Tag Archives: Index Funds

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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The Meaning of the New Highs in the S&P500

The S&P500 has recently been hitting new all-time highs, which would seem to suggest that the economy is recovering and that the U.S. economy is back on track.  The story does not look quite so rosy when you account for inflation, as Mark Hulbert has recently noted.  The current level of the S&P500 is, in fact, still about 24% below its high in 2000 once inflation is considered.  Economists and finance people would say that, measured in real terms, the S&P500 is 24% lower than it was at its 2000 peak.  What this means is that the proceeds from the sale of a share of an S&P500 index fund purchases considerably less in real goods today than it did thirteen years ago.  Continue reading

What Are the Core Asset Classes for Income Portfolios?

In a recent post, I presented a list of the ‘core asset classes’ that investors need in order to build portfolios that fully exploit available diversification opportunities.  That article focused on portfolios designed for total return potential, the combined return from price appreciation and income generated by the assets in the portfolio.  For investors focusing on building income-generating portfolios, the core asset classes are somewhat different.  In this article, I present a proposed set of core asset classes for income-focused investors, along with examples of representative funds.  Continue reading

Why Mutual Fund Managers May Not Act in Your Best Interest

Jeremy Grantham has produced yet another truly outstanding essay in GMO’s Quarterly Letter to Investors for April 2012.  Never reluctant to take on controversy, he focuses on the ways in which mutual fund managers have strong incentives to behave in ways that are often not in the best interests of investors in their funds.  In the academic world, these perverse incentives are referred to as “agency problems.” 

A mutual fund manager makes decisions on behalf of his or her fund’s investors.  In the parlance of economics, the manager acts as an agent working on behalf of the investors (the meaning here is similar to the use in the term real estate agent).  Continue reading

Retirement Solutions: Target Date Investing

Investors Have Lost Their Way

The aggregate performance numbers and evidence suggesting that most investors are holding inappropriate asset allocations foretell disaster for the investors who are relying on their 401(k) plans as the primary source of their retirement income.

There is little question that the average investor would benefit from some help in portfolio construction and maintenance.  Continue reading

Are fund ratings biased against index funds?

I just read a very important study by Vanguard called Mutual Fund Ratings and Future Performance. The title would seems to suggest that this study is going to look at whether mutual fund ratings such as Morningstar’s star ratings are a reasonable prediction of future performance.  The study does tackle this issue, but it also addresses an issue that is, I believe, even more important and that most investors are totally unaware of:

empirical evidence has supported the notion that a low-cost index fund is difficult to beat consistently over time. Yet, despite both the theory and the evidence, most mutual fund performance ratings have given index funds an “average” rating.

Continue reading

Your Fund Manager is No Albert Pujols, and Other Lessons from Larry Swedroe’s Investing Tales

Albert Pujols hits a home run against the Padres, May 19, 2008, photo: SD Dirk via Flickr

Corporate 401(k) plan sponsors pick bad funds for their plans, according to a 2006 study. Then the participants in the plans compound the problem, again picking funds headed for a fall.

Why? Because though the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates that funds put in any piece of marketing the disclaimer that past performance is not indicative of future results, it seems no one believes them.

In chapter 15 of his new book, Wise Investing Made Simpler, CBS MoneyWatch columnist Larry Swedroe acknowledges a logic to our apparent fiscal recklessness. Continue reading