“To be clever enough to get a great deal of money, one must be stupid enough to want it.”
There is a repetitive scene in the movie “Shakespeare in Love” – an actor and a director are reading through one of young Master Shakespeare’s newest plays, with the ink still drying. The actor asks how a particular transition is to be made from one scene to the next. The answer given is, “I don’t know – it’s a mystery.” Much the same might be said for the process of setting and then regularly reviewing, mutual fund fees. One of my friends made the Long March with Morningstar’s Joe Mansueto from a cave deep in western China to what should now be known now as Morningstar Abbey in Chicago. She used to opine about how for commodity products like equity mutual funds, in a world of perfect competition if one believed economic theory as taught at the University of Chicago, it was rather odd that the clearing price for management fees, rather than continually coming down, seemed mired at one per cent. That comment was made almost twenty years ago. The fees still seem mired there.
One argument might be that you get what you pay for. Unfortunately many actively-managed equity funds that charge that approximately one per cent management fee lag their benchmarks. This presents the conundrum of how index funds charging five basis points (which Seth Klarman used to refer to as “mindless investing”) often regularly outperform the smart guys charging much more. The public airing of personality clashes at bond manager PIMCO makes for interesting reading in this area, but is not necessarily illuminating. For instance, allegedly the annual compensation for Bill Gross is $200M a year. However, much of that is arguably for his role in management at PIMCO, as co-chief investment officer. Some of it is for serving on a daily basis as the portfolio manager for however many funds his name is on as portfolio manager. Another piece of it might be tied to his ownership interest in the business.
The issue becomes even more confusing when you have similar, nay even almost identical, funds being managed by the same investment firm but coming through different channels, with different fees. The example to contrast here again is PIMCO and their funds with multiple share classes and different fees, and Harbor, a number of whose fixed income products are sub-advised by PIMCO and have lower fees for what appear, to the unvarnished eye, to be very similar products often managed by the same portfolio manager. A further variation on this theme can be seen when you have an equity manager running his own firm’s proprietary mutual fund for which he is charging ninety basis points in management fees while his firm is running a sleeve of another equity mutual fund for Vanguard, for which the firm is being paid a management fee somewhere between twenty and thirty basis points, usually with incentives tied to performance. And while the argument is often made that the funds may have different investment philosophies and strategies and a different portfolio manager, there is often a lot of overlap in the securities owned (using the same research process and analysts).
So, let’s assume that active equity management fees are initially set by charging what everyone else is charging for similar products. One can see by looking at a prospectus, what a competitor is charging. And I can assure you that most investment managers have a pretty good idea as to who their competitors are, even if they may think they really do not have competitors. How do the fees stay at the same level, especially as, when assets under management grow there should be economies of scale?
Ah ha! Now we reach a matter that is within the purview of the Board of Trustees for a fund or fund group. They must look at the reasonableness of the fees being charged in light of a number of variables, including investment philosophy and strategy, size of assets under management, performance, etc., etc., etc. And perhaps a principal underpinning driving that annual review and sign-off is the peer list of funds for comparison.
Probably one of the most important assignments for a mutual fund executive, usually a chief financial officer, is (a) making sure that the right consulting firm is hired to put together the peer list of similar mutual funds and (b) confirming that the consulting firm understands their assignment. To use another movie analogy, there is a scene early on in “Animal House” where during pledge week, two of the main characters visit a fraternity house and upon entering, are immediately sent to sit on a couch off in a corner with what are clearly a small group of social outliers. Peer group identification often seems to involve finding a similar group of outliers on the equivalent of that couch.
Given the large number of funds out there, one identifies a similar universe with similar investment strategies, similar in size, but mirabile dictu, the group somehow manages to have similar or inferior performance with similar or higher fees and expenses. What to do, what to do? Well of course, you fiddle with the break points so that above a certain size of assets under management in the fund, the fees are reduced. And you never have to deal with the issue that the real money is not in the break points but in fees that are too high to begin with. Perish the thought that one should use common sense and look at what Vanguard or Dodge and Cox are charging for base fees for similar products.
There is another lesson to be gained from the PIMCO story, and that is the issue of ownership structure. Here, you have an offshore owner like Allianz taking a hands-off attitude towards their investment in PIMCO, other than getting whatever revenue or income split it is they are getting. It would be an interesting analysis to see what the return on investment to Allianz has been for their original investment. It would also be interesting to see what the payback period was for earning back that original investment. And where lies the fiduciary obligation, especially to PIMCO clients and fund investors, in addition to Allianz shareholders? But that is a story for another time.
How is any of this to be of use to mutual fund investors and readers of the Observer. I am showing my age, but Vice President Hubert Humphrey used to be nick-named the “Happy Warrior.” One of the things that has become clear to me recently as David and I interview managers who have set up their own firms after leaving the Dark Side, LOOK FOR THE HAPPY WARRIORS. For them, it is not the process of making money. They don’t need the money. Rather they are doing it for the love of investing. And if nobody comes, they will still do it to manage their own money. Avoid the ones for whom the money has become an addiction, a way of keeping score. For supplementary reading, I commend to all an article that appeared in the New York Sunday Times on January 19, 2014 entitled “For the Love of Money” by Sam Polk. As with many of my comments, I am giving all of you more work to do in the research process for managing your money. But you need to do it if you serious about investing. And remember, character and integrity always show through.