Mutual Fund Fees: Here’s What Matters
Investors will probably see good news in Morningstar Inc.’s annual report showing that the fees charged by actively managed mutual funds continue to come down.
The truth is that focusing on fees alone misses the point. What matters is a fund’s after-fee return. There are always fund managers who excel at picking stocks and can deliver strong after-fee returns to investors year after year, justifying the high fees required to pay them. The early years of Fidelity’s Magellan fund is the classic example.
The trick is finding that clever manager, which requires a combination of luck and the skill and inclination to compare numerous investment options. One thing making this task a little easier is the mutual fund industry practice of reporting returns, net of fees. But the research shows that stock funds that consistently outperform their benchmarks are few and far between – and finding them would be particularly challenging for 401(k) investors who already struggle with basic decisions.
Morningstar’s fee report indicates investors might be getting the message. In 2015 and 2016, they pulled a total of $627 billion out of the group of actively managed funds charging the highest fees. During the same two years, they funneled $429 billion of new money into lower-fee index funds.
Yes, active funds’ average fee (called the expense ratio, in a prospectus) declined last year to 0.75 percent – or three-quarters of 1 percent – from 0.78 percent in 2015. This continued a downward trend: fees averaged 1 percent in the early 2000s.
But compare this with 0.17 percent for index funds. In contrast to actively managed funds, passive index funds aren’t set up to beat a market benchmark: their goal is to simply mimic the performance of a specific market index, whether it’s the Standard & Poor’s 500 or a Bloomberg Barclay’s bond index.
(Morningstar’s fee averages are weighted to reflect the dollars of assets in each mutual fund; this better reflects how much investors are actually paying than does a simple average of fees.)
401(k) investors’ best bet for maximizing their after-fee returns, retirement experts say, is passive index funds or exchange-traded funds, which also charge lower fees. Nothing in Morningstar’s report indicates that should change.
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