By James Kwak
Noah Smith on one reason why financial sector profits have remained high as the industry has grown:
Why haven’t asset-management charges gone down amid competition? In a recent post, I suggested one answer: people might just be ignoring them. Percentage fees sound tiny — 1 percent or 2 percent a year. But because that slice is taken off every year, it adds up to truly astronomical amounts. … If many investors pay no attention to what they’re being charged, more competition can’t push down those fees.
I think that’s basically right, but there’s a smidgeon more to it. Expense ratios on actively managed mutual funds have remained stubbornly high. Even though more people switch into index funds every year, their overall market share is still low—about $2 trillion out of a total of $18 trillion in U.S. mutual funds and ETFs. Actively managed stock mutual funds still have a weighted-average expense ratio of 86 basis points.
Why do people pay 86 basis points for a product that is likely to trail the market, when they could pay 5 basis points for one that will track the market (with a $10,000 minimum investment)? It’s probably because they think the more expensive fund is better. This is a natural thing to believe. In most sectors of the economy, price does correlate with quality, albeit imperfectly. It’s also natural to believe that some people are just better than others at picking stocks, just like Stephen Curry is better than other people at playing basketball. Finance and economics professors can talk all they like about nearly-efficient markets, the difficulty of identifying the people who can generate positive alpha, and the fact that you have to pay through the nose to invest your money with those people (like James Simons), but ordinary investors just don’t buy it. And this is one area where I think marketing does have a major impact, both in the form of ordinary advertising and in the form of the propaganda you get with your 401(k) plan.
So while some people are no doubt ignoring the fees, others are probably saying, “Sure the expense ratio is 100 basis points, but look at the past performance!” (Anyone who makes decisions based on past performance—that is, most people—is taking fees into account to some extent, since published mutual fund returns are almost always net of fees.) So the persistence of high fees is partly due to the difficulty of convincing people that markets are nearly efficient and that most benchmark-beating returns are some product of (a) taking on more risk than the benchmark, (b) survivor bias, and (c) dumb luck.