Tag Archives: asset management

Fees Add Up

By James Kwak

Public pension funds are having a tough time. On the one hand, the average funding ratio (assets as a percentage of the present value of future obligations) is below 80% because of inadequate contributions by sponsors (states and municipalities) and poor investment returns since the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000. On the other hand, because pensions responded to low returns by shifting more of their money into hedge funds and private equity funds, a larger proportion of their assets is siphoned off as investment fees each year.

Unlike some people, I am not against hedge funds and private equity funds in principle. I think it’s highly likely that there are people who can beat the market on a sustained basis—particularly if they are people who are especially good with computers—both for theoretical reasons (someone has to be the first person to discover each relevant piece of information or actionable pattern) and empirical reasons (see Fama and French 2010, for example). Hedge funds have lagged the stock market in recent years, but what critics sometimes overlook is that they are supposed to trail the market in boom periods, because many target a beta of around 0.5. But I am mystified by the fact that, in what is supposed to be a highly competitive and innovative industry, the price of investing in a hedge fund has stayed virtually fixed at 2-and-20 (2% of assets, plus 20% of investment returns) for decades.

The consequences of these high prices are added up in The Big Squeeze, a new report sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers. Because true investment fees are usually not disclosed—fund managers insist that they are confidential and require investors not to divulge them—the report simply quantifies the potential savings from reducing fees from 1.8-and-18 to 0.9-and-9. This may seem arbitrary, but I know anecdotally that some funds, even big ones, are charging something like 1-and-10 even to ordinary investors. Since state pension funds are some of the biggest investors that exist, you would think they would be able to negotiate even lower fees.

Not surprisingly, the numbers involved add up quickly. Lower fees over the past five years would have saved the average pension fund included in the study $1.6 billion; to put things in perspective, it would have improved the aggregate funding ratio for these funds by more than two percentage points, which is nothing to sneeze at.

The important question is why high fees persist despite the potential market power of big pension funds. There are probably multiple explanations. One is a culture of secrecy, which makes it difficult for any fund to find out what other funds are paying. Another is the marketing prowess of fund managers, who are adept at explaining when their fund is unlike any other in the world and therefore merits its high fees. A third is that pension fund managers are playing with other people’s money (in this case, the other people are the fund’s beneficiaries—teachers, firefighters, and other government employees)—and may be more interested in ingratiating themselves with the asset management industry than with getting the best deal they can. (This is even more likely the case for the investment consultants who match pension funds with asset managers.) But in a political climate that makes tax increases on rich fund managers unlikely, state governments could achieve the same results by taking a harder line on investment management fees: requiring public disclosure of all fees or even imposing hard fee caps for pension fund investments. With the amount of money involved, it’s hard to imagine that major pension funds couldn’t find anyone competent to take their money for 0.9-and-9.

Why Is Connecticut Giving Its Employees’ Money to the Asset Management Industry?

By James Kwak

In general, the State of Connecticut offers pretty good defined contribution retirement plans to its employees. Most importantly, it offers several low-cost index funds in institutional share classes. For example, you can invest in the Vanguard Institutional Index Fund Institutional Plus Shares, which tracks the S&P 500 for just 2 basis points, or the TIAA-CREF Small-Cap Blend Index Institutional Class, which tracks the Russell 2000 for just 7 basis points. Administrative fees are unbundled, and are only 5 basis points. For no good reason I can discern, however, you can also invest in actively managed stock funds like the JPMorgan Mid Cap Value Fund, which costs 80 basis points.

As I’ve previously said, I have mixed feelings about target date funds. In principle, they do the reallocation and rebalancing for you, so they could be appropriate for people who want to make one choice and then forget about their investments (which, in many ways, is a good strategy). The hitch is that a target date fund is only as good as the funds inside it. Fidelity, for example, puts twenty-five different funds inside one of its target date funds, including thirteen U.S. stock funds, eleven of which appear to be actively managed. This is just a clever way to sneak expensive active management back in through the back door.

The Connecticut retirement plans do have target date funds, but luckily they use Vanguard’s versions, which are made up of index funds and only charge 14–16 bp (as opposed to 77 bp for the Fidelity Freedom 2040 fund) … until now. As of February, the Connecticut defined contribution plans are switching away from Vanguard to something called “GoalMaker,” which takes your money and spreads it out among the various funds offered by the plan—including those expensive, actively managed funds. For example, if you say you have a moderate risk tolerance and want to retire in 2034, it puts your money in fourteen different funds—including six U.S. stock funds, three of which are actively managed.

This is just fake diversification. On one level, it may seem more prudent to have money in both the Vanguard S&P index fund and the Fidelity VIP Contrafund Portfolio (wow, “VIP,” that must be special!). But mutual funds are already diversified—particularly index funds. If you have some reason for thinking that the VIP Contrafund Portfolio will beat the index, then you might choose to invest in it—but, in fact, it’s trailed the S&P 500 over 1, 3, 5, and 10 years.

Most likely, the people who are currently invested in Vanguard target date funds will get shifted into GoalMaker portfolios. They will pay several times as much in fees for basically the same thing, except with a little additional risk due to managers’ attempts to beat the market. It’s hard to see how this makes anyone better off—except the asset managers themselves.

How Not to Invest

By James Kwak

Forty years after John Bogle launched the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, passive investment funds now account for about one-third of the mutual fund and ETF market. You would think this would pose a threat to traditional asset managers that charge hefty fees for actively managed mutual funds, and this is true in part. On average, index funds charge 73 basis points less than active funds, and the average expense ratios for actively managed funds have fallen from 106 bp to 84 bp over the past fifteen years (Investment Company Institute, 2016 Investment Company Fact Book, Figure 5.6).

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Memo to Employers: Stop Wasting Your Employees’ Money

By James Kwak

Now that I’m a law professor, people expect me to write law review articles. There are some problems with the genre—not least its absurd citation formatting system and all the fetishism surrounding it—but it’s not a bad way to make arguments about how and why the law should change in ways that might actually help people.

That was my goal in my first law review article, “Improving Retirement Options for Employees, which recently came out in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law. The general problem is one I’ve touched on several times: many Americans are woefully underprepared for retirement, in part because of a deeply flawed “system” of employment-based retirement plans that shifts risk onto individuals and brings out the worse of everyone’s behavioral irrationalities. The specific problem I address in the article is the fact that most defined-contribution retirement plans (of which the 401(k) is the most prominent example) are stocked with expensive, actively managed mutual funds that, depending on your viewpoint, either (a) logically cannot beat the market on an expected, risk-adjusted basis or (b) overwhelmingly fail to beat the market on a risk-adjusted basis.

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Can the Buy Side Take on the Sell Side?

By James Kwak

The Economist did not like 13 Bankers: “A broader perspective would have led to more nuanced conclusions. The origins of America’s financial ‘oligarchy’, for instance, might have more to do with campaign-finance rules and political appointees than banks’ size. The faith that Messrs Johnson and Kwak put in merely capping the size of banks is misplaced.”*

But a reader pointed us to the Economist columnist who goes by the name of Buttonwood (the site of the founding of the New York Stock Exchange), who seems a bit more favorable. In a recent column criticizing the rent-seeking of the financial sector, Buttonwood seems to tell broadly the same story:

“Something has clearly changed within the past 40 years. Banking and asset management used to be perceived as fairly dull jobs, which did not attract a significant wage premium. But after 1980, financial wages started to climb much more quickly than those of engineers, another profession that ought to have benefited from technological complexity.

“Around the same time, banks became more profitable.”

He even nods toward breaking up the banks:

“At the moment, governments are wading in with all kinds of levies and regulations, which will probably have unintended consequences. Rather than tackle the big problem (for example, by breaking up the banks), they waste their time on populist measures like banning short-selling.”

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