As an investor, you sometimes need to remember the Serenity Prayer – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There are many facets of investing that are beyond our control. Fortunately, we can do something about investment fees. Fees can seriously hinder your rate of return, so it's important to understand how fees might be tacked onto your investments. As you build and tweak your portfolio, keep an eye out for what I call the Seven Layer Dip of Fees.
1. Mutual fund fees
There are plenty of good mutual funds that don’t charge large fees. Your investment advisor should offer you a way to have access to “no-load” (funds that don't have an upfront or backend fee) or institutional share classes. No-load funds have no barriers to entry or exit, and institutional share classes generally have much lower annual fees.
2. Mutual fund surrender penalties
Surrender penalties are a tricky way for a mutual fund company to force you to leave your money in their fund to avoid paying a hefty fee to get the money out. Penalty fee periods can be as long as eight years or more, and cost as much as 8% of the value of your investment! Avoid these mutual funds like the plague!
3. Brokerage trading commissions
The days of paying a few hundred dollars to execute a securities trade are over. You can open an online brokerage account and make a trade for less than $8. Charles Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and Fidelity are great places to start.
4. Internal mutual fund operating costs
Mutual Fund managers make their living off the fund’s Expense Ratio. The charges vary greatly from fund to fund. High process “actively” managed funds, that seek to outperform the market (and rarely do), are in the 1 to 1.5% range. Index funds that attempt to “passively” track the return of the market require much fewer people and research to run (and actually outperform the majority of “active funds”). They also have much lower fees, in the .07% to 0.50% range.
5. Wrap management fees
In an effort to appear more fee-conscious, many big firms offer “fee-based” accounts. This is an attempt to mitigate brokerage costs associated with the big firms. But be wary – the management fee (generally a percentage of assets under management) goes to the broker and is layered on top of mutual fund fees and account fees charged by many of the big banks/brokerage firms. At the end of the day, you can still end up with an investment cost of more than 2% - on what is supposed to be a fee-conscious investment account.
6. Markups on bonds and new issue securities
Advisors at big bank/brokerage firms have the ability to sell you individual bonds and stocks from their firm’s inventory. The dirty little secret: advisors are allowed to “mark-up” the price of the bond or other security when they buy it for you and keep the difference. This can be a hard fee to quantify as the commission is often built into the price of the security. To add to the pain, brokers can also “mark-up” the price when they sell the security for you – a double whammy of fees!
7. 12b-1 fees
These are marketing fees that mutual fund companies give back to advisors and firms that put their clients in the fund, There is a lot of debate right now about how 12b-1 fees should be disclosed and whether or not they are appropriate; just be aware that this is a sneaky layer in the dip of fees.
Now, brokerage firms, big banks, mutual funds, and investment firms cannot help you manage your money for free…they have to charge for their expertise, counsel and time.
However, it has been proven that one of the biggest killers of investment performance over time is paying excessive fees. So ask your advisor, or broker, exactly how they are getting paid, and all the ways that you are paying for their service. The less layers of dip you have to work through, the more money you will have left over in your investments.