Everyone’s focused on the cost of investing, they should be looking at the cost of not having help.
I regular question I receive is whether fees are to high. This isn’t a perplexing question, it always makes sense to see whether you could, or perhaps should, be paying less. But from a financial planning perspective the questions seem to dominate an awful lot of initial meetings that I have.
For clarity, I think its important to point out that within my own practice we’ve done a lot to increase transparency about our fees and have done what we can to make costs explicit and earn our keep. Years ago, while working for a mutual fund company, I was shocked to learn that some advisors never wanted their clients to know how they were getting paid, or how much. This always struck me as a poor business practice and given the public focus on the expense of financial advice means that I’m not alone in that assessment.
The focus on fees has also paid results to investors. While I have no data on Canada, in the United States mutual fund fees have dropped by nearly 50% since 2000. Canada has been following suit (to what degree I don’t know) but I haven’t had a meeting with a mutual fund company in the last few years that hasn’t spent time highlighting the cost of the investments, or a recent cut to MERs. Much of this has been aided by the arrival of ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) which have also been on a mad rush to cut costs. Today there are even 0% cost ETFs, although the true costs of those products remains opaque.
And yet, much of this seems like a secondary problem. Costs have rapidly dropped but little attention is being paid to more worrying trends. Investors do badly without help, and financial advice is worth a great deal more than the cost of receiving it.
The 2019 Quantitative Analysis of Investor Behavior is the most recent annual report produced by Dalbar (Dalbar is an independent provider of business practices in the financial space – you can learn about them HERE), which looks to compare investor behavior against market returns. Produced annually the report stretches back decades and its findings are conclusive. People do badly as investors, and frequently stay just ahead of inflation and well behind market returns. For instance, in 2018 the S&P 500 had a -4.38% return, while the average equity fund investor averaged -9.42%, and the Average Equity Index Fund Investor returned -7.22%.
These results speak for themselves, but it shows that the greatest enemy to maximizing investor returns are not the fees, but the behavior of investors. Even when investors hold low cost index ETFs, they still underperform markets. The reasons for this are complex, but have much to do with the human mind and its limitations in facing an uncertain future (best captured by the growing field of behavioral economics). A good example of his is found in the report’s Guess Right Ratio, a ratio based around the inflows and outflows of funds to determine how often investors have correctly anticipated the direction of the market. You might be surprised to learn that investors have guessed correctly 50% of the time over the last 13 years, but that guessing right didn’t translate into more money, since investors guessed wrong in a larger magnitude than they ever guessed right (in other words people made bigger bets when guessing wrong) and one wrong guess would wipe out months of correct bets.
If there is a place where investors and advisors need to improve, it is how much work is being done for investors at all. The rise of “Robo-Advisors” seemed to solidify a type of investor experience, one in which 75% of investors admit to only communicating with their advisor once or twice a year, and up to 68% never spend more than an hour with their advisor a year, and 31% of investors have never discussed their investment goals. That gap seems one worth closing, and one that cannot be capably done through automated systems, or through impersonal financial practices. The cost of good financial planning seems to be worth it if it improves your returns, gives you comfort in your long term planning and helps make your retirement a success.