Q. We have been reading your recent columns about 401(k) plans and managed funds. In 2007 my husband and I were advised by our broker to invest a portion of inherited money in managed funds. These funds charged annual fees of 1.98 percent. Within two months the market began to decline.
Like most investments, these funds have lost 40 percent of their value.
What would be the downside to cashing out of these funds at a loss and reinvesting the proceeds in index funds at Vanguard and/or Fidelity? We feel like it's time to make a move. ---B.A., by email from Dallas
A. There isn’t a downside. If you think your asset allocation--- the percentage of your money in each asset class--- was appropriate, you can change from the funds you have to an essentially identical asset allocation. You won't lose any upside opportunity by switching to index funds, or much lower-cost funds, than the ones you now own.
But many people feel differently about risk today than they did two years ago or ten years ago. While it is easy to tolerate market risk when the risk is expressed in rising stock prices, it's a lot more difficult when the risk is expressed in declining stock prices. As a consequence, people who once were happy with 90 percent of their savings in equities now feel better with 60 or 70 percent of their money in equities.
The hard part is finding the courage to make the change. Many people--- probably most--- simply don't feel they are qualified to do it. They want and need help.
If you are in this category, you have a difficult choice. You can grit your teeth and select a single low-cost fund that seems to have the right risk level for you. Or you can find a broker/adviser who will create a portfolio of low-cost load funds for you. Getting financial advice doesn't have to cost 2 percent a year plus commissions. There are brokers out there who have built their entire careers on getting people into low-cost funds such as the American Funds group. They get paid a commission up front for the service they provide. The customer gets funds that have relatively low annual expense ratios.
Here's an example. Suppose you wanted to build a balanced portfolio that was a mixture of equities and fixed-income securities. If you were a self-directed investor, you might have invested in no-load, low-cost funds like Vanguard Wellington or Vanguard Balanced Index fund. These funds have expense ratios of 0.23 percent and 0.15 percent for their Admiral shares, which require a $100,000 initial investment. Over the last 10 years both those funds were in the top 20 percent of all funds categorized as "moderate allocation" by Morningstar, returning an annualized 3.81 percent and 1.31 percent, respectively, over the period.
An adviser who watched out for long-term expenses would be likely to recommend American Funds Balanced fund A shares or American Funds Income Fund of America A shares. These funds have annual expense ratios of 0.61 percent and 0.55 percent, respectively. Over the last 10 years they were in the top 20 percent of all "moderate allocation" funds, returning 2.55 percent and 2.32 percent, respectively, after adjustment for the maximum front-end commission, according to Morningstar. While the front-end commission is 5.75 percent on all purchases up to $25,000, it is reduced to 3.5 percent for purchases over $100,000 but less than $250,000. There is no commission on investments of $1 million or more.
While a no-commission, self-directed choice would have done slightly better (Wellington) or slightly worse (Balanced Index) than a cost-minded adviser choice, the most important fact is that all four choices resulted in superior performance for moderate allocation funds. The majority of the highest expense ratio load funds, on the other hand, lost money after adjustment for commissions over the same time period.
Expenses matter. They always matter. So if you need advice, find an adviser who pays attention to the long-term cost of what he is recommending.