This article gives a reason for the zero-fee structure. I discuss the lure of the structure and some of the potential pitfalls. I conclude the essay with a practical review of how fees, both explicit and implicit costs, affect returns over the long-term. My main point is that there is no way to invest without paying fees.
When mutual fund managers declare zero management fees, they are waiving three costs. The initial cost is an asset fee, which typically ranges from 0.50% to 2.0%. The other expenses are load fees. "A load is a type of commission," explains Wikipedia.
The third costs are distribution and service costs, also known under the technical term of 12b-1 fees. These costs compensate mutual fund managers for marketing and for providing shareholder services. Visit distribution and service fee on Wikipedia to learn more.
Two examples: Third Avenue Management, a mutual fund I admire, charges its shareholders a 0.90% management fee, distribution fees of 0.25% and other expenses of 0.30%. The total annual fund operating expenses are 1.45%. So if you invest $10,000 with Third Avenue, you will be charged $145 per year. Download the Third Avenue Value Fund to read more.
Fidelity funds have no fees. Consider Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund (FZROX) as example. It opened in August 2018, the fund today manages $3.9 billion in assets. It aims to track the performance of large-capitalization U.S. stocks using automatic trading algorithms. Household, large-capitalization companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook represent about one-fifth of the fund. Visit ZFROX to learn more.
Yet when fund managers  speak of zero fees, they refer to something entirely else. Fund managers will require at least 1- or 3-year hold time, which means you will not withdraw funds from the partnership during that "lock-up" period.
Another change in the partnership structure as a result of the zero-fee structure is that the manager's fee, known as carried interest  is higher. For example, under a one percent fee, the managers' interest in the profits may be 10%. Under zero-fee structure, the manager's compensation may jumpt to 20% of the profits.
How you evaluate performance is essential. And the manager's performance evaluation should be judged using the change in the after-tax market value of your investment.
Under the zero-fee structure, only if the fund performs, the fund manager is paid. That is, you pay the manager only if the fund's fund returns are above a hurdle rate.
But the practice today is that you pay fees irrespective of the fund's performance. With a management fee, a fund may have lost market value during the year, but you still pay the fund manger.
Zero-fee structure appeals to investors because of great investors. Warren Buffett started the Buffett Partnerships in the 1960s with a similar structure. And Mohnish Pabrai, inspired by Buffett's biography written by Roger Lowenstein, had copied the zero-fee model in the late 90s.
And since both investors performed well for their investors, logic prescribes that a zero-fee structure results in success.
Yet, as the science community knows, there is a difference between causation and association. It is more likely that both Buffett and Pabrai would have achieved high returns regardless of the fee structure.
At least, when a fund manager offers you zero fee structure, you know the manager commits to performance. And that they probably read and studied Buffett and Pabrai - a blessing in itself.
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But after two- to five-years of lousy performance, can we expect of managers to open their doors? Most funds have a hurdle rate. So when capital markets drop, payments to funds managers may not be for a while, six- to eight years of wait time.
Very few managers can wait that long. It remind me of the story of how Benajmin Graham dissolved his fund only after his investors recouped their capital. Or the story of Pabrai, patiently waited for a decade before pulling any money from his fund. But these are out of the ordinary stories, not the rule. I believe that for every one Pabrai, there are over a hundred managers who would walk away from the fund.
Another cause of concern is the fund manager's increased appetite for risk. Knowing the only way to get paid is by stellar performance, managers may take additional risk because of the zero-fee structure.
Marty Whitman once wrote that "an adjective must precede the word 'risk.'" Here I use the word 'risk' in two contexts. One, when fund managers lack time to research and two, when they look for stocks outside of their circle of competence.
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Intuition aside, there is little to show that zero management fee structure is superior to any other form of fund arrangement. There are too few zero-fee funds to track. And the fund fee structure is outside of the student of finance scope of interest. Outside of common sense, the argument for zero management fees is unbacked by any data.
I am not sure there ever will be enough data to back the zero-fee structure. A fund performance depends on factors that work at the same time, and that cannot be isolated.
Research does not always support decisions. Among those: the partner we decide to marry and the business venture we choose to take and also the outcome from the principles in life we want to have. Perhaps - and not unlike in real-life - investment decisions require a leap of faith.
Page 4 of The Manual of Ideas shows a table the SEC should require fund managers to show their fee-paying customers. The table shows that a 2% management fee will cut the value of your portfolio by 22.2% after ten years; by 39.4% in 20 years; and 52.9% over 30 years. The assumption is of a 5% gross return.
In a talk  given in 1994 to students of the University of Southern California, Charlie Munger retells the story of Federal Express's early days. Employees left packages in the warehouses. Which penalized the company's profits. So management decided to change the worker's compensation from an hourly basis to a shift basis. You got paid when the work you completed the work, not when the clock said it was five o'clock. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the new structure dramatically changes the number of package deliveries.
In Munger's words:
"As usual in human affairs, what determines the behavior are an incentive for the decision-maker, and 'getting the incentives right' is a very, very important lesson."
Not unlike Federal Express workers, salary structure changes the fund manager's behavior. When the portfolio size determines wages, managers naturally focus on increasing the size of the portfolio. They will talk to CNBC reporters; Work with advertising agencies on brand awareness. It would be better if managers focused their attention to the portfolio needs and no to what the market thinks about the portfolio.
The fund industry somehow managed to market their services differently. Mutual funds charge you not as a percentage of the actual revenue, but as a percentage of the assets under management. This incentive structure results in much higher management fees.
For example, with a 1% management fee, mutual fund managers will charge you $100 annual management fee for every $10,000 you invest with them. In today's capital markets environment, on average, managers will earn 6% on average on your investment. We find $600 in management fee. But we would expect that they would charge 5% to 7% of that, which is $30 to $40. Yet, since using the investment management's calculation of fees, you will be charged $100, more than three times what a real estate relationship would require.
Read about this phenomenon in Investment Management Fees are (Much) Higher Than You Think.
You should now be able to assess the benefits and drawbacks of the zero asset management fee. If you would like to add to the article or you still have questions about zero asset management fee, write to me. I always respond.
For additional information, I suggest that you also read Guy Spier's white paper on zero management fees. Also The New York Times recently published an article this trend. Visit this page to read more.