Investment Management Fees – Compounding in Reverse


Longview Asset Management
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August 2014

When investing, it is essential to distinguish between what is knowable and what is not. The overall returns that you will make in the stock market, before fees and taxes, are unknowable. What you do know with certainty, is that your net returns will vary inversely to the amount of tax and fees that you pay.

Taxable investors should think about the amount of tax that they pay on their investments. All investors should focus on fees.

Many investors know that compounding investment returns, returns on returns, is the most powerful force in investing, particularly over the long run. Most do not realize, and few investment advisors want to discuss, the fact that fees represent a form of negative compounding – compounding in reverse.

Despite the fact that the majority of professional investors underperform the stock market over time, most people still use them to invest their capital. This is largely because they expect to be in the minority that outperforms the market. Also, when dealing with a complicated subject like investing, we are accustomed to obtaining advice from an expert. If this is the route that you choose, you should select an advisor who is competent, has a strategy appropriate for you and is trustworthy. You should also pay close attention to their fees.

In the investment management world, clients pay different types of fees. The largest component is the management fee – paid directly to your advisor and/or to the manager of the product you purchase (eg. a mutual fund). The average fee that you pay will have a dramatic impact on your investment returns and your ability to build capital.

Management fees can be unreasonably high. They are also more expensive than they first appear. This is because of the opportunity cost that they represent – every dollar paid is one dollar less that can compound positive returns for you. Thus, the impact on your returns is higher than the fee itself.

The table below demonstrates the impact of fees on an investor buying a low-fee ETF that charges 0.1% compared to a mutual fund that charges 2% (less than what many charge). It assumes that both the ETF and the mutual fund have achieved returns equal to the S&P/TSX Composite Index over the past 20 years. As can be seen, a 2% fee would have reduced an investor’s cumulative return from 88% to 56% over the first 10 years and from 209% to 112% over the full 20 years. The overall additional cost to the investor of investing in the mutual fund over 20 years would have been almost $1 million.

$1.0 million in invested in 1993 for: ETF
Cumulative Net Return (0.1% Fee)
Mutual Fund
Cumulative Net Return (2% Fee)
Mutual Fund
Additional Cost to Investor
10 Years (2003) 88% 56% $321,205
20 Years (2013) 209% 112% $968,685

 

Some investment managers also charge performance fees. These are incremental fees paid on top of a base fee when the manager performs better than a chosen benchmark. Those that charge them argue that performance fees better align them with the client by providing more incentive to perform, and that the client only pays in the event of outperformance (win-win). However, performance fees are usually a one-way street – managers take them in good years, but don’t refund them to you in bad years. Given that, in most calendar years, stock markets either rise by more than 20% or produce a negative return, performance fees can badly whipsaw clients.

Among investment firms, it is hedge funds that most commonly charge performance fees. Like other investment managers, most hedge funds underperform the broader stock market. This is highlighted by a bet Warren Buffett made in 2008. He challenged several hedge fund managers to pick a group of hedge funds that would outperform a low-fee index fund tracking the US stock market (S&P 500 Index) over ten years. By the end of 2013, the cumulative return of the index fund was 44%, while the group of selected hedge funds, picked by industry experts, had returned only 13%.

Today, stock markets appear fully valued and fixed income yields are at historic lows. More than ever, the proper management of your investments is important. Some investment managers charge reasonable fees and some do not. Some will be worth the fees that they charge and others will not.

At Longview, we not only seek to achieve attractive overall investment returns for our clients, we also aim to maximize their net returns. We do so by being tax savvy – for example, allocating investments between accounts in the most taxefficient manner and having relatively low turnover in our stocks. In addition, we also have a fee scale that we believe is reasonable.

A version of this edition of The Long View was published in the Globe & Mail on July 31st, 2014.

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