more trouble for active managers

When I started in the investment business in the late 1970s, fees of all types were, by today’s standards, almost incomprehensibly high.  Upfront sales charges for mutual funds, for example, were as high as 8.5% of the money placed in them.  And commissions paid even by institutional investors for trades could exceed 1% of the principal.

Competition from discount brokers like Fidelity offering no-load funds addressed the first issue.  The tripling of stocks in the 1980s fixed the second.  Managers reasoned that the brokers they were dealing with were neither providing better information nor handling trades with more finesse in 1989 than in 1980, yet the absolute amount of money paid to them for trading had tripled.  So buy-side institutions stopped paying a percentage and instead put caps on the absolute amount they would pay for a trade or for access to brokerage research.

All the while, however, management fees as a percentage of assets remained untouched.

 

That appears about to change, however.  The impetus comes from Europe, where fees are unusually high and where active management results have been, as I read them, unusually poor.

The argument is the same one active managers used in the 1980s in the US.  Stock markets have tripled from their 2009 lows and are up by 50% from their 2007 highs.  All this while investors have been getting the same weak relative performance, only now they’re paying 1.5x- 3x what they used to–simply because the markets have risen.

So let’s pay managers a fixed amount for the dubious services they provide rather than rewarding them for the fact that over time GDP has a tendency to rise, taking corporate profits–and thereby markets–with it.

The European proposal to decouple manager pay from asset size comes on the heels of one to force managers to make public the amount of customer money they use to purchase third-party research by allowing higher-than-normal trading commissions.  Most likely, customer outrage will put an end to this widespread practice.

Both changes will doubtless quickly migrate to the US, once they’re adopted elsewhere.

 

 

 

the death of research commissions?

Investors in actively managed funds pay a management fee, usually something between 0.5% – 1.0% of the assets under management yearly, to the investment management company.  This is disclosed in advance.  It is supposed to cover all costs, which are principally salaries and expenses for portfolio managers, securities analysts, traders and support staff.

What is not disclosed, however, is the fact that around the world in their buying and selling securities through brokerage houses, regulators have allowed managers to pay substantially higher commissions for a certain percentage of their transactions.  The “extra” amount in these commissions, termed soft dollars or research commissions, is used to pay for services the broker provides, either directly or by paying the bills to third parties.  Typical services can include written research from brokerage house analysts or arranging private meetings with officials of publicly traded companies.  But they can also include paying for third-party news devices like Bloomberg machines–or even daily financial newspapers.

Over the last twenty years, management companies have realized that instead of supplementing their in-house research with brokerage input, they could also “save” money by substituting brokerage analysts for their own.  So they began to fire in-house researchers and depend on the third-party analysis provided to them by brokers   …and funded by soft dollars rather than their management fee.

For large organizations, these extra commissions can reach into millions of dollars.  Yes, the investment management firm keeps track of these amounts.  But they are simply deducted from client returns without comment.

 

This practice is now being banned in Europe.  About time, in my view.  Strictly speaking, management companies may still use soft dollars, but they are being required to fully disclose these extra charges to clients.  Knowing that clients would be shocked and angered if they understood what has been going on, the result is that European investment managers are abandon soft dollars and starting to rebuild their in-house research departments.

What’s particularly interesting about this for Americans is that multinational investment managers with centralized management control computer systems–which means everyone except boutiques–are finding that the easiest way to proceed is to make this change for all their clients, not just European ones.

The bottom line: smaller profits for investment managers and their brokers; much greater scrutiny of soft dollar services (meaning negotiating lower prices or outright cancelling); and higher returns for investors.

making it clearer who pays for investment research

paying for research information

Who pays for the investment research that professionals use in managing our money?

We do, of course.

But this happens in two ways, one of them not transparent at all.

management fees

–We pay management fees, out of which the management company pays for its portfolio managers and securities analysts.  That’s straightforward enough.

research commissions aka soft dollars

–We also permit, whether we know it or not, our managers to pay higher commissions, or to allow higher bid-asked spreads, on trades they do with our money.  They are so-called “research commissions” or “soft dollars.”  These are not so transparent.  It’s our money, and it does to pay for  the manager’s newspaper subscriptions, Bloomberg machines, brokerage research reports…

In 2007, there was a movement afoot in the US, spearheaded by Fidelity, to eliminate soft dollars and have management companies pay for all its research out of the management fee income paid by customers.  This effort fell victim to the recession.

EU financial authorities have now revived the idea.  They’re proposing to ban research commissions completely–that is, they will demand that investment managers obtain the lowest price and best execution on all trades–that is, they won’t permit a certain portion to be paid for at, say, double the going rate in return for access to the work of the brokerage house security analysts.

consequences

According to the Financial Times, smaller investment management firms could have their operating income cut in half if they had to pay for all the research they get out of their own pockets.

But that won’t happen.  Every investment manager, big or small, will go over the list of research providers with a fine tooth comb and eliminate sources whose value is unclear but who are being paid anyway because it’s “just” a soft dollar payment.

I think there will be three main consequences of European action:

1.  Pressure for the US to follow suit will be enormous.  Balking by US managers will open the door for UK-based specialists on the US market to gain business from domestic managers.

2.  Analysts who produce original research will be much more highly prized;  those who do more prosaic “maintenance” research will be replaced by robots (not a joke, more a question of how quickly).

3.  The overall size of sell-side research will continue to shrink, not just boutique firms but at the big brokers as well.