Some things never change. In 1940, Fred Schwed wrote a humorous book called, "Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?" It was about the dichotomy between the lavish lifestyle of those who manage money and the far less glamorous struggles of those whose money is being managed.
In 2006, Paul Farrell noted in a MarketWatch blog post that more than $200 billion was being "siphoned off" by the mutual fund industry annually in fees. According to the Investment Company Institute, total assets in mutual funds exceeded $13 trillion in 2012. Despite this growth in assets, equity fund investors paid an average of 0.77 percent in expenses, according to the 2013 ICI research paper, "Trends of Expenses and Fees of Mutual Funds, 2012," which was down a meager 0.02 percent from 2012. Clearly, savings from economies of scale are not being passed down.
The tipping point (for me) came with the recent news that a hedge fund manager paid $147 million for an estate in East Hampton, New York. This purchase is reportedly the most expensive home ever sold in the U.S.
Compared with fees charged by hedge funds, mutual funds seem like a bargain. Many hedge funds charge 1 percent of assets under management plus 20 percent of profits. The 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers in the U.S. earned in excess of an astounding $21 billion in compensation in 2013, according to Institutional Investor's Alpha's 2014 "Rich List."
Being the manager of a mutual fund or, better yet, a hedge fund is obviously nice work if you can get it. But that's not the best part. You really don't have to be very good at your job in order to take home obscene amounts of money. It’s well-documented that active fund managers as a group underperformed their benchmarks across most fund categories for most time periods studied, according to a 2014 Vanguard research paper, "The Case for Index Investing."
The record of hedge funds is much worse. In 2013, the average hedge fund returned 9.1 percent compared with a 32.4 percent return of the Standard & Poor's 500 index (after accounting for dividends). The long-term returns of the various kinds of hedge funds are not much more impressive. The average return of these funds has underperformed a simple index portfolio consisting of 60 percent U.S. stocks and 40 percent Treasury bonds in nine of the past 10 years, according to The Economist's May 3 article, "Will invest for food."
If you want to avoid funding the lavish lifestyle of fund managers and likely improve your expected returns, here are some suggestions:
1. Invest on your own. Many investors have no choice other than to go it alone. If you are just starting to invest, and don't have significant assets, it can be difficult to find an advisor who will take your account. If you have a 401(k) or a 403(b) plan, you are likely to have a dizzying array of high-management-fee, actively managed mutual funds from which to choose from and no one available to guide you through the maze. If this describes your situation, the suggestions below might be worthy of your consideration.
2. Consider target-date funds. Do-it-yourself investors have a simple option that will keep costs low and, based on historical data, provide higher expected returns than the average actively managed mutual fund. Consider target-date funds. These funds are appealing because the fund manager rebalances the portfolio over time to make the fund mix more conservative. They are a "set it and forget it" investment. Target-date funds in which the underlying funds are all index funds (if available) are a preferable option because management fees are considerably less than when the underlying funds are actively managed. Fidelity and Vanguard offer excellent low-cost target-date funds, using index funds.
Target date funds are not a panacea. You need to be sure the asset allocation established by the fund is suitable both initially and over time. This can be challenging, since the fund can change its asset allocation at any time. In addition, some have expressed concern that target-date funds may be allocating too much of their portfolio to bonds in this low-interest-rate environment. Finally, there is an additional concern that the bond allocation of many target date funds is heavily weighted towards U.S. Treasuries. John Bogle, founder of Vanguard, said this allocation is "too much" at last year's annual Morningstar conference.
3. Consider Web-based services. “Robo-advisors” are another responsible option for those starting on their investing journey. These advisors are Web-based and offer different levels of service.
The recent proliferation of these firms provides very attractive options to investors without significant assets. Many of these options were previously available only to higher net worth investors. Almost all of these providers use low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds. Their fees are extremely competitive. Betterment and Wealthfront were early entrants in this space. In my opinion, both provide sound investment advice and helpful related services.
4. Retain an Registered Investment Advisor. If your personal financial circumstance justifies hiring an advisor, consider retaining a Registered Investment Advisor or RIA. Avoid using "market-beating" brokers. The RIA you retain should be focused on your asset allocation and should include in your portfolio only low-management-fee stock and bond index funds, passively managed funds or exchange-traded funds. All funds should be held by an independent custodian in your name. You should be able to access information about your account on the website of the custodian.
According to 2013 Vanguard white paper, "Advisor's Alpha," a competent RIA adds value by acting as a "wealth manager, financial planner, and behavioral coach" rather than by trying to "beat the market." RIAs can add to your net returns by employing tax-efficient strategies, including tax-loss harvesting, calculating the trade-offs between municipal bonds and taxable bonds, and using tax-efficient index funds. A genuine wealth manager will become familiar with all aspects of your financial life, including estate planning, insurance, charitable giving and 529 plans.
Choosing any of these options is not just a responsible and intelligent way to invest. You will have the added satisfaction of putting your money toward your retirement and not watching it sail away on your fund manager’s yacht.
Dan Solin is the director of investor
advocacy for the BAM Alliance and
a wealth advisor with Buckingham. He is
a New York Times best-selling author of the Smartest series of books. His
latest book, "The Smartest Sales Book You'll Ever Read," has just