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Buying Mutual Funds – Be Fooled Or Be Angry

Over the years, practices that hurt mutual fund investment results have become more and more common. The only protection is to understand and to act on this information. Modern mutual funds are typified by something I call mismanagement fees. These are expenses that don’t have to happen, that aren’t called fees, and aren’t deliberately deceptive, like ones I’ve written about elsewhere. But these are kinds of fees, nonetheless. These fees reduce the growth of your money, with no penalty for anyone but you. They’re typical of the industry, and really are a kind of mismanagement of your money. 

There are two types of fees I will describe in this article. I’ll call the first one “hyper-trading fees,” and it includes everything negative that comes with that practice. 

About hyper-trading fees: The first mutual fund ever started was started in 1924. For fifty years, they did things differently. From the second half of the 1920’s up through the 1970’s, trading by the mutual fund managers just wasn’t done that frequently. The average stock was held for 6 years. Another way of saying it, turnover of investments was only about 7% a year. Then came the shift. And that shift was called the 401(k). From the 1980’s and 1990’s until now, trading frequency changed. 

Today we have a turnover of 100%, meaning the average time a fund manager holds a stock is for a year or less. There are some mutual funds that even have a 200% or 300% turnover ratio. That means on average, they’re only holding onto stocks for four to six months. They’re no longer investing. They’re no longer being prudent, doing due diligence, and looking for long-term results. They’ve become day traders. 

Now, why should this matter to the investor? Well, there are a couple of reasons. For every 100% of turnover in stocks each year, there’s about a 1% additional expense that gets added to an already-high management fee. An additional 1% expense, when it applies to an industry that manages $10 trillion, is huge, $100 billion huge. When numbers get that big, it boggles the mind. 

The size of the numbers tells you, first, why there’s so much energy put into making this look like they’re taking care of the investors’ interests when clearly they’re not, and second, this tells one that when there’s a problem with the system, it adds up fast. A portion of expense relating to hyper-trading comes from the taxes on holding stocks so short. Every trade that results in a gain gets taxed. So when trades happen this fast, the tax applies over and over and over, compared to holding on to stocks longer. 

Here’s another one: A fund manager routinely moves hundreds of millions of dollars, and sometimes even billions of dollars, in and out of a stock. Because of this volume, they’re basically bidding up the price of the stock when they buy. What could be worse than buying a stock for more than it’s worth? This: Same factors, same results, only in reverse when they sell. So the effect is doubled. They’re pushing the price of stock down when they sell. Because of their size, they can pay more; at the same time, they’re getting a lower price when they sell. 

This hyper trading is absolutely hurting the returns that investors get on their money. 

John Bogle, who founded Vanguard, does a lot of research on the mutual fund industry. He did a study from 1980 to 2005. He found that over this period, the S&P 500 grew an average of 12% a year. Then he looked at mutual funds’ investment results for that same time period; over the same time period, mutual funds grew at 10% a year, 2% less. At first blush, 2% may not seem like that much. But a lot of little things add up to big things. This is one of those big things.  Banks get rich by understanding the difference of a couple of percent over the years. You can too. Multiply the results over that period, and you find that these mutual funds end up not making an additional 2% a year for 25 years. That will earn the investor 44% less money over 25 years. Instead of making $1,440,000, the investor only makes $1 million over the same time period, a difference of $440,000.

The reason for that difference is the fees: hyper-trading fees, direct brokerage fees, fund supermarket fees, pay-to-play fees; basically, mismanagement fees. Without knowing this going in, it will be difficult to protect your money.

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