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The lower the yield, the higher the cost of fees

This might sound like a fairy story, but once upon a time investors expected to receive double digit returns and often did. Fat yields and easy money were all the rage, so if various fees were chewing up 3 per cent or so, what the heck – there was plenty to go around.

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Of course, money was not growing on trees and inflation was eating up a bigger slice of earnings than most realised, but the structure of the wealth management industry and a mixture of innocence and laziness on the part of average investors meant high fees were the norm and therefore didn’t seem so high to most people. In other words, we were mugs.

A quick real-world example from a fairly basic eight-year-old statement of advice provided by a bank financial planner for a $550,000 portfolio: leaving aside the 1 per cent implementation fee, there were annual fees of 0.68 per cent for account keeping, 1 per cent for regular reviews and individual product fees ranging from 0.22 per cent for a cash fund to 0.88 per cent for an imputation fund and 0.89 per cent for an international share fund. Draw a line through the products and keep it simple by saying they averaged 0.72 per cent – thus total annual fees of 2.4 per cent before individual transaction fees. And this is by no means an extreme case.

By comparison, the S&P/ASX All Ordinaries Accumulation Index – the guts of most portfolios – has averaged 4.2 per cent a year over the past decade. More than half of the investors’ earnings would have been going on fees over that period. Lose more than half your earnings to fees and the “magic” of compound interest loses a lot of its abracadabra.

In this example, the adviser, the wrap, the bank and the fund managers were together making more with no risk than the investor. And no prize for guessing the recommended “wholesale accumulation fund” has substantially underperformed the index.

When presumed pre-fees earnings were 10 per cent on, say, a $500,000 portfolio, $38,000 for me, $12,000 for sundry fees didn’t look so bad if you didn’t think about it, if you didn’t mind forgoing 24 per cent of income.

With gross earnings of 4.2 per cent, $9000 for me, $12,000 for fees focuses the mind. That lower yields boosts the cost of fees to a whopping 57 per cent of income. Ouch.

A lower yield world, the legislation-enforced rise of professionalism in financial planning and the educational impact of industry superannuation fund advertising stressing the long-term impact of higher fees mean we shouldn’t be so easily fooled now – in theory.

Genuinely independent financial advisers, no longer dependent on commission for flogging products and platforms and aware of the fee pressures, are increasingly recommending lower cost exchange traded funds and listed investment companies.

A BetaShares/Investment Trends report claimed a 31 per cent rise in the number of Australian exchange traded funds investors last year. ETF holdings are nudging towards $27 billion. Marcus Padley scores about $32 billion in LICs in a nice summary of that universe, led by the “old school” Australian Foundation Investment Company with market capitalisation of $6.77 billion.

Money’s ability to attract fees is always at work, though. AFIC boasts a management expenses ratio of just 0.16 per cent, but some “new school” LICs know how to charge more than 10 times that and not necessarily for better performance. If the investment managers control the board, they have the potential to ride the Hotel California nature of such “closed end” structures – the capital doesn’t leave short of the company being wound up.

And ETF’s inexpensiveness can be undermined by adding the word “managed”. The recently launched Switzer Dividend Growth Fund ETMF has a MER of 0.89 per cent.

The correlation between high fees and performance is far from clear – but the cost of fees in a low-yield environment should be.

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