— Paul Amery's Blog

No free ride for trackers

Active fund managers may offer poor value for money. But some index fund costs are hidden too.

Professor David Blake of Cass Business School has just released a paper in which he argues for better disclosure of the costs of active management.

Between 50-85% of the costs of active management fall outside the headline “ongoing charges” figure that every European retail fund has to display, estimates Blake.

Commissions and taxes paid on securities trades undertaken by the fund manager are excluded from ongoing charges, for a start.

Other, harder-to-measure “invisible” costs, as Blake calls them, include the bid-offer spreads payable on trades in securities, transaction costs in any underlying funds, hidden revenue earned by the fund manager from stock lending or interest, market impact costs and market timing costs.

The high undisclosed costs of active fund management are often used by advocates of passive funds as an extra justification for indexing.

Unfortunately, some of the arguments being made in favour of indexing are fallacious.

In another study published this month, Blake and co-authors Tristan Caulfield, Christos Ioannidis and Ian Tonk argue that active management is not worth paying for.

Having measured the performance of 561 domestic UK equity funds against the FTSE All-Share index over 10 years, Blake, Caulfield, Ioannidis and Tonk conclude that “the average mutual fund manager cannot ‘beat the market’ (i.e., cannot beat a buy-and-hold strategy invested in the market index), once all costs and fees have been taken into account.”

There’s a major problem with this argument. Tracker funds don’t match the market index, as Blake appears to assume as a matter of fact: they underperform as well.

Clearly, you should expect any index-tracking fund or ETF to lag its index by the annual ongoing charges, which are admittedly smaller on average than those of active funds.

But in harder-to-track equity markets the underperformance of the average index fund/ETF may be greater than the headline fee would imply. This occurs as the result of extra, frictional costs that closely resemble the hidden charges Blake talks about in the context of active management.

For an example of this effect, note that most trackers of the MSCI Emerging Markets index underperform it by more than their ongoing charges (see this recent Lyxor publication for evidence).

This additional performance lag occurs as a result of access costs: you pay more in the form of bid-offer spreads, taxes and commissions when buying stocks in smaller and less developed equity markets. Index funds have lower turnover, on average, than active funds, but they do trade.

[Disclosure—I’ve recently done writing work for Lyxor]

Index fund managers can, however, mask their funds’ underperformance in ways that are even less transparent than some of the below-the-surface active fund costs described by Blake.

One way to do this is to include extra costs in the index (whether as an index fee or, more cleverly, by depressing the assumed post-tax dividend rate in a total return index to make the fund’s performance look better).

If the index fund manager also gets to produce the index, a practice that the US regulator now appears to be condoning, then there’s even more scope and incentive to embed additional costs, to the investor’s detriment.

Another way of hiding index fund costs is to include collateral in a derivatives-based fund that is of lower quality (from the perspective of the repo market) than the quality of the securities basket represented by the index. This generates extra income for the counterparties to the repo trade, who can pocket the revenue with the average investor none the wiser that he’s losing out at all.

The equivalent practice in a physically replicated tracker fund is to exchange the index securities via a securities loan for lower-quality collateral, again resulting in extra income, a large portion of which has historically been retained by the fund issuer or its affiliate.

There’s a little more transparency regarding these practices than there used to be, and more of this hidden income is now being credited to fund investors than before. But securities lending and repo market trades are also much more characteristic of index-tracking than active funds, meriting extra scrutiny when indexing is involved.

It’s worth reiterating that if you buy an index fund assuming that you’ll get the index’s return, you are making a mistake. And if you compare index funds on the basis of their headline fees only, you are ignoring potentially substantial hidden costs.

I’m a fan of ETFs and am all for criticising active fund managers if they are providing poor value for money. But we shouldn’t give indexing a free ride as a result.