A mutual fund’s fees and expenses may be more important than an investor might realize. Ads, rankings and ratings will often emphasize how well a fund has performed in the past. But according to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), studies show that the future often is different. Fees and expenses can be a reliable predictor of mutual fund performance.
When considering a mutual fund, one of the most important numbers is the expense ratio, which tells you how much the fund costs. The ratio shows how much of the fund’s assets are paid to the portfolio manager and for other operating expenses. Typically, a fund pays an average of 1.5 percent of assets annually.
Three things typically figure into this ratio. The investment advisory fee pays the managers of the fund, which accounts for .50 to 1 percent. Then, administrative costs cover services such as record keeping, mailing and maintaining a customer service line, which can range from .20 to .40 percent. And often a fund will charge a 12b-1 distribution fee, which covers marketing, advertising and distribution services. This ranges from .25 percent to 1 percent of assets.
The upper range of these fees shows how high an expense ratio can be. And even though the fee seems to be just a few percentage points, it is charged in down years, when it can represent a significant slice of the return. Also, over time, the fee can cut the ultimate return by nearly 50 percent, according to one analysis. With an initial $10,000 invested after 30 years of 10 percent returns (a bit optimistic, perhaps), the fund has made $174,494, but with a 2.5 percent expense ratio, it has lost $86,944, according to an analysis by Moolanomy.com.
But even that isn’t the bottom line. There are still transaction fees incurred by the buying and selling of assets in the fund that go unreported, and that can double or triple the cost, according to Richard Kopcke of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Of the 100 largest stock funds held in defined contribution plans as of December 2007, trading costs averaged from 0.11 percent of assets annually in the quintile with the lowest costs to 1.99 percent of assets in the quintile with the highest costs, with a median of 0.66 percent, Kopcke found. But it is difficult for average investors to determine this percentage, he said.
The SEC has not been able to develop ways to report this percentage in the same way an expense ratio is reported, partly because fund managers say the number is too difficult to determine. One way to get an indication of the percentage is the fund’s turnover. The percentage of turnover shows at what rate stocks in the fund have been replaced. A high turnover rate would mean more fees.
The SEC last year required fund managers to disclose one year of turnover at the front of a prospectus in addition to the already required five years of turnover disclosed in the financial highlights section, according to a March 1 Wall Street Journal article. Turnover of more than 100 percent can indicate trading costs may be high, the Journal reported.