The last year has seen a steady and encouraging rise of alternative fee structures in mutual funds. In particular, a number of managers have adopted so-called fulcrum structures to their mutual funds. All of these funds charge a low or zero base fee, and then a performance fee for outperformance of their relevant benchmark. The idea is that customers only have to pay up for services that actually outperform benchmarks. Some providers that now offer these funds include AllianceBernstein, Fidelity, Allianz, and Fred Alger. The main criticism of the funds that is that they can skew incentives and push managers to take outsized risk in order to produce upside.
FINSUM: These funds are not without their imperfections, but they are a useful and thoughtful response by mutual fund managers who are realizing they need to do more to justify their raison d’etre versus ETFs. We think they are a good deal for investors because if the results aren’t good, you pay very little, if they are great, you pay for it. Compare that to an ETF, where you are never going to outperform, but will likely pay more than 10 bp.
The Wall Street Journal has published an interesting article giving advice to investors on how to assess, and when to dump, losing mutual funds. The article makes the point that investors should not automatically clear out their losing funds, just like they shouldn’t always buy winning ones. Funds have their own reasons for poor performance and those reasons can have a big impact on whether they should stay in a portfolio. Here are four questions to ask in assessing funds, “Does the fund have a good process in place?”, “Is the manager sticking to his or her own guns?”, “Is there a new manager, and do I trust him or her?”, “Is this negative performance coming in a segment of the market in which it is tough to beat index funds?”.
FINSUM: Good funds can have significant down periods, so it is important to have a methodology for deciding if and when to dump them.
The move towards passive management has been worthy of the term “flood”, with investors pouring funds into ETFs and out of mutual funds. Fees have been a major part of that shift, but performance has been too, as active management performance has been broadly weak over the last decade. However, there are some areas where mutual funds have significantly outperformed passives—international funds. Especially in emerging markets (e.g. India and Mexico), but also in developed ones like the UK and Italy, 10-year track records show significant outperformance for active managers. The opposite is true in US funds.
FINSUM: Sifting through market opportunities gets harder and harder (and finding alpha alongside it) as you move into less liquid markets. Accordingly, we think there is a lot of benefit to using actively managed funds for international stocks.
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.
One of the big outcomes of the huge rout to end last year was that stock pickers had reportedly gone back to doing what they did best—picking individual stocks based on fundamental value, signaling a diversity of holdings. However, in aggregate, that view appears to be hogwash, as new data shows that institutional equity ownership in stocks is at its highest point in years. Goldman Sachs follows this data and tracks how many companies are among the 50 most owned by hedge funds and mutual funds alike. Right now it is 13, which is the highest level since 2017. Industrial and tech stocks were the most held.
FINSUM: The most concentrated stock holdings are, the more risk there is for steep falls in those names.