Mutual fund fees cut your life savings in half!

By   February 13, 2010

Virtually all mutual funds (aksjefond in Norwegian), charge their customer some percentage of their total account balance at the end of each year. This annual fee is most likely in the 2 – 3% range. This may not sound much, but over the years, it does add up:

0.98^40 = 0.45
0.97^40 = 0.30

What this means is that if you start saving at age 27 and want to retire at age 67, a 2% annual fee will shave 55% off your retirement account. A 3% annual fee will take out more than 70% of your savings.

This model is too simplistic, since most people will save a certain amount each year and add to their retirement savings. These subsequent amounts are not subject to the fee as many times as the amount you put down in the first year, e.g the amount you save the 2nd year is only subject to the fee 39 times, the 3rd year 38 times etc.

The annual returns you get is another complicating factor. Given higher annual returns, these annual fees should matter less, right? Not so, it actually doesn’t matter at all what the underlying annual return on the investment is – the fees will cut the same percentage of your total life savings, since

(1+p)^n / ((1+p)*(1-q))^n = 1 / (1-q)^n
p := annual base return on investment
q := annual fee

I even created a more advanced model which takes into account inflation, increases in salary, various return rates on the investment etc. You can copy it and play with it from here: Google Spreadsheets

The spreadsheet model shows that the 3% annual fee is not as bad as the initial calculations show, but still ends up eating half your savings under reasonable assumptions (income = 100000, tax rate = 33%, inflation = 2%, pay increase = 3%/year, spend = 50000 first year, then increasing 3%/year, return on savings = 7%)

Do managed mutual funds offer higher returns than passive index funds, which have much lower fees (typically 0.1% – 1%)? Various studies have tried to answer this. A survey of the existing literature is given in Performance Persistence for Mutual Funds: Academic Evidence. The various papers quoted in this article show different results. At best, there is very weak evidence of some skill among the top fund managers, but no study found that the funds generated excess returns after fees were subtracted. It also shows that past performance is a very weak predictor of future performance – after two years, the is virtually no correlation at all. So if a fund performed great until now, there’s no reason to believe it will continue much longer into the future.

Let’s end with a few quotes:

“A respect for evidence compels me to the hypothesis that most portfolio managers should go out of business. Even if this advice to drop dead is good advice, it obviously will not be eagerly followed. Few people will commit suicide without a push.”
Paul Samuelson, Economist, Nobel Laureate

“If “active” and “passive” management styles are defined in sensible ways, it must be the case that, (1) before costs, the return on the average actively managed dollar will equal the return on the average passively managed dollar and, (2) after costs, the return on the average actively managed dollar will be less than the return on the average passively managed dollar. These assertions will hold for any time period. Moreover, they depend only on the laws of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Nothing else is required. ”
William F. Sharpe, Professor of Finance, Nobel Laureate

Will you continue to let banks, traders and fund managers fleece you, to the tune of half your retirement savings, for a service which can be fulfilled just as well by a monkey throwing darts? Or will you change to passive index funds, and give these leeches what they deserve?

Here is an alternative, if you want some market exposure: In the US, the ticker SPY tracks the S&P 500 index at an annual cost of 0.1%. In Norway, Handelsbanken offers its XACT OBX fund which tracks the main index at Oslo Børs for a fee of 0.3% a year. These trade like normal stocks.

I’m not saying this is a good time to get involved in the markets, but there’s never a good time to pay too much in fees!