By Jason Zweig | Oct. 18, 2016 7:48 pm ET
Image credit: “The Great Train Robbery,” theatrical poster (ca. 1896), Library of Congress
In our series “The Passivists,” The Wall Street Journal is looking at how and why actively managed funds are losing out to index funds.
One reason almost too obvious to mention: Actively managed funds are absurdly, stubbornly overpriced. They may well be the only important consumer good in modern life whose price has risen, rather than fallen, since they were first invented.
And it’s not as if people in the fund business aren’t aware of that. Here’s the first thing I recall writing about it myself. Note the date: I gave this speech more than 21 years ago. In all the intervening years, the ownership cost of actively managed funds has come down only a hair — and is still probably higher than it was in the 1920s. It’s definitely higher than it was at the dawn of portfolio management (search for “Foreign & Colonial” in the text below).
The text follows:
Why Do Mutual Funds Cost So Much?
Morningstar Mutual Funds Conference
June 1, 1995
Senior Editor, Forbes Magazine
When it comes to mutual funds, what is the role of financial advisers? In my opinion, fund-picking is no place to hang your shingle. Let’s demolish one myth right at the start: Mutual funds are a commodity product. There’s not a lot more difference between, say, Berger 100 and Twentieth Century Ultra than there is between Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and Post Raisin Bran.
I’m not saying there’s no difference. (Just as some people can tell one brand of raisin bran from another after chewing for a while, some people can tell these two funds apart.) But I am saying the difference doesn’t matter a lot. They’ve both owned Oracle, Motorola, Microsoft and Sybase. And over the past ten years, Berger 100 returned 18.0%; Ultra, 18.6%. If Berger’s expense ratio had been lower, their returns would be identical. In short, one is Kellogg’s, one is Post, but they’re both basically raisin bran.
Now not every fund is a commodity product. If they all were, Morningstar wouldn’t exist, and I’d be out of a job. But most funds are commodities. There are now more than 425 growth‑and-income funds. There might be seven ways to run a growth‑and‑income fund; there might even be 50. But there are not 425 different ways. I daresay most of these funds are trying to get some growth and trying to get some income. There are now 194 California muni bond funds. That’s more than three funds for every county in California. Before long, if your name is Martha Jones and you live in Pasadena, you’ll be able to buy the Martha Jones Pasadena California Tax‑Free Bond Fund. Or maybe they’ll draw the line at one fund for each zip code.
But will the Martha Jones Fund or the Beverly Hills 90210 Fund be any better than Vanguard California Tax‑Free Insured? The only real difference will be a higher expense ratio, and thus more risk. The 90210 fund might buy bonds with slightly lower credit ratings. The Martha Jones fund might have a little longer duration. But in the end, it’s all just raisin bran. And Vanguard’s generic raisin bran has the same number of scoops at a much better price.
In short, it’s tough to add value with fund‑picking. It’s nearly impossible to know in advance which funds will beat the market over the long term. And among similar funds with good long‑term records and economical expenses, any one is a reasonable choice.
If you’re spending lots of time figuring out whether Scudder International is much better than T. Rowe Price International, you’re just not being very useful. Even worse, you’re defining yourself as someone who can be replaced by a $29.95 computer disk. You’ll have a hard time competing with anything that comes out of a computer.
If you’re not fund‑pickers, are you asset allocators? You can subtract your clients’ age from 100 and urge them to put that percentage in stocks. You can take them out for spicy food to get them to put 10% of their assets in emerging markets. You can make them drink coffee out of the Ibbotson mountain‑chart mug until they run for the bathroom. But asset‑allocation advice comes on a computer too.
What’s more, stocks have not delivered 10% annually ever since Eve bit into the apple; long‑term real returns have been pretty constant at 6% to 7%. But there’s no way to know future stock returns unless you can forecast inflation.
If you must do asset allocation, I urge you to think about three things. First, ask yourself whether you should always put all your clients’ long‑term money into stocks‑‑regardless of relative valuations. Might there come a time when stocks are just plain overpriced relative to bonds or cash? Would Warren Buffett buy shares of Berkshire Hathaway right now? Someone who really believes that you can allocate assets with no regard to underlying valuations should go see a witch doctor the next time they’re sick. It’s voodoo financial planning.
Second, remember that the top line on the Ibbotson mountain chart, which shows small stocks riding a bright green lightning bolt up into the ionosphere, is not a perfect proxy for today’s small‑cap market. As I believe David Dreman has pointed out, it makes the case for value stocks instead, since many of the companies in this time series were fallen angels left for dead on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And thus that line excludes those famous NASDAQ bid‑asked spreads. So put transaction costs back in. Go back to the 1960s and 1970s and look at the real‑world performance of small stocks as measured by the few true small‑cap funds then in existence. Then decide if the small‑cap gospel makes much sense.
Third, be skeptical about emerging markets. Let’s take a quick look at what people refer to as “the original emerging market,” the United States. From 1802 to 1870 the compound real annual return on U.S. stocks was 7%. From 1871 to 1925 it was 6.6%. And from 1926 to date it’s been 7%. In other words, our returns as an emerging market were no higher than our returns today as a developed market. Of course the emerging economies are growing faster than the U.S.; but might that already have been priced into their valuations? It was in the U.S. in the last century; it is in Asia and Latin America today.
One other point: Dividends accounted for more than 80% of real total returns from 1802 to 1925; real capital appreciation was about 1% a year. Remember that the next time some fund manager raves about a taco company that doesn’t pay a dividend.
So if I don’t put much stock in fund‑picking and asset allocation, what do I think you should be doing? There is enormous value in being an emotional disciplinarian for your clients, the Sister Mary Elephant who tells them to sit down, be quiet and hang on for the next market upturn. Making them stay the course is a vital public service. Making sure they have realistic expectations is even more important; most investors don’t realize that money will double in 12 years at just a 6% real return. Maybe if they did, they’d stop reaching for yield.
Instead of using mountain charts showing unsustainable past market returns or fund returns, you should be customizing your own little ”hill charts” showing how money is likely to compound in the future at realistic rates of return.
And the work you do in navigating your clients through the treacherous waters of IRA and 401(k) distributions, of estate planning, of technical tax planning‑‑those are indispensable services that you are justly proud of providing.
But I’m here to tell you how you can go even further. You must give your clients the full protection they need in a world that is hostile to the accumulation and preservation of wealth. The IRS is an enemy. The probate judge is an enemy. All too many brokers and planners are enemies. Since every TEN HOT FUNDS TO BUY NOW article kills a few billion more of the investing public’s brain cells, the press is often an enemy. And even the mutual fund industry can be an enemy.
In 1994, the scapegoat of the year was Heiko Thieme of American Heritage Fund, who was down 30%. Yes, he bought some lousy stocks, and maybe his research needed a little toning up. But let’s get real. This is penny‑ante stuff. All told, Mr. Thieme may have lost $50 million of his customers’ money last year.
But industry‑wide, mutual fund expenses are running at just under $30 billion a year. That’s $80 million a day, folks. If expenses are just one‑third too high‑‑and trust me, they are‑‑the fund industry is overcharging the public by $27 million a day. Management fees alone are running at $14 billion a year. 12b‑1 fees chew up another $6 billion.
Am I being too hard on the fund companies? Doesn’t it cost money to hire hordes of Harvard MBAs, to put Bloomberg terminals on every desk, to answer all those phones? Of course it does. But I urge you, before you buy a fund, to see if the parent company of the fund’s adviser is publicly traded.
What you’ll see will astound you. At the low end, Pimco Advisers earned an 11% net profit margin in 1994. Eaton Vance earned 14% net. T. Rowe Price Associates earned 16% net; Alliance Capital Management, 22%; John Nuveen, 26%; Franklin Resources, 30%. The median net margin on Forbes’ annual list of the 500 U.S. companies with the biggest profits was 8% for 1994. Think about it: Fund managers are making up to four times as much money as the most profitable companies in the rest of the American economy.
Just where do you think that money comes from? It comes out of your clients’ pockets. In 1956, when Forbes published our first annual mutual funds survey, the average expense ratio on stock funds was 80 basis points. Today, by our count, it’s 120. That’s a 50% increase in less than 40 years. (And I’ve excluded 12b‑1s to make the calculation comparable.)
Now what are the two great technological innovations since 1956? Telecommunications and computers. I am told they play a rather important role in the mutual fund business, so let’s price them.
In 1956, a five‑minute telephone call from New York to California cost $3.80. Today, at the maximum rate, that call would cost a midsized business 98 cents‑‑a 74% decline. Back then, calculations on an IBM model 650 computer, which I imagine was about half the size of a Studebaker sedan, cost $242.29 per instruction per second. Today one instruction per second on a Pentium‑powered PC costs twelve 10,000ths of a penny. In other words, the cost of computing power has fallen by 20 million times.
Spread these fantastic cost reductions over $2 1/2 trillion in mutual fund assets and ask yourself: Where are the economies of scale?
Where are they?
The answer is clear: They are accruing to the wrong people. Instead of the shareholders of the funds, it’s the shareholders of the fund companies who are reaping the benefits.
Is it really harder than it used to be to run a fund cheaply? Foreign & Colonial Investment Trust, the world’s oldest fund, began life in London in 1868 with expenses capped at 2,500 pounds sterling; that totaled between 36 and 42 basis points for its first five years.
Today this superbly performing trust (the British equivalent of a closed‑end fund) has an expense ratio of 47 basis points. The expense ratio at Foreign & Colonial has barely budged in more than 125 years. Costs at U.S. stock funds have shot up 50% in four decades.
Or look at the Alliance Trust of Dundee, Scotland, another of the world’s oldest funds. In the 1890s, the Alliance Trust had a large portfolio of U.S. railroad bonds and held mortgages on vast tracts of land in the American West. Imagine how hard it was to monitor these investments a continent away, with no telephones, no fax machines, no computers, no air travel, no automobiles. On one research trip, William Mackenzie, who ran this fund a century ago, traveled 18,500 miles by rail, horseback, stagecoach and steamboat in four months, an average of 145 miles of bone-breaking travel per day.
For this his daily expense account was about 4 guineas, or just under 25 U.S. dollars at the time. Considering that Forbes’ per diem is $35 today, this seems to me like a very generous sum for a century ago. Anyone who tells you that investment research is a lot more costly than it used to be is slicing you baloney.
A little more history: Back in 1960, the sponsors of 73% of U.S. mutual funds paid for the funds’ bookkeeping; 60% paid the funds’ accounting fees; 41% paid for their postal and printing costs; 11% even paid the transfer agent bills. Today the percentage of fund sponsors that pick up these costs for their funds is close to zero. Even after covering all these costs back then, the parent companies still ran an average net profit margin of 18%. That suggests that most fund companies could cut their management fees deeply without going anywhere near the poorhouse.
Today the average fund company is more profitable, not less, while the average fund has expenses that are higher, not lower. Why? Nearly 15 years of oversized investment returns have cloaked the importance of expenses. A 2% expense ratio gets lost in an 18% compound annual return over a decade. But it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb as returns regress toward their historic norms.
And the public is going to wake up to this, and the public is going to be mad. Ladies and gentlemen, you can lead this awakening, and earn your clients’ gratitude‑‑or you can miss it, and make them wonder where you were when they needed you.
Allow me to read from the 1994 10‑K of the Pioneer Group, parent company of the Pioneer Funds: “…the investor does not pay any sales charge unless it redeems before the expiration of the minimum holding period….” Referring to your customer as an “it” is quite a Freudian slip; that typifies not how Pioneer treats its clients, but how all too many fund companies do.
Last year Putnam individually harassed shareholders who voted against a fee increase. And after MFS created a goofy share class called the Lifetime funds that failed to support themselves, the firm then charged Lifetime’s shareholders $1.7 million to cover the costs of putting the funds out of their misery. This kind of treatment will get worse before it gets better.
Even fund companies that treat their investors well don’t go all the way. Look at Fidelity, which has generally done an outstanding job of reducing expenses as its funds have blossomed. Last year alone, Fidelity reduced management fees on dozens of its funds. The expense ratio at Fidelity Growth & Income, with $11.2 billion in assets, is 82 basis points. And at Fidelity Puritan, with $13.5 billion in assets, it’s 79 basis points. So why at Magellan, with $44 billion in assets, is it 99 basis points?
As you can see, at a certain point the economies of scale just stop. Even the most conscientious fund companies appear to believe that, so long as performance is outstanding, no one really expects them to keep cutting expenses indefinitely.
That may be true, but it’s not right. It’s your job to educate your clients otherwise and to pressure the fund companies to keep passing along further economies of scale‑‑forever, no matter how big the fund gets, no matter how good the performance.
Since most funds are commodity products, since most managers fail to beat their benchmarks over the long term, you must do your part to beat expenses down‑‑or your clients will fall short of their goals.
What’s more, if you don’t do your part to reduce fund expenses, you shouldn’t be putting your clients’ money in mutual funds at all‑‑you should be putting it in mutual fund stocks! In the 1980s, the S&P 500 returned 17.5% compounded annually. But Pioneer stock returned 30%; Eaton Vance stock returned 33%; and Dreyfus stock returned 42% compounded annually. No mutual fund in existence even came close.
I would add, by the way, that in the long run it’s only by cutting their fees that fund companies can assure steady unit sales growth. Ultimately, what’s good for their customers is good for them too.
But in the short run, they don’t like my message one bit.
The mutual fund industry is not heavily dependent on the price of raw materials or labor. The marginal cost of adding new customers is far below the incremental revenue they produce. It is a hugely profitable business. Your electric utility can’t charge whatever it feels like; neither can your cable company.
But your mutual fund pretty much can. Because of its unique status as an industry that is heavily regulated on everything but price, the fund business still consists of barely 600 companies‑‑and most of them are minting money. Remember, a fee hike of just 10 basis points eats $1,000 every year out of a $1 million account. That’s real money.
But how can I‑‑an employee of Forbes, the Capitalist Tool‑-possibly have a problem with any industry that charges whatever the market will bear? Because, when it comes to fund expenses, the marketplace is not really the retail investor. The market that determines mutual fund expenses is each fund’s board of directors, who represent the shareholders in an extremely indirect democracy.
Under the Investment Company Act of 1940, at least 40% of a fund’s directors must be “disinterested” or independent. Their main job is to keep the investment adviser from mismanaging or overcharging the fund.
In a paradox that no one has ever been able to reconcile fully, they are appointed by the fund’s adviser, but are supposed to work exclusively for the fund’s shareholders. In theory, that puts the independent directors in permanent conflict with the fund sponsor.
In actuality, it’s more like a lovers’ quarrel. I asked the head of a group of excellent, low‑cost, low‑risk funds what he looks for in a director. “Well, I want someone who’ll keep me honest,” he said. “But I definitely don’t want any PITAs.” What’s a PITA? “A Pain In The Ass,” he replied.
You won’t find a lot of PITAs in fund boardrooms, let me tell you. Look at the board of the funds run by Alliance Capital Management. Ruth Block earned $157,000 last year as an independent director. Until 1990, she was a senior vice president at the Equitable, which just so happens to own 59% of Alliance Capital Management. From 1968 to December 1994, David Dievler was a top executive at Alliance and a predecessor firm‑-and an interested director of the Alliance Funds. He retired at the end of last year and poof! now he’s a disinterested director. Let’s think this through: When Alliance Capital’s fees go up, the shareholders in the Alliance funds are worse off. But Alliance Capital Management, where Mr. Dievler used to work, is better off‑-and so is the Equitable, where Ms. Block used to work. Do you think Ms. Block and Mr. Dievler will bang their fists on the table every time Alliance proposes a fee increase?
At Third Avenue Value Fund, run by the gifted Marty Whitman, one independent director is Donald Rappaport, who used to be president of Whitman’s Equity Strategies Fund. After he left Whitman’s firm in 1991, he became an independent director. How independent? You tell me: The board unanimously approved a 27% effective management fee increase at Third Avenue in February. The new fee does not even have breakpoints that reduce expenses as assets grow.
At the Nicholas‑Applegate Funds, one independent director is Fred Applegate. He co-founded Nicholas‑Applegate Capital Management, which runs the funds, in 1984. He sold his stake in the firm in 1992, so now he gets to be independent. He also gets paid $14,000 a year to duke it out at board meetings with his former business partners.
At the Prudential Funds, one independent director is Delayne Gold. The aptly named Ms. Gold, who earned $185,000 last year, used to be Prudential’s spokeswoman and formerly ran its mutual-fund business.
It’s a pretty cozy circle. As one truly independent director told me, “About an hour into their first meeting, the new independent directors always start saying ‘we’ should do this and ‘we’ should do that. So I take them aside and tell them, ‘“We” isn’t the fund adviser. The only “we” around here is the shareholders.’ And you know what? By the afternoon, they’re saying it again!”
You might also ask why some directors have black marks on their resumes. At the Calvert Funds, one independent is John Guffey, who co‑founded the Calvert Group, which manages the funds. Not only does that throw his independence into question, but Mr. Guffey was also a director of Community Bankers Mutual Fund, which last September became the first money‑market fund in history to liquidate after breaking the buck. Under Mr. Guffey’s watch, it put 40% of its assets into structured notes that went kerflooey; its investors lost 4% of their money.
At the Sentinel Funds, one independent is Robert Mathias, the former U.S. Congressman and Olympic decathlon champion. He used to be an independent director at the ISI Funds of Oakland, Calif. In 1986, henchmen of convicted felon John Peter Galanis made a bid to take over the ISI Funds. The directors accepted the bid; then, right under the directors’ noses, the new managers sank millions of dollars into trashy companies affiliated with Galanis. When did the directors get wise? When they got a call from a newspaper reporter. Now Mr. Mathias earns $18,500 to stand guard for Sentinel’s shareholders. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine any kind of scandal at Sentinel, one of the safest fund groups around. But on the spectrum of watchdogs, Mr. Mathias does fall a bit to the left of a Doberman pinscher.
Let’s look at how the independent directors negotiate fees. In 1993 the directors of the American Capital Government Securities Fund endorsed a 9% hike in the management fee on the grounds that it had “consistently been a strong performer” over the previous five years, ranking second out of 15 peers. A year later, American Capital asked the directors to approve fee hikes at four stock funds. Did the directors again insist on five years of strong performance? Nah; this time three years of “good” performance was enough. What was “good,” you ask? One fund was “slightly above to slightly below the median”; another was ”below the median to slightly above the median.” That may not sound so “good” to you and me, but it was good and plenty for the directors. They gave the thumbs‑up to fee hikes of 10% to 27% on all four funds, even the one on which American Capital already had a 48.2% pretax profit margin. (That’s right; just over half of every fee dollar was not making it to the bottom line.)
Now look at the Alliance Fund in 1993. Then with $845 million in assets, this fund had long been a weak performer, lagging the market by 3 points annually over the decade ended December 1992. The old fee schedule included a “performance component” that raised the firm’s fees whenever the fund beat the market. That hadn’t happened very often. But then the fund gained 15% in 1992‑-twice the market’s return‑‑and suddenly Alliance Capital Management decided that a new fee structure was “appropriate to reasonably compensate the manager for the level and quality of [its] services.” As reasonable compensation for nearly 12 months of hot performance, Alliance proposed an effective doubling of its fees. The new fees, unlike the old, would not drop until the fund grew past $1 billion in assets. Perhaps eliminating the breakpoint sounded greedy, so Alliance offered to scrap the performance fee. Why, just in the fourth quarter of 1992, Alliance told the directors, the performance kicker had added $88,000 to its fees. How magnanimous of Alliance to give up this windfall, right? Not really. The performance fee also penalized Alliance Capital whenever the fund lagged the market; in 1991 alone, that had cut its take by $363,000.
The directors put their feet down. That higher management fee would simply have to include more breakpoints. But getting rid of the performance kicker sounded nice. They settled on a deal that raised Alliance’s effective fees by a measly 53%. Look at what really happened: The performance fee had been costing Alliance money for years. Then, for one year, it finally cost the fund some money instead. So Alliance killed the fee and called it self-sacrifice. And the directors bought this ridiculous reasoning.
Or look at Putnam High Yield Advantage Fund. Last year, Putnam asked for a 27% effective fee increase on this fund. Yes, it was already earning a 41% net profit margin on it. But, the firm told the directors, it had also “reduced” its fees at “certain” other funds as part of a systematic fee restructuring.
Kemper used identical logic to beg for a 12% increase in the management fee on Kemper Municipal Bond Fund last year; thanks to cuts at some of its other funds, Kemper’s overall fee revenue would be flat. At the time, Putnam ran about 75 funds; Kemper ran about 20. What comfort is it to the Putnam High Yield Advantage shareholder to learn that her fees are going up 27% but “certain” other Putnam funds cut theirs? Does a Kemper Municipal Bond Fund shareholder get the warm fuzzies from knowing that if he had just gone out and bought every single one of Kemper’s funds, his fees would have stayed flat? The logic is just plain preposterous, but the directors endorsed it.
Management fees are determined in what can only be described as an informal price‑fixing arrangement. It is perfectly legal; it is also shameful. The fund adviser shows the board a “peer group” of similar funds. If a given fund’s fees are below the median of this group, bang! the adviser asks for an increase. If performance is good, the adviser uses that to justify the increase. If performance is bad, the adviser says it needs more money to improve the results! And even after we raise our fees, the adviser says, the expenses on this fund (or even the average of all our funds’ expenses) will not be above average.
Amen, says the board, Amen.
Note what’s happening here. Each fund adviser is looking at everyone else’s funds. As soon as their fees get higher than his, he goes to his board and begs, with his tin cup in his hand, for still another increase so he can sustain those 25% profit margins. Each member of the peer group is helping all the others to keep the tide of expenses relentlessly rising.
Folks, did Sam Walton do this? Did he prowl around Sears and K-mart pricing their merchandise, then go back and raise his prices to match theirs? Or did he undercut them? That’s called competition. What the fund industry does is a lot closer to collusion.
Today many fund companies are run by entrepreneurs in their fifties and sixties. These people will increasingly be selling their companies to banks, insurance companies, and LBO firms that want those 25% net margins for themselves. Fund companies are valued on multiples of cash flow. Higher management fees mean higher cash flow and higher valuations for fund companies.
In October 1991, the directors approved management fee hikes of about 50% at Templeton’s Growth, Foreign, World and Smaller Companies Growth funds. In December, they went into effect. Just eight months later, Sir John Templeton sold his company to Franklin for $842 million. Those fee increases raised Franklin’s purchase price by at least $85 million.
I want you to remember this the next time somebody tries to tell you that expense ratios are a mere matter of basis points: the shareholders in the funds were made at least $85 million poorer. The shareholders in the fund management company were made at least $85 million richer.
Similarly, last year the Berger Funds cut their 12b‑1 fees and raised their management fees. Some people say that didn’t affect the $100 million sale price for Bill Berger’s company; some say it raised it by $30 million.
I do not mean to imply that Sir John or Bill Berger sought these fee increases solely to make their companies more attractive to an acquirer. But many more fund companies will be coming on the block in the next few years, and fee hikes will be proposed at many of them for precisely that reason‑‑although the record will never show it. You must watch them like a hawk.
It’s scary how casual many fund directors are toward fee hikes. One director told us he had no recollection of why he had approved a huge fee increase only a year ago. He also said, “I really don’t know if that one ever actually went into effect. You’ll have to check on that. Why don’t you call our PR guy?” By “our” he meant the fund adviser’s PR guy. Another director told us, “The fees on that fund have not gone up in at least four years. In fact, they’ve gone down slightly.” In fact, they’ve gone up.
Ladies and gentlemen, you cannot rely on people like these to be vigilant in protecting your clients’ interests. Today you must be activists; you must be crusaders. You simply are going to have to take matters into your own hands. I do not believe the directors will ever take a stand and put a stop to the fund industry’s fee madness unless people like you make them realize that their heads are on the line.
Of course, you can vote with your feet by selling a fund that raises its prices. But long before you vote with your feet, you must vote with your mouth too. Before you buy a fund, order the latest statement of additional information and check how much each director earned last year. You will see numbers as high as $400,000, by the way.
Then I urge you to send a letter to each of the fund’s directors (you’ll find their addresses in the latest proxy). Tell them you may be investing several hundred thousand dollars of your clients’ money in their fund. Tell them you know how much they make and that you expect them to earn that rich compensation by treating your clients’ money as if it were their own. Tell them you will view any fee increases as grounds for their dismissal. Tell them you have their home telephone numbers, and tell them you will call them when they make you mad. With a good PC, this mailing should take about five minutes of your time.
Next, I want you to treat proxy statements like grenades. If there’s a proposed fee increase, do not just vote against it. Vote against every single director. Write and call the directors and tell them they have betrayed their shareholders. These people are trying to take away yet more of your clients’ hard‑earned money. Don’t let them. I submit to you that if you do not fight back, you are breaching your fiduciary duty to your clients. Yes, it is more work for you. But it is vital work, and you must do it. You must fight back.
The Investment Company Act of 1940, which governs the fund industry in this country, is the closest thing to a perfect document since the U.S. Constitution. The mutual fund is the greatest contribution to financial democracy ever devised. But the fund industry is still far from what it needs to be. While hundreds of funds deliver good returns at low risk and low cost, thousands of funds do not. Too many funds are far too expensive. They are confusing. They are redundant. They take unnecessary risks, mainly because they are too expensive.
With returns doomed to shrink across the board in the years to come, it’s no longer enough to screen funds by performance. You must focus on costs as well. I urge you to reverse the traditional order in which people evaluate funds‑‑what was its performance? how risky is it? how much does it cost?‑‑and follow this order instead: How much does it cost? How risky is it? What was its performance? That will not prevent you from buying great performers, but it will prevent you from overpaying for them.
All in all, what will separate the best financial advisers from the mediocre ones over the next decade is activism. If you just take what the fund companies give you, you’re doomed to mediocrity. But if you fight back, you will fulfill your duties as financial citizens. You will help decrease management fees, reduce risk, and improve performance for everyone. I intend to keep Forbes on the frontlines of fighting to make the world safe for mutual-fund investors, and I hope you will join me.