paying for brokerage research

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.

An example:

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.

 

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.

what will a soft dollar-less world look like

Yesterday I wrote about an EU regulatory movement to eliminate the use of soft dollars by investment managers–that is, paying for research-related goods and services through higher-than-normal brokerage commissions/fees.

Today, the effects of a ban…

hedge funds?

I think the most crucial issue is whether new rules will include hedge funds as well.  The WSJ says “Yes.”  Since hedge fund commissions are generally thought to make up at least half of the revenues (and a larger proportion of the profits) of brokerage trading desks, this would be devastating to the latter’s profitability.

Looking at traditional money managers,

 $10 billion under management

in yesterday’s example, I concluded that a medium-sized money manager might collect $50 million in management fees and use $2.5 million in soft dollars on research goods and services.  This is the equivalent of about $1.6 million in “hard,” or real dollars.

My guess is that such a firm would have market information and trading infrastructure and services that cost $500,000 – $750,000 a year in hard dollars to rent–all of which would now be being paid for through soft dollars.  The remaining $1 million or so would be spent on security analysis, provided either by the brokers themselves or by third-party boutiques (filled with ex brokerage house analysts laid off since the financial crisis).

That $1 million arguably substitutes for having to hire two or three in-house security analysts–and would end up being distributed as higher bonuses to the existing professional staff.

How will a firm pay the $1.6 million in expenses once soft dollars are gone?

–I think its first move will be to pare back that figure.  The infrastructure and hardware are probably must-haves.  So all the chopping will be in purchased research.  The first to go will be “just in case” or “nice to have” services.  I think the overwhelming majority of such fare is now provided by small boutiques, some of which will doubtless go out of business.

–Professional compensation will decline.  Lots of internal arguing between marketing and research as to where the cuts will be most severe.

smaller managers

There’s a considerable amount of overhead in a money management operation.  Bare bones, you must have offices, a compliance function, a trader, a manager and maybe an analyst.  At some point, the $100,000-$200,000 in yearly expenses a small firm now pays for with soft dollars represents the difference between survival and going out of business.

Maybe managers will be more likely to stick with big firms.

brokers

If history is any guide, the loss of lucrative soft dollar trades will be mostly seen more through layoffs of researchers than of traders.

publicly traded companies

Currently, most companies still embrace the now dated concept of communicating with actual and potential shareholders through brokerage and third-party boutique analysts.   As regular readers will know, I consider this system crazy, since it forces you and me to pay for information about our stocks that our company gives to (non-owner) brokers for free.

I think smart companies will come up with better strategies–and be rewarded with premium PEs.  Or it may turn out that backward-looking firms will begin to trade at discounts.

you and me

It seems to me that fewer sell-side analysts and smaller money manager investment staffs will make the stock market less efficient.  That should make it easier for you and me to find bargains.

 

 

 

the demise of soft dollars

This is the first of two posts.  Today’s lays out the issue, tomorrow’s the implications for the investment management industry.

so long, soft dollars

“Soft dollars” is the name the investment industry has given to the practice of investment managers of paying for research services from brokerage houses by allowing higher than normal commissions on trading.

Well understood by institutional, but probably not individual, clients, this practice transfers the cost of buying these services–from detailed security analysis of industries or companies to Bloomberg machines and financial newspapers–from the manager to the client.  In a sense, soft dollars are a semi-hidden charge on top of the management fee.

In the US, soft dollars are reconciled with the regulatory mandate that managers strive for “best price/best execution” in trading by citing industry practice.  This is another way of saying:   whatever Fidelity is doing–which probably means having commissions marked up on no more 15%-20% of trades.

In 2007, Fidelity decided to end the practice and began negotiating with brokers to pay a flat fee for research.  As I recall, media reports at the time said Fidelity had offered $7 million in cash to Lehman for an all-you-can-eat plan.  Brokerage houses resisted, presumably both because they made much more from Fidelity under the existing system and because trading departments were claiming credit for (and collecting bonuses based on) revenue that actually belonged to research.

theWall Street Journal

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal reports that the EU is preparing to ban soft dollars in Europe for all investment managers, including hedge funds, starting in 2017.

not just the EU, however

Big multinational money management and brokerage firms are planning to implement the new EU rules not just in the EU, but around the world.

Why?

Other jurisdictions are likely to follow the EU’s lead.  Doing so also avoids potential accusations of illegally circumventing EU regulations by shifting trades overseas.

soft dollars in perspective

in the US

Let’s say an investment management firm has $10 billion in US equities under management.  If it charges a 50 basis point management fee, the firm collects $50 million a year.  Out of this it pays salaries of portfolio managers and analysts, as well as for research travel, marketing, offices… (Yes, 12b1 fees charged to mutual fund clients pay for some marketing expenses, but that’s another story.)

If the firm turns over 75% of its portfolio each year, it racks up $7.5 billion in buys and $7.5 billion in sells.  Plucking a figure out of the air, let’s assume that the price of the average share traded is $35.  The $15 billion in transactions amounts to about 425 million shares traded.  If we say that the manager allows the broker to add $.03 to the tab as a soft dollar payment, and does so on 20% of its transactions, the total annual soft dollars paid amount to $2.5 million.

foreign trades

Generally speaking, commissions in foreign markets are much higher than in the US, and soft dollar limitations are    …well, softer.  So the soft dollar issue is much more crucial abroad.

hedge funds

Then there are hedge funds, which are not subject to the best price/best execution regulations.  I have no practical experience here.  I do know that if I were a hedge fund manager I would care (almost) infinitely more about getting access to high quality research in a timely way (meaning ahead of most everyone else) than I would about whether I paid a trading fee of $.05, $.10 (or more) a share.

We know that hedge funds are brokers’ best customers.  Arguably, banning the use of soft dollars–enforcing the best price/best execution mandate–with hedge funds would be devastating both to them and to brokerage trading desks.

translating soft dollars to hard

When I was working, the accepted ratio was that $1.75 soft = $1.00 hard.  I presume it’s still the same.  In other words, if I wanted a broker to supply me with a Bloomberg machine that cost $40,000 a year to rent, I would have to allow it to tack on 1.75 * $40,000  =  $70,000 to (the clients’) commission tab.

 

Tomorrow, implications of eliminating soft dollars

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.