As part of an EU overhaul of the financial industry, the UK has recently concluded an inquiry into pricing practices for mutual fund and other products offered to individual investors. Press commentary is that the good luck for an industry with a bewildering array of prices (much higher than in the US) and little link between cost and value is not having been referred to the law enforcement authorities for criminal prosecution.
One big issue has been “soft dollars,” that is, paying brokers higher than usual commissions in return for their research, or for trading machines, or even newspapers–items that customers generally believe (and rightly suppose, in my view) they are paying for through management fees. …but no!
Asset managers have been proclaiming that this is a weighty and complex issue, that the don’t know how to proceed. They’ve generally been gnashing their teeth.
To me, this is all somewhat comical. For decades, firms that do business in the US have been following an SEC mandate to keep meticulous records of the amount of their soft dollar expenses and what is being paid for. The general rule was that if you stayed in line with industry practice, meaning doing whatever Fidelity did, you’d be ok legally. They know exactly what they’ve been doing. Also, the EU inquiry (see the link above) has been going on for three years.
There are two real issues:
–there’s a lot of money at stake, and
–handling the potential outcry from customers when they realize they’ve been paying twice (management fee + soft dollars) for research expenses.
A mutual fund has $50 billion in assets. It turns those assets over at the industry average of 50% per year. That means $50 billion in buys and $50 billion in sells.
Let’s say: the average stock trades for $40; the soft-dollar markup is $.02 per share; and the markup is taken on 20% of all shares traded (maybe slightly high, but the math is easier).
So, the fund “service” includes giving up $10 million a year of customer money on brokerage commissions in order to get the management company free goods and services. That’s even though they’re collecting something like $250 million in management fees from the same customers.
disclosure vs. restructuring
Internally, I think disclosure is the lesser of the two issues. The more difficult one is that industry revenues are stagnant or falling and by far the largest expense of any investment manager is salaries. So, whose pocket does the lost soft dollar revenue come out of?
Vanguard, this decade’s Fidelity
Just prior to the 2007 financial crisis, Fidelity decided to turn up the competitive heat on fund management rivals by declaring it was unilaterally going to stop using soft dollars. This time around, it’s silent so far.
Last week, Vanguard made a similar announcement.