Mutual fund management fees: the silent killer

“If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”—JP Morgan

Imagine that you’re going to buy something that costs over $1000, maybe a flat-screen TV or a new set of tires for your car.  At some point during your decision-making process would you ask how much what you were getting costs?  Of course you would.  Unless you’re JP Morgan, a normal person figures out what something costs before he or she buys it.

Yet that is exactly what happens when people invest their money in mutual funds; they have no idea how much they are paying the mutual fund company to invest their money.  I guarantee you ask 100 people who have 401k accounts how much they paid in management fees last year, and less than 5 will know, and those 5 would probably just get lucky.  Even humble Mr Fox couldn’t tell you how much I pay Vanguard each year in management fees(important statement so I had to revert to third person), and I’m obsessed with this stuff.

And the crazy thing is with investing there are so many unknowns and random events, namely how your investments are going to do in the future, but one of the things we can control, how much we spend on mutual fund management fees, receives so little focus and attention.

Why are management fees swept under the rug?

First, investment companies have every incentive to hide the fact that these even exist.  Obviously,if Vanguard or Fidelity or American Funds can convince naïve investors that there’s no charge for investing their money, they’re more likely to do it—that’s economics 101.  SEC rules require that funds publish their management fees, yet they tend to be in the smaller print, much less conspicuous than the proclamation that “Our fund has beaten its comparable benchmark 7 of the last 10 years, before fees.”

Second, the amounts tend to seem small.  An actively-managed mutual fund with really high fees could be in the 1.5% range while a really large index mutual fund might bottom out at less than 0.1%.  That spread of 1.4% from high to low may not seem like a lot on its surface, but that’s a 15x range.  Also, due to the magic of compounding, over time, those fees would really add up.  That difference in management fees could lead to a 13% difference in a person’s nest egg; that’s the difference between someone with high expenses having $500,000 in their 401k after a 30 year career and $565,000. That’s real money!!!

What are the key determinants in how much a mutual fund charges for fees?

The single biggest factor in how much a mutual fund charges in management fees is whether it is a passively managed index fund or an actively managed fund.  Index mutual funds don’t require much oversight.  They find the index they want to mimic, like the S&P 500, then they have a computer program that monitors the fund’s holdings and makes small course-correction trades to ensure that the composition of the fund is as close to the index as possible.  You have a couple people make sure the computer doesn’t go crazy and you’re set.  There are still costs like accounting,marketing, keeping the website up, sending out account statements, etc., but it’s a pretty lean operation.

Also, with index mutual funds, in many ways they’re a commodity.  Any S&P 500 index fund performs 99.99% identically to any other; that’s the very essence of an index mutual fund.  So if there is no difference in the product, then companies must differentiate on cost.  Not surprisingly, what is largely considered the best S&P 500 index fund (if you count it in terms of amount invested)is the one with the lowest costs: the Vanguard S&P 500 Index (VFINX).

Now on the complete other end of the expense spectrum you have the exorbitant fees associated with actively-managed mutual funds.  There are mutual fund managers who get six-,seven-, and sometimes even eight-figure compensation packages.  What justifies such astronomical pay?  Just like free-agents in baseball these fund managers who are perceived as the best can go to the highest bidder, becoming celebrities in their own right (see: Lynch, Peter). 

Beyond the compensation for the fund managers, these funds have a lot of costs.  There are all sorts of industry and trade conferences that fund managers go to.  And if you think they fly coach and stay at a Holiday Inn, I have a bridge to sell you. They work in glass palaces in downtown Boston and New York.  Let me just say I once went into Fidelity’s headquarters in Boston and to quote a line from one of my favorite investing movies, Barbarians at the Gates, “it makes Buckingham Palace look like a Burger King.”  Many offer gourmet lunches to their staffs every day, limos, in-house massage therapists, and the list goes on, but you get the point.  And where does all this money come from?  It comes from the extra 1.4% difference in management fees between an actively managed fund and an index fund.

Where can you find the information?

This fancy thing called the internet actually makes this pretty easy to look at. Pretty much every finance website (Google,Yahoo!,etc.) lists every mutual fund’s expense ratio. This allows comparison shopping to be really easy.  In about 5 minutes you could look up and compare the management fees of any of the mutual funds you are considering.

You can see the expense ratio circled in red on the left.

That’s not to say this is the only factor you should consider when choosing a mutual fund. That’s some deep water which would be a great topic for another post,but it is a really important one.  Some would even argue that it is the single most important factor.  Sadly it’s one that very, very few people are knowledgeable of.  As you look to build your nest egg, it’s something you should absolutely know when you start making your investment decisions.

For our money, the Fox family is a believer in index mutual funds.  In fact, 100% of all our money is in index mutual funds, so this is no joke to us.  The management fee varies for each fund,management fees for US funds tend to be a little higher than international funds, but the range is about 0.05% to 0.20%, with the average coming in around 0.08%.  So we are paying 0.08% of our total nestegg each year in management fees.

That’s what I do, but that doesn’t mean you have to do the same.  There are many vocal proponents of actively managed mutual funds (by buddy Mike from Boston).  Their points become especially compelling at times like this when the market is going down.

Believe what you will, but if what ever type of mutual fund you invest in you should always know what you are paying.  After all, you aren’t JP Morgan.  If you are paying a high management fee, just make sure you are getting your money’s worth.

Will you lose money with stocks?

This is probably the most common question you get from people who are considering starting to invest in stocks.  It’s pretty understandable; you work hard for your money and the idea of it disappearing into the black hole of an unpredictable and often times not-well-understood stock market is pretty hard to stomach.  Add on that scars from the 2008 Great Recession, 2001 Internet Bubble, Black Monday in 1987, Black Tuesday in 1929, and on and on and on.  Even recently, 2018 has had a bunch of wild freefalls, including the one we’re in right now.

So, what’s the answer to the question:  Who knows?  The stock market is unpredictable and no one knows what will happen in the future.  That’s not an especially satisfying answer, but it’s the truth.  If I could predict the stock market I would own my own island in the Caribbean next to Johnny Depp’s.

But I can hear you saying, “Come on, you’re Stocky Fox.  You can do better than that.”  You’re right.  I’m taking on the challenge and answering the question: Will you lose money with the stock market?

I won’t try to predict what will happen in the future, but I think you can look to how things have behaved in the past, and get a pretty good perspective.  Of course, there’s no certainty that the future will be like the past, but that’s the best we have to look at.

You can get somewhat decent data on the stock market going all the way back to 1871.  Back then, your great-great-great grandmother was getting The Stocky Fox as a newsletter delivered by the Pony Express.  Going that far back, you can calculate the percentage of the time that you would have lost money investing, historically.

So imagine starting in January 1871 and investing $10 every month in the US stock market.  By January 1872, you would have invested a total of $120 and your stocks would be worth $128; congratulations, you just made a profit.  You can do that for every 12-month period since 1871 (there are about 1700 such periods), and you come out ahead 71% of the time, which seems pretty good.  But the flip side is that you’d have lost money 29% of the time, and at least to me that is too high to be really comfortable.

Chart for losing money

However, remember that when investing stocks, time is on your side.  Do the same exercise but for five years; if you started in January 1871 after 5 years you would have invested a total of $600 which would be worth $679 in January 1876 (yeah, profit again!!!).  Do that for every five-year time period and you end up losing money only 13% of the time.  By adding another four years to your investing time horizon that decreased the chances that you would have lost money by 20%!!! That seems pretty amazing.

You can keep doing that for longer time periods, and as you could guess, the percentage of times you would have lost money keeps going down.  Astoundingly at the 20-year mark, you would have lost money only one time out of the nearly 1500 periods possible (the one month was June 1912 which, you guessed it, was 20 years before the Great Depression bottomed out).  At 30 years, there isn’t a single time period where consistent investing would have lost money!!!  That’s not a misprint.  Read that paragraph again.

There are no guarantees, but if you use history as a guide, it’s pretty much a sure thing that you’ll make money in the stock market.  Certainly it involves a lot of discipline, investing month after month no matter how bad things look (dollar cost averaging).  Also, it doesn’t necessarily mean you always make a lot of money, but the data seem pretty powerful.  Additionally, I didn’t take inflation into account so that would definitely skew the numbers downward (but you know how I feel about the integrity of the data on inflation, so there you go), but the message remains largely unchanged.

I must confess that I was a bit surprised by the data.  Actually, I spent about 30 minutes going through the spreadsheet to see if I made any mistakes; I’m pretty confident the analysis is sound.  As Dr Brown asked Marty in Back to the Future, “Do you know what this means?” (just don’t take what he says after that and apply it to my analysis).  If your time horizon is 20 years or more, at least based on history, there’s virtually no chance that you’ll lose money.  I figured it would be a pretty low chance, but zero chance?  I didn’t see that coming.  Even people who invested for 20 years then pulled out after the Great Recession in 2008 did fairly well (invested $240 which became worth $339).

So there you go.  My answer to the question posed at the top is still: No one knows what the future holds.  But the historic data confirms my personal belief that the stock market is a really great place to invest your money.  I lose no sleep worrying about the Fox family’s investments increasing in value.  I know over the long term they will.

Light at the end of the tunnel for Bitcoin?

Last year about this time, the nation was gripped in Bitcoin-mania.  It was dizzying.

As with most bubbles, it transcended financial markets and wormed its way into the mainstream. Everyone was talking about it, from late-night talk show hosts to grandmothers and everyone in between.

I wrote my thoughts on the matter here.  Just after that post, Bitcoin rose another 10% and then cratered precipitously.  I predicted its decline would result from it being connected to a terrorist attack and world governments using that as a pretext to extinguish it.  As it happened, it just seems that the bloom fell off Bitcoin’s rose.  Sometimes financial markets are fickle.

In 2017 Bitcoin rose from about $1000 to a peak of almost $20,000.  As fast as the rise was, the fall has been nearly as fast; from $20,000 to about $4000 today.  But this post isn’t a victory lap—Bitcoin bears were clearly proven right, so what’s the point of adding on there?

The point of this post is to give a little bit of love to Bitcoin.  I wouldn’t say I’m making a bullish bet on Bitcoin (I certainly haven’t bought any, and have no plans to).  However, here is an argument why it may not be doomed.

You can actually buy stuff

The biggest problem for Bitcoin was that it had no intrinsic value.  That’s not a deal-breaker: fiat currencies (dollars, euros, yuan, etc.) are only valuable because their home countries say they are and pass laws that you can use those pieces of paper to pay for stuff (more on this in a second). 

Without that government backing, Bitcoin becomes a bit like gold or diamonds, inherently worthless pieces of stuff but are valuable because enough people in the world think they are valuable.  Of course, a big difference is that you can hold gold or a diamond, but not so much with Bitcoin.

In December 2017 enough people thought Bitcoin had value that it pushed the price to $19,000. Today, many fewer think it is valuable so it’s worth much less, hence the $3400 price.

Through it all, Bitcoin was missing a major component of a currency (like a dollar) or even a store-of-value commodity (like gold)—you couldn’t buy anything with it.  I don’t think you would have had near the crash (and probably not the run-up either).

Until recently, you could only buy stuff with Bitcoin on the fringes of the economy.  Certainly, the black market accepted it, but that’s not exactly what we’re going for.  A very small handful of regular stores(virtual or brick-and-mortar) did, but that was minuscule.

That may be about to change in a profound way.  The state of Ohio recently announced that you can pay your taxes using Bitcoin. It’s hard to understate the importance of this.  Paying taxes, by definition, is about as legitimate a transaction as there is. All the sudden Bitcoin is a legitimate currency, at least to the state of Ohio.  To compound the point, I don’t believe you can pay your taxes in Ohio in euros or yuan (undeniably currencies)or gold or diamonds (undeniably stores of value).

How will this impact Bitcoin’s price

Now that Ohio will accept it, that will create a real market for Bitcoin.  That begs the question,what will that do to the price?  You should expect my normal answer: I have no idea. But I do have some thoughts.

Bitcoin’s price has been in freefall for months now.  This was caused in large part by the tiny, tiny issue of Bitcoin not being used anywhere. Now that has changed.  I still think Bitcoin could go down, but I definitely think it will not go down as much as it would have if Ohio hadn’t made it’s decision.  It’s impossible to know if I’m right or wrong on that, since we can’t test things in alternate dimensions.

It’s not to say Ohio is getting in the Bitcoin game.  It just takes the Bitcoin payments, sends them to a market to get exchanged into dollars, and they have their money.

Ohio has taken the first step and it’ll be interesting to see if any other states follow suit.  If a large state like New York, Texas, or California also starts accepting Bitcoin, I think that will definitely buoy it’s value as it becomes even more of an accepted currency.  And of course the coup d’etat would be the Federal government accepting it.

Overall, I still think Bitcoin will be volatile, probably to the downside.  However, I do think maybe we’ll back in five years when Bitcoin has settled to something of value,probably less than $4000, and look at this Ohio decision as the first step towards that stabilization.

My story about selling commodities

A few years ago, I wrote about our worst investment of all time—commodities.

I think this is a classic case of deviating from the tried and true rules that you only need three investments in an effort to get creative and get higher returns.  In general you should always resist that siren song.  It cost us well over $100,000; that’s an expensive lesson.

After a few years of crapping performance, I finally bit the bullet, admitted defeat, took a huge loss, and sold my commodities.

 

Examining the wreckage

We starting buying commodities ETFs (ticker symbol DJP) in 2010 in small increments, and continued that through the end of 2014.  When all was said and done, we had invested a total of about $100,000.  By the time we sold, those ETFs were worth about $65,000, so we lost $35,000.  Ouch!!!

But that’s only a small part of the loss.  I knew, I KNEW, that we should invest that money in stocks but we didn’t.  Had we invested that money in a stock index fund that $100,000 would have grown to nearly $200,000 by the end of 2017.  I just threw up in my mouth.

A picture says a thousand words–the purple line is commodities for the period we owned them; the blue line is US stocks. OUCH!!!

 

This is a boneheaded mistake for the ages.  Of course, as in most things in life, when you realize you made a mistake like that you need to move on.  With stocks that’s tough psychologically to do because not only is it admitting failure, but it’s also locking in those losses.  So long as you keep the investment you can always tell yourself there’s a chance that things will turn around.

Finally at the end of 2017, to take advantage of a little tax loss harvesting, I sold all our commodities investments.  That horrendous chapter of our investing history was over.

 

Investing gods decide to humble me further

What unfolded was a story similar to one of those stories from the Bible where God continues to test someone’s faith.  I sold all our commodities investments and invested them in US stock investments.

By the end of April 2018 commodities were up about 2% for the year while stocks were down 2%.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  After 7 years of stocks drastically outperforming commodities, the trend reversed right after I sold out my commodities.  As you might guess, I was feeling picked on by some power beyond my understanding.

I kept to my guns and my faith was rewarded.  By the end of August 2018, stocks had a big rally (up 8% for the year) while commodities were crushed (down 7% for the year).  When all is said and done, stocks are up about 2% while commodities are down 5%.  That difference equates to about $4000 in my favor.

 

There are a couple things I took away from this:

First, as an investor, you have to focus on the present and future, and not cling to the past.  Second, sometimes your investments work out and sometimes they don’t, and you can’t get paralyzed by your investing failures.  Third, exotic investments generally don’t work out over time.

All these really combine to illustrate all the things I did wrong with commodities.  I should have just stuck to investing in stocks as I always preach on this blog.  Once it started going bad, I should have cut and run instead of clinging to something in the hope that it would “come around.”

Better late than never.  While I definitely left over $100,000 on the table, at least I didn’t leave that last $4000.  That’s what I tell myself anyway.

Top 5—investing moves when you’re just getting started

My neighbor’s son, Rhino, just got engaged (I dubbed him rhino because the rhinoceros beetle is the strongest animal in the world pound-for-pound, and this kid is really strong).  We’ve gotten to Rhino over the years.  He was Mini and ‘Lil Fox’s first babysitter when we moved into the neighborhood, so of course he has a special place in our hearts.

We were talking about his engagement, starting out life, and obviously since it’s a conversation with me, how to do the right things financially.

It got me to thinking about what are the most important things to do in the world of personal finance when you are just getting started.  For the soon-to-be newlyweds, here is my Top 5 list:

 

5. Figure out your debt situation: If you’re lucky, you won’t have a lot (or any) debt.  For most of us there is some out there, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  List out every debt you have (student loan, mortgage, credit card, car payment, etc.), the balance, and the interest rate.

On a spreadsheet (see #4) rank them in order of interest rate.  As a general rule I use a cutoff of about 6%.  If your interest rate is above that pay those off right away, starting with the highest interest rate debt first.  If your interest rate is below that, that might be okay to keep that debt and just make the normal monthly payments.

If you have any debt (especially credit card debt) at any rate higher than 10%, that’s a “debt emergency”.  Really look at every purchase you make—if it’s not critical to your survival (food, shelter) then pass that up until your debt is paid off.  The only exception to this is #1—funding your 401k.

You can get creative with your debt by consolidating high interest rate cards onto a lower rate card or one that offers a low teaser rate.  That could save you a ton of money, and you should probably look into that, but ultimately, you’ll need to pay that sucker off.  So just hitting the grindstone of paying off your credit cards is a must.

 

4. Make a budget on a spreadsheet: Take a spreadsheet and put a quick budget together that includes your income, your expenses, and the difference between those two.  This can be simple at first (and it should be simple at first).  Over time, you’ll add more and more sheets to the spreadsheet for things like your mortgage, investments, kids’ education, and other things.

But at the beginning, you need to get a sense of where your money is going.  The budget will give you an aspirational view of this.  After your budget is done, you can track your spending with a website like mint.com.  This two-step process lets you figure where you want to spend your money, and then also look at where you actually spend it.

Of course, this is an iterative process, and as you close a month and look at your expenses, you can see if you’re spending more than what you budgeted.  This isn’t a time to beat yourself up (being too hard on yourself is a sure way to stop looking at your finances closely, and that’s a REALLY bad thing), but a time to ask yourself why you spent more and if it was worth it.

As an aside, using a spreadsheet is a really good skill in general.  I was really good at spreadsheets and it’s hard to overstate the incredible impact it had on my career, as well as the incredible wealth those skills gave me and my family.  And really, my experience with spreadsheets started in college when I was creating a financial budget.

 

3. Educate yourself on investing: At a young age, educate yourself on investing.  Obviously, this blog is the universally acknowledged best place to learn about investing, but I have heard rumors there are others.

www.mrmoneymustache.com is a great website that looks at personal spending and his early posts had a tremendous impact on my outlook.  A Random Walk Down Wall Street is a book on investing that really defined my investing strategy; I read that as a 19-year-old and still think about its insights today.

There are a lot of websites written by millennials about spending and personal finance that might resonate even more.  A few are: millennialmoneyman.com, moneypeach.com, and brokemillennial.com.  Most are about reducing spending and budgets and that sort of thing, but there are some on the nitty gritty of making investing choices.  You’ll want perspectives on both.

The whole point is that you need to know what you are doing here.  Spending 20 hours early in your life to figure out basics like asset allocation, tax avoidance, and fee minimization as well as a general attitude towards saving early can easily lead to hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.  That comes to about $50,000 per hour—not bad.

 

2. Start an IRA with $1,000: This is as much about the experience gained as it is about actually investing your money.  Vanguard lets you start an IRA with $1,000 as the minimum amount.

You’ll navigate through their website, figure out how to make choices (like Roth or Traditional IRA—go traditional).  You’ll pick your investments, and then you’ll have something to look at every once in a while to see how it’s doing.

So many people are just at a total loss when it comes to setting up accounts for their investments.  That becomes a real problem once you hit 30 or 40 and you’re starting to get behind the 8-ball; you know you need to do something but are kind of clueless on where to start.  Doing it now lets you get your toes wet in this world and makes the next accounts you need to set up (529, 401k, brokerage, etc.) all the less daunting.

 

1. Get the company match on your 401k: #2 was more for experience than for investment.  Here is where you should start walking down the path for investments.  At a minimum, contribute the match and take the free money.

This is so important for a couple reasons.  First, you’re getting that free money.  Second, you’re making your first “asset allocation” decision.  When it comes time to pick which fund to invest in, unless you have very unique circumstances for an early-20s person, I would definitely go with a 100% equity index fund.

Third, your 401k is a really powerful tool.  If you had no other investing tool, you could still grow a 401k to well over a $1 million during your working career.  That is enough to fully fund your retirement.

 

BONUS—Stay poor:  Too many young adults make a huge mistake of trying to mimic the lifestyle their parents provided, once they (the young adults) get out of school.  That first paycheck of $2,000 is going to seem like a ton of money (and it is).  It’s really tempting to decide to buy a new car or go on a kickin’ vacation or upgrade the furniture.  Resist the urge.

Your parents took 25 or more years of working (with pay increases and investment returns) to provide the house and cars and vacations you enjoyed your senior year of high school.  It’s not realistic to think you can have stuff at that level of niceness so early.

A car is a really good example.  In general, automobiles are horrible investments.  To the degree you have a car that can get you from point A to point B, keep it.  A new car will be nice and cool and make your friends gawk, but it’s a horrible use of money.  A couple hundred dollars a month for a car, plus insurance, and maybe $50 for a gym membership, $50 for cable, and $80 for four dinners at a restaurant—those numbers add up.  Those alone could fund your savings in the early years.

Your early 20s are a time when it’s still okay not to have the best and nicest of everything.  If you can embrace that, even when you do have the money, and put that extra money to work in investments you’ll build a very strong financial foundation that will afford you many more opportunities are you reach your 30s and 40s (remember, I did that and I retired at 36).