure to review the annual fee disclosures provided by your employer for your company’s plan for information on the plan’s expenses.
Financial advice fees
Fees for financial advice will vary depending upon the type of financial advisor you work with.
Fee-only financial advisors will charge fees for their advice only and not tied to any financial products they recommend. Fees might be charged on an hourly basis, on a project basis for a specific task like a financial plan, based on assets under management or a flat retainer fee. The latter two options would generally pertain to an ongoing relationship with the financial advisor.
Fee-based or fee and commission financial advisors will typically charge a fee for and initial financial plan and then sell you financial products from which they earn some sort of commission if you choose to implement their recommendations. Another version of this model might have the advisor charging a fee for investment management services, perhaps via a brokerage wrap account, and receiving commissions for selling any insurance or annuity products. They also would likely receive any trailing 12b-1 fees from the mutual funds used in the wrap account or from the sale of loaded mutual funds.
Commissions arise from the sale of financial and insurance products including mutual funds, annuities, life insurance policies and others. The financial advisor is compensated from the sale of the product and in one way or another you pay for this in the form of higher expenses and/or a lower net return on your investment.
Investors need to understand these fees and what they are getting in return. In fact, a great question to ask any prospective financial advisor is to have them disclose all sources of compensation that they will receive from their relationship with you.
Surrender charges are common with annuities and some mutual funds. There will be a period of time where if the investor tries to sell the contract or the fund they will be hit with a surrender charge. I’ve seen surrender periods on some annuities that range out to ten years or more. If you decide the annuity is not for you or you find a better annuity, the penalty to leave is onerous and costly.
Taxes are a fact of life and come into play with your investments. Investments held in taxable accounts will be taxed as either long or short-term when capital gains are realized. You may also be subject to taxes from distributions from mutual funds and ETFs for dividends and capital gains as well.
Investments held in a tax-deferred account such as a 401(k) or an IRA will not be taxed while held in the account but will be subject to taxes when distributions are taken.
Tax planning to minimize the impact of taxes on your investment returns can help, but investment decisions should not be made solely for tax reasons.
The Bottom Line
Fees and expenses can take a big bite out of your investment returns and your ability to accumulate an amount sufficient to achieve your financial goals. Investors need to understand all costs and expenses associated with their investments and take steps to minimize these costs.
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