Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 November 2019

The true cost of zero-cost investing

Investors are being lured into the exchange-traded fund industry with the promise of no fees, but they could wind up paying in other ways

A trader on the New York Stock Exchange. It is easy for investors to enter the market with low-cost ETFs, but surprises could include legal costs, aggressive up-selling or extra risk-taking. Photo: Reuters
A trader on the New York Stock Exchange. It is easy for investors to enter the market with low-cost ETFs, but surprises could include legal costs, aggressive up-selling or extra risk-taking. Photo: Reuters

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

There’s a dark side to the wave of cost cutting that’s swept through the exchange-traded fund industry over the last 12 months. While every average Joe in America can now pay nothing to buy an ETF through their favourite broker, and an extra nothing to cover its annual management fee, concern is mounting that there are catches to this bargain that could surprise investors.

People who are happy paying nothing for something are going to get what they pay for.

Dan Egan, Betterment online investment company

Brokerages have been fairly upfront about compensating for their lost commissions with interest revenue, but managing a fund — even one that tracks an index — isn’t free either. It costs about $250,000 (Dh918,225) per year to run an ETF, with the exact amount depending on what the fund owns, which service providers it hires and the issuer’s broader business. But one way or another, whether it is legal costs, aggressive up-selling or extra risk-taking, investors could wind up paying.

“This isn’t Unicef, there’s a cost associated with doing things,” says Matt Bartolini, head of SPDR Americas Research at State Street Global Advisors. “My first question is how are these costs being covered?”

Corner Cutting

The answer? It depends. A fund’s management fee typically covers the cost of licensing or creating an index, admin like record keeping and prospectus mailings, as well as the expenses associated with running a board of directors. Issuers that offer products for free still have these costs, but they have more reason to try to reduce them.

One place where efficiencies could be made is in the legal department, which could hurt investors in the event of a lawsuit. Other savings could be made by constructing indexes in-house or licensing lower-cost alternatives, hiring second-tier custodians, or limiting any sales presence or advertising budget. These economies could result in damaging oversights or increase the likelihood of the fund closing.

“I would be concerned about the compliance and legal aspect,” says Sam Huszczo, the founder of SGH Wealth Management, a $170 million investment adviser based in Detroit that uses ETFs. “Those are the two areas where I could see corners being cut.”

Salt Financial, which pays investors to buy its fund, keeps overheads low by only swapping out two or three names per quarter, which lowers transaction costs, according to co-founder Alfred Eskandar. In October, the company said it planned to move the ETF to a trust maintained by US Bank to reduce administrative and operational complexity. The change will also save money, although Mr Eskandar says investors will not be exposed to additional risks. He hopes the lack of fees will encourage investors to try the fund, and that they’ll stick around due to its performance.

The Up-Sell

An alternative strategy for issuers with more than one product is to leverage their zero-fee products to generate other business. Fidelity Investments started the first zero-fee mutual funds in August 2018, but they’re only available to investors that have a brokerage account with the firm. Meanwhile, Social Finance, an online lender best known for refinancing student loans, views its no-fee products as a way to develop existing clients. Two of its ETFs cost nothing until at least June of next year, but another fund costs $5.90 for every $1,000 invested, more than the median ETF fee.

The thinking was “we’ll provide this for free so you can find out all the other things available in this community,” says Michael Venuto, chief investment officer of Toroso Investments, which helped SoFi start its funds. “It’s about engagement,” he says, adding that selling more expensive products alongside zero-fee ETFs is not nefarious.

Companies, such as Vanguard, offer investors a cheaper passive/exchange-traded fund model. Photo: Alamy
Companies, such as Vanguard, offer investors a cheaper passive/exchange-traded fund model. Photo: Alamy

Next Step?

A greater risk looms as these funds grow. ETFs habitually lend out a proportion of their holdings to hedge funds and other borrowers for a fee, part of which goes back to investors. While the amount of securities that can be out on loan at any given time is capped by the regulators, issuers of zero-fee funds could be incentivised to lend out a larger portion of their underlying portfolios and keep a larger percentage of the profits.

While no zero-fee ETF currently engages in the practice, Fidelity’s four index funds are eligible for securities lending, according to a company spokesman. But all revenue — minus lending agent and custodial fees - goes back to investors. ETFs need about $50m to make securities lending worthwhile, according to Toroso’s Venuto, who says it’s low risk.

Still, the race to zero shows no sign of letting up. Abolishing fees generates publicity, something that could make the difference between survival and liquidation in a marketplace with more than 2,000 options. More than 70 per cent of US ETF assets are in funds that charge $2 per $1,000 invested or less and 93 per cnet of new money has flowed into such products this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Vanguard Group cut its fees again on October 23, this time announcing that it would reduce the cost of 13 London-listed ETFs. Meanwhile, in the US, BNY Mellon has filed for a group of broad-indexed ETFs, fuelling speculation that these products could augment the growing pool of zero-, or near-zero, fee investments.

“If they’re not getting paid by the clients, how are they getting paid?” Dan Egan, managing director of behavioural finance and investing for Betterment, says of zero-fee funds. “People who are happy paying nothing for something are going to get what they pay for.”

Updated: November 4, 2019 12:36 PM

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