Estimating the Real Costs of Investing

One of the least-understood aspects of investing among individual investors is the total costs associated with building and maintaining a portfolio.  In comparison to the huge rises and falls that we see in the market, the expenses associated with mutual funds or brokerage costs may sound small.  Over long periods of time, however, the ups and downs of the market tend to average out.  The effect of those costs  however is persistent and continuous. 

There are a range of costs associated with investing in funds beyond the stated expense ratio.  In a new article in the Financial Analysts Journal, John Bogle presents a new summary of the average all-in costs associated with investing in stock index funds and in actively-managed stock funds.  Mr. Bogle is a long-term and tireless advocate of the idea that actively-managed mutual funds are a mistake for investors, so the content of the article is not surprising.  He has written similar pieces in the past.  In this article, he provides updated numbers, backed up by a range of academic analysis.  His summary of costs is provided in Table 1 of his article:

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There are three types of expenses, in addition to the standard expense ratio.  First are transaction costs, which are simply a fund’s trading costs.  This cost includes brokerage fees incurred by the fund, the impact of the bid-ask spread, and related expenses.  Mr. Bogle estimates this cost at 0.5% per year for active funds and at 0% for index funds.  He justifies the zero cost for index funds on the basis of the fact that the long-term returns of index funds are essentially identical to the performance of the index net of the index funds’ expense ratio.  The second source of additional cost for active funds is cash drag.  Many actively managed funds are not fully invested all of the time and carry a portion of their assets in cash.  To the extent that this cash does not accrue returns comparable to the equity index, this is a drag on performance.  Mr. Bogle estimates this lost return due to cash holdings at 0.15% per year.  The final additional cost that Mr. Bogle includes is sales charges / fees.  This cost is supposed to capture sales loads and any incremental costs associated with an investment advisor such as advisory fees.  Mr. Bogle freely acknowledges that this cost estimate is exceedingly open for debate. 

When he adds all of these costs together, Mr. Bogle estimates that the average actively-managed fund costs investors 2.27% per year as compared to the market index, while the index fund costs only 0.06% per year. 

The Investment Company Institute (ICI) estimates that the asset-weighted average expense ratio of actively-managed mutual funds is 0.92% per year, for reference.  The ICI also reports that the most expensive funds can have much higher expense ratios.  They find that the most expensive 10% of equity funds have an average expense ratio of 2.2%. 

Mr. Bogle, in his examples, assumes that stocks will return an average of 7% per year.  This number is highly uncertain.  The trailing 10-year annualized return of the S&P500 is 6.8% per year, but the trailing 15-year annualized return for the S&P500 is 4.2%.  A 2.2% total expense is more than 30% of the total return from investing in the stock market if the market returns 7%.  Because of compounding, the long-term impact of these costs increases over time. 

The average costs from Mr. Bogle’s article are not unreasonable.  There are probably many investors paying this much or more.  On the other hand, there are plenty of investors in active funds paying considerably less. 

Where does all of this leave investors?  First and foremost, it should be clear that costs matter a great deal.  There will always be expenses associated with investing, but they vary widely.  Over a lifetime, managing the expenses of investing can have a dramatic impact on your ability to build substantial savings.  Whether or not you believe that actively-managed funds are worth their cost, every investor should know their own asset-weighted expense ratio. 

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A ‘New Era’ for Bonds?

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article titled How You Can Survive a New Era in the Bond Market.  The article suggests that investors adjust their bond allocations to tilt more towards high-yield (aka junk) bonds (both corporate and municipal) and global bonds, which tend to yield more than U.S. bonds.  This advice resonates with an Op Ed by Burton Malkiel, famed author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street, at the end of 2013.

The case against bonds is straightforward.  The best estimate for the expected future return from bonds is their current yield.  If you hold a bond until maturity, your total return will be very close to the current yield.  There are nuances to this rule.  With high-yield bonds, you should expect a total return that is a bit less than the current yield due to the fact that some of these bonds will probably end in default.  With bond funds, you don’t necessarily end up holding individual bonds until maturity, so the correspondence between current yield and expected return is a bit weaker.  Nonetheless, with current yields as low as they are, bond investors should not expect attractive returns from most bond classes.

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It’s Different This Time for Tech Stock Valuations

Marc Andreessen, a venture capitalist, remains best-known for his work on the creation of Netscape, one of the earliest and best web browsers.  In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, he states that those who are concerned about a new stock market bubble in tech stocks simply don’t understand the revolution that is underway and how large an economic impact software firms can have.  Continue reading

The Inflation Paradox at the End of 2013

The latest inflation numbers are out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and they show that consumer prices barely increased over the past twelve months.  The most commonly-cited measure of consumer prices is the CPI-U, the Consumer Price Index for Urban consumers.  The CPI-U is up 1.2% over the twelve months through November, and this is almost identical to the 1% 12-month rise in the data through October.  The other major inflation measure, the Personal Consumption Expenditure index (PCE), is even lower because housing is a smaller component of PCE than CPIContinue reading

Living Wages and the Service Economy

One of the stories that seems to be dominating the news in recent months is the plight of low-paid workers in the service industry.  Most recently, a story about Wal-Mart workers organizing a food drive for other employees so that they could have a Thanksgiving dinner has gotten a great deal of attention.  This comes on the heels of a McDonald’s helpline advising employees on how to apply for food stamps and locate food pantries and other assistance for the poor.  McDonald’s is not alone in this regard.  It is estimated that public assistance for fast food workers costs U.S. taxpayers $7 Billion a year.  This means that the U.S. government is essentially supporting this industry.  Noted financial commentator Barry Ritholtz asks the obvious question: “Why are profitable, dividend-paying firms receiving taxpayer subsidies?” Continue reading

Low Interest Rates Through 2014 and Beyond

Ben Bernanke, in a speech on November 19th, made it very clear that the Fed is likely to hold interest rates low for an extended period of time.  This comes on the heels of similar comments by his likely successor at the Fed, Janet Yellen, during her confirmation hearings.  On top of this, inflation numbers released on the morning of the 20th show almost no increases in consumer prices over the past year and existing home sales have just registered a drop.  In related events, Larry Summers just gave a widely-noted presentation to the IMF in which he warned that the U.S. may be settling into a long-term economic malaise.  Larry Summers, who was previously a contender to be the next Fed chairman, surely considered his comments to the IMF very carefully. Continue reading

Handcuff Volunteers and the Rally of 2013

The S&P500 is up by 26% for the year-to-date, despite the fact that employment growth is anemic, the labor participation rate is at its lowest point in thirty five years, and inflation-adjusted GDP growth is experiencing a long-term slowing (see chart below).  GDP turns negative in recessions—this is the definition of a recession—but has historically recovered much faster than we have seen in the post 2008 years. Continue reading