Index fund fee war kicks off in earnest as actively managed fees rise

    Although some actively managed mutual funds have reversed  a decades-old trend and cut their fees in the last two years, index fund fees are falling off the table. Ironically, over the past couple of years, that most active of all mutual fund shops, Fidelity, has led the charge on reducing index fund expense ratios.

The index fund fee war reached fever pitch in August 2004, when Fidelity capped expense ratios on five of its index mutual funds at just ten basis points. The venerable mutual fund manager trumpeted the news with full broadsheet advertisements in the leading business papers announcing a "Perfect 10!"

E*Trade joined the battle in September, doing Fidelity one better by lowering expense ratios on some of their index funds to just nine basis points, a new record for a retail mutual fund. (In both cases, the fee cuts were voluntary reductions. Fidelity has since made all of theirs, save that of the Fidelity Spartan International (EAFE) Fund, permanent, while E*Trade's expenses are still temporary reductions.)
    The long-time index fund fee leader, The Vanguard Group, didn't respond in kind. As the months ticked by, Vanguard appeared content to sit back and watch the smaller index players battle it out for the title of "Indexing Cost Leader." Vanguard has always made a very public point of not getting drawn into competitive battles, and maintains that its fees fall naturally as assets rise.
    In the middle of March 2005, whether as a part of the natural process or as a response, Vanguard roared back, rolling out significant fee reductions across a broad swath of its funds and stealing the low-fee mantle back from E*Trade. In a twist few expected, however, the company shifted the fee battleground into the realm of exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
    While Vanguard dropped prices on a large number of products, the most striking reductions centered on its family of VIPERs-branded ETFs: Expense ratios on all 23 VIPERs were slashed by three-to-ten basis points, depending on the fund. Moreover, the expense ratios for two funds-the Vanguard Large Cap Index  (NYSE: VV) and the Vanguard Total Market Index (NYSE: VTI)-fell to just seven basis points, a new record for retail mutual funds. (Under the Vanguard system, VIPERs function as separate share classes of existing Vanguard funds.)

Economies Of Scale

According to Vanguard, the fee cuts were not a response to the indexing fee war, but a natural consequence of the growth in ETF assets.
    "The cut in expense ratios occurred because of the growth of assets in the VIPERs program," says Gus Sauter, chief investment officer at Vanguard. "Assets have tripled in the last few years, and that gives us a broader base to defray fixed costs. As our funds increase in size, we gain economies of scale."
    And Vanguard has no choice but to pass those economies of scale on to shareholders. As Sauter points out, Vanguard is owned by its shareholders-it's effectively a mutual fund "co-op." And the rules of that co-op state that Vanguard funds must be run on an "at-cost" basis. In other words, the company must regularly review the costs and the income derived from running its funds, and must work to make those two figures match up.
    That's great news for shareholders, because as VIPERs assets grow-and all signs suggest that they will, rapidly-those costs will continue to come down. In fact, Sauter says that over time the VIPERs would probably become the lowest cost (or tied for the lowest cost) share class at Vanguard.
    "It's just a matter of how the product works," Sauter explains. "Essentially, it's because the fund provider does not have to do shareholder record keeping. In a conventional class, we might have literally millions of shareholders that we have to do record keeping for. In the VIPER class, there is only one shareholder-the trust."
    The cost savings-from papers to mailings to sheer data entry-is enormous. (Of course, it's not as if those costs disappear-they're merely transferred to the brokerage firms. But that's a topic for another article.)
    Currently, VIPERs make up just a fraction of Vanguard's total assets-$7 billion out of $550 billion-but they're growing fast. Even during January and February, when investors withdrew more than $4.5 billion from ETFs industrywide, VIPERs assets grew by 16%. In March, however, ETF inflows totaled $13 billion, with iShares pulling in $12 billion of that money.
    So a real battle for ETF product growth is shaping up, and Vanguard is still a pup in the ETF arena-Barclay's Global Investors' iShares have over $120 billion in assets and State Street Global Advisors (SPDRs/streetTRACKS) has $67 billion. But a battle royale is shaping up, pitting BGI's breadth of product and expert marketing against SSgA's strong ETF brand and Vanguard's low cost and expert management. It's nothing but good news for ETF investors, as prices come down and the quality of product and availability of choices continue to rise.

Tax Overhang?

One widely expressed concern with the VIPERs is that, because they are share classes of existing funds and not funds of their own, they will not enjoy the tax efficiency of most ETFs. In fact, Gary Gastineau of ETF Consultants argued this case persuasively in the May edition of the Journal of Indexes. Gary points out, among other things, that VIPERs shareholders inherit the unrealized capital gains of Vanguard's long-running mutual funds.
    Vanguard vigorously disagrees and, in fact, argues that VIPERs have a tax advantage because of their unique share class structure.

"The tax comment is an interesting one since we haven't had any distributions from our funds," says Sauter, when asked about the capital gains overhang. "I remember back in the early 1990s when people argued that we'd have nasty redemptions out of our funds if we encountered a bear market. We always said that we'd sell the highest costs lots and realize capital losses, and that's just what we did: We ended up realizing $5 billion in capital losses, for instance, for our Vanguard 500 fund, and almost $1 billion in our Total Stock Market fund."
    Sauter says that these realized losses are actually a benefit for VIPERs shareholders. Of course, the capital gains overhang is still there. The question is whether or not it will ever catch up with Vanguard.

The Industry Responds ... Or Not

With fees falling across the indexing industry-and with ETFs now in play-you might think that the more established players in the ETF market would be thinking about lowering their own fees. After all, although Vanguard is a relatively new and relatively small player in the ETF arena-the company only launched its first ETF in 2001, and only got serious about the business last year-you'd think that the prospect of Vanguard pushing hard on ETFs would present a competitive threat to the likes of Barclays and State Street.
    If so, they're not letting on.
    "We really haven't felt any pressure to respond on fees," says J. Parsons, director of marketing at BGI. "People need to look at the value of what they are receiving."
    "We're pretty comfortable with our pricing," adds Gary Macdonald, director of marketing at SSgA, in a separate interview. "We are a big operation and we're used to competing in a cost-efficient environment, so we're able to deliver economies of scale to our shareholders."
    Both Macdonald and Parsons stress that there's more to an ETF than costs, and that investors would be wise to look closely when they select one ETF over another.
    "Beyond costs, investors should really look at the underlying index. That's especially true for sector ETFs, and even moreso for style ETFs," says Macdonald. "For instance, there are some pretty important differences between how each index family slices up the market into growth and value."
    Parsons echoes the importance of the benchmark and raised the specific example of the iShares Emerging Markets fund (EEM). EEM is the leading emerging markets ETF, with assets of $4.25 billion; it comes with an expense ratio of 75 basis points. Vanguard recently debuted a new emerging markets ETF with a 30 basis point expense ratio, pointing out that it cost "less than half of comparable ETFs."
    Parsons says that the expense ratios don't tell the whole story:  "Our Emerging Markets ETF includes eight more countries than the Vanguard offering. The expense ratio is a little bit higher for the iShare, but you get exposure to countries like Russia, Malaysia and Pakistan."
    Vanguard, for its part, didn't shy away from the importance of benchmarks, with Sauter saying that investors should examine the benchmarks carefully.
    "They should also consider whether the portfolio manager does a good job matching that benchmark," he adds.

A Better Mousetrap

Whether or not the BGIs or SSgAs of the world cut prices on their ETFs today or tomorrow is almost beyond the point. Based on discussions with all of the major ETF providers, one thing is clear: ETF prices are low and they're going lower, especially as more assets flood into the funds.

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