1-31-2019

What are your Fees? Why should I use a professional manager? These questions are not for weak investment professionals, since answering with any aptitude is a herculean effort. Even more important is the impact of advisors on a household and the economy at large.

Most investors don’t pay attention to fees, but for those who do or are interested, this goes out to all of you. As always, I do not pretend to know everything, so this is a vague discussion detailed enough to pique your interests. None of the following is investment advice. Also these are all facts – there is no intention to criticize or glorify any company/investment advisor. 
 
When folks ask me those questions, my mind goes to sudden overwhelm – how can you explain such answers from both a pragmatic, omniscient and understandable perspective? To explain High Frequency Trading costs, Bid/ask spreads, trading commissions, data costs, management costs on ETF/Mutual funds, sales loads, Administrative fees (funds), Performance Fees, and wealth manager AUM fees would take hours. The hardest part? Fee structures are not static – the competition in the investing space is changing every day, and investors should be notified of how such changes affect their accounts. After all, the CFA program teaches, among other things, that investors pay professionals for best execution and ‘prudent man’ investing. Thus, the advisor/fiduciary should also be able to explain investment philosophies and best execution standards. 
 
So, if you don’t have a fiduciary, you must invest prudently and seek best execution on your own. If you don’t put in the research, you are allowing a lot of trust to those with whom you have put your money. The ‘fiduciary rule’ and discount brokerages like Vanguard have made the transfer of trust easier, though there are certainly downsides to any investment and/or investment firm for either prudent investing or best execution. Prime example – behavioral investing (more later). Truly then, the investor should be guided by a company and advisor with absolute knowledge.
 

“Best Execution” generally means best pricing on all transactions. This is the technical element of your job as an investor. “Prudent Man” investing generally means investing with a concrete objective in mind. This is the finesse element of your job as an investor, and some are better than others at this. There are virtually endless volumes of books on behavioral finance, but this is the cliffnote of them all:  People who lose sight of goals when making financial decisions cannot act as a “prudent man” would. So a fiduciary must always invest as a prudent man would, by investing with goals in mind. Otherwise, there is also a giant population of gamblers.

 
Below I will describe the fees investors can expect, from most overt to most hidden. But first, a word on the fiduciary rule. No matter if you are trading through a hedge fund, a big bank, an investment advisor, or doing your own trading at an online broker, the process is the same. You will add money to a platform and the conversion from cash to anything else will command a fee. The difference between a hedge fund, a big bank, an investment advisor, and yourself, is only execution and “prudent man” investment ability. That’s really all it boils down to. If you trust yourself to make better investment decisions based on your goals and your industry knowledge, you absolutely should trade for yourself. This is the slimmed-down version of the fiduciary rule. When I was working at Merrill Lynch, almost daily the Fiduciary rule was creating change in procedures and the older advisors were outraged. The rule was designed to force all advisors to be more transparent about best execution and “prudent man” standards. Most big banks spent billions in infrastructure and reporting changes over the rule – no small sum in the aggregate. Insurance companies had arguably the most to lose and lobbied extensively to kill the rule before it passed. The rule died under President Trump, but the damage had been done – consumers had realized that “conflicts of interest” got in the way of best execution and “Prudent Man” standards. 
 
Here are some of the larger fees in financial transactions.
  • AUM by Professionals (advisors often use SMAs)
  • ETF/Mutual Fund Management Expense
  • Trading Commissions 
  • Sales Loads
  • Bid/Ask Spreads
  • Performance Fees
  • High Frequency Trading (HFT) costs
  • Administrative fees
  • Data Costs (typically passed on to the retail investor)
  • Special note on Target funds
Robinhood has been all the rage lately with everyone from 13 to 40 years old. I am such a fan of the app that I have encouraged it at multiple presentations. However, there are at least three  hidden dangers. To reiterate, I am a fan of anything like Robinhood that gets people to invest.
 
First, the trades are not free. Robinhood makes virtually all of it money on ‘selling order flow’ to High Frequency Trading firms. For more info, check out their SEC file – its all laid out. If not for the order flow payments, Robinhood would not be worth $6 Billion… The tag, “free everything” that everyone will tell you is obviously the result of marketing rather than reality. Nonetheless, nearly every broker dealer in the world does exactly the same thing, especially Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Stash, Betterment, Wealthfront, and Fidelity, to name a few. Do some research on why IEX (exchange) is different and you will be amazed what you will find. Vanguard has never used HFT firms, and I hope people use Vanguard more than any other Broker for this reason.
 
Second, Robinhood recently notified users of a 3% savings account. The footnotes read that the accounts are SIPC protected. I was shocked at the audacity by Robinhood at this presentation. SIPC and FDIC insurance are virtually opposites, but younger/ less sophisticated investors probably wouldn’t know the difference. Again, great market, but divergent from reality.
 
Third, there is the user interface (UI). I love the UI and so does everyone else. It is impossibly easy to make trades, and since it’s ‘free’, investors don’t mind short term holding. This may lead to gambling – type behavior. Some people I know tell me that around $100,000 and up, they will seek professional advice. I encourage any investor to do so, considering the two standards I mentioned at the outset.
 
Overseeing investor accounts may be an in house job, or many parts can be delegated. ‘Wealth Management’ has come to be understood as one manager allocating roles to subcontractors. Thus, often investment advisory is moved to a mutual fund or “separately-managed” account. So often at Merrill Lynch, advisors didn’t know the difference between one industry and another. Nothing wrong with that, since the client account was supervised by professionals (at other companies like Eaton Vance). Insurance policies are likewise farmed out, as is banking at some firms.
 
The point is, these wealth managers often command between 0.5% and 1.5% of Assets Under Management to allocate your money to third parties that generally tack on their own fees of 0.5% to 1.5%. This management has never made sense to me, due to poor execution. Best execution would dictate that the manager reduce costs as much as possible without taking on more risks. However, these issues will always be blurry among professionals, though I prefer using models guided by Investment Policy Statements (IPS). Further, I predict that mutual funds will slowly become extinct because of the aggregated fees.
 
In summary, is an advisor worth it? Over the long term, I believe using a professional is worth far more than payment, because both potential net financial gains, but most importantly improved quality of life. Having said that, your professional should have a set process, such as:
  • IPS to disclose conflicts of interest and clear investment standards
  • Thorough understanding of risk tolerance and asset allocation.
  • Allocation outside public markets to capture illiquidity premiums (i.e. Berkshire Hathaway is mostly made up of private companies that aren’t salable).
  • Models representative of large economic segments/industries
  • Best execution standards in model execution and broker dealer selection
  • High rebalancing Standards at least annually (This is where robo-advisors and tax conscious investing are very important)
  • Continuous education on both the client’s goals as well as models and economies to develop ‘prudent man’ investing standards (development is not static).
  • Educating the client on behavioral finance – avoiding temptations and sticking to goals-based investing.
Again, this is a general overview of investment management from me after roughly ten years of experience, and I could be wrong. There are infinite rabbit holes within these topics, but I would say that understanding the fundamentals is basically all you need to make informed decisions.

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