Thursday, March 4, 2010

How Much Do Mutual Funds Really Cost?

Q. How much does it cost to own a mutual fund?

A. More than you think.

Most investors know about a fund's expense ratio, and use that attribute for comparing various funds before buying. But there are a host of hidden costs that are much more difficult to uncover for many mutual funds.

That's what this article from the Wall Street Journal is about.

These hidden costs are related to the buying and selling of the individual securities held by the mutual fund, and they can make a fund 2-3 times more costly than the expense ratio alone would imply. That can be a pretty significant amount on a fund with an expense ration in the 1-2%.

While the expense ratio is an important consideration when pricing a fund, it simple doesn't capture all the costs. The reason is that every mutual fund and its associated expenses is different. Then there's the complex nature of the costs not covered by the expense ratio, specifically: brokerage commissions, bid-ask spreads, opportunity costs and market-impact costs.

And since the SEC has yet to mandate any unified form of measurement, the individual is left to try and scrutinize the often inscrutable. Even most experts arrive at drastically different estimates of the true cost of mutual funds.

So how do you find the true cost of mutual funds?

While it is difficult to get at the information required to determine the exact cost of a mutual fund, it turns out that the fund's Annual Holdings Turnover ratio is a pretty good clue. While it is an imperfect measure, it is a standard measure. So, every fund must report this data the same way.

A fund's annual turnover ratio is the percentage of assets that were replaced over the past year. So if the fund's manager sold half its stocks and replaced them with an equal value in new stocks would have turnover of 50%. This is an imperfect measure though because in some cases, a fund can take in a lot of new money and not have to sell any assets to buy new ones. In such a case, the fund would incur additional buying costs that would not be accounted for in the expense


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