Well, it has finally happened, but not as anyone expected. The whole industry has been watching for the first zero fee ETF, which just happened with SoFi, but now they are getting the first negative fee ETF. While zero fee index mutual funds debuted last year, ETFs only just got there, until the debut of the SALT Financial Low TruBeta US Market ETF. For every $10,000 invested in the new fund, the issuer will pay you $5. However, as you may have expected, there is a catch. The catch is that once the fund gets over $100m in AUM, its regular fee of 0.29% kicks in.
FINSUM: This is nothing more than a sales gimmick (and they haven’t even structured it well). However, it is indicative of the trend things are heading in.
If there was ever a stat that really represented the big changes underway in the wealth management industry, it is this one: a new survey shows that broker-dealers are earning more revenue from fees than they are commissions. That is a major shift for the group, who until recently existed mostly as commission engines. The stat also reflects the growing trend towards dually-registered B-D/RIAs, allowing advisors to perform both functions.
FINSUM: The regulatory trend and customer trend is moving towards fee-based payment. This stat reflects just how pervasive the model is becoming.
Fund fees are a hot area, and not just in terms of them falling in absolute terms. While everyone is aware of Fidelity’s new zero fee index funds and the price war going on in top line fees, there are also new and interesting fund structures emerging. One kind of new fee model is called a fulcrum structure, where fees are low (ETF-like) unless the funds outperforms its benchmark, in which case the provider gets a performance fee. This kind of structure is more popular with mutual funds and can offer the best of both worlds—low fees for ordinary performance, or outperformance that comes with active management.
FINSUM: We think these kinds of funds offer a better alignment of interest while offering multi-sided benefits. However, the risk is that managers are incentivized to take excess risk in an effort to boost performance over the fulcrum threshold.
Over the last couple of years there has been a movement on the fringes of the active management space. That movement was towards funds that only charge investors full and/or rising fees if they outperform a given benchmark. If they underperform, their fees would fall back to ETF levels. Well, that idea has taken a big step recently as major fund provider AllianceBernstein has a handful of so-called “fulcrum funds”. The largest is the AB FlexFee Large Cap Growth Advisor Fund, with $106m under management. A top figure at AB put the goals most clearly, saying “The big impact of this will be if we can take money from passive, or money that would’ve gone there … That’s the ultimate goal here”.
FINSUM: Fulcrum funds make a lot of sense for active managers and clients. If the fund managers do their job and seriously outperform a benchmark, then higher fees make sense. If they don’t, then fees stay low.
Advisors need to prepare themselves for a nasty eventuality that looks like a near certainty when the market next crashes. According to a top wealth management lawyer, there are likely to be a great deal of lawsuits filed by clients against their advisors whenever the next big crash comes. The lawsuits will be focused on claims of reverse churning, or that advisors put client money in fee-baseds account in order to collect fees without offering significant advice or trading. Since switching clients into fee-based accounts (versus commission-based accounts) has been a very common practice over the last several years, the atmosphere is ripe for a massive wave of lawsuits.
FINSUM: This article is worryingly insightful. The big switch to fee-based accounts, which preceded but also corresponded to the DOL rule, might have set up advisors for some major legal headaches in the next downturn.