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More and more financial professionals are charging clients based upon assets under management (AUM).  A common fee is 1%.  The fee for a $1 million portfolio would be $10,000 ($1,000,000 * 1%). Now you have heard me talk about the importance of keeping fees as low as possible.  Essentially you are trying to maximize your investment returns each year.  If you have quite a few needs, a Financial Advisor usually can provide a number of different services and advice.  For example, you also may need assistance with legal and tax advice.  Additionally, you may have more complex financial planning needs.  Financial professionals will assist you with portfolio allocation always.  Now I am going to look at AUM fees in a way that you may not be familiar with.  I can tell you already that the financial services industry will not be happy or agree with this presentation.  However, my goal is to help you and provide you with an argument that may finally give you the impetus to manage your own investments or think seriously about working with a financial planner that charges fees on an hourly basis.

I also encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend edition for October 26, 2013.  On the bottom of the Business & Finance section, Jason Zweig discusses the many conflicts of interest that Financial Advisors have.  FINRA (a Self-Regulatory Organization comprised of all brokerage firms) issued a 22,000-word report about fees, conflicts, and compensation of Financial Advisors.  Oddly enough, the words “advice” and “investing” showed up less than 10 times.  The financial services industry is concerned about this matter, so you should definitely take note and learn much more about what you are actually paying for.

Example for Retirees:

I will start out with an example for retirees because they tend to be working with financial professionals already.  If you are retired and not independently wealthy, you are in the wealth distribution phase of your life.  There are some retirees that are permanently in the wealth preservation phase.  Wealth preservation simply means that an investor has enough money to live comfortably, but he/she does not need to deplete his/her investment portfolio.  Furthermore, this investor does not really try to increase the value of his or her investment portfolio.  A retiree in the wealth distribution phase of life is the most common example.  This investor is gradual depleting his/her investment portfolio to pay for living expenses on an annual basis.  Due to the fact that this person is not working anymore and, thus has no income from work, and longevity keeps getting longer, he/she needs have an investment portfolio that is somewhat conservative in nature.  Therefore, it is not reasonable to expect to earn 8% per year.  A more common target return might be 5.5-6.0%.  If you are working with a financial professional who charges you 1.0%, you need to earn 6.5-7.0% on a gross basis in order to get to that target net return.  Now the long-term historical average of stocks is about 8.0%, so the higher your AUM fees are, the more weighting you will need to have in stocks and away from bonds and cash.  Well, we have already gone over that, and most individuals that present information will stop there.  I want to take this even further though.

Let’s say you are a current retiree with $1 million that you are living off of in additional to Social Security income.  You have a target return of 5.5% to fund your desired retirement lifestyle, and your Financial Advisor charges you a 1.0% AUM fee.  Thus, you will need to earn a 6.5% return gross to reach your bogey.  Now I would like to put in the twist, and I want to do a thought experiment with you.  Your Financial Advisor will sit down with you and assess your risk tolerance and ensure that the investment recommendations made are not too aggressive for you.  If you cannot take too much volatility (fluctuation in asset prices up and down over the short term), your financial professional will reduce your exposure to equities.  Well, I like to present information using economic principles as well.  If you just retired and are 65, you have one option right away.  You can simply invest all your retirement money in 10-year Treasury notes issued by the Department of the Treasury.  Treasury notes are free to buy.  All you need to do is to participate in one of the Treasury auctions and put an indirect bid in.  What is an indirect bid?  An indirect bid is simply saying that you would like to buy a set dollar amount of notes, and you are willing to accept whatever the market interest rate set by the auction is.  What is the yield on the 10-year Treasury right now?  The 10-year Treasury closed at 2.51% on October 25, 2013.  When you go to a financial professional, he/she is selecting investments in lieu of you simply purchasing the 10-year Treasury.  Keep in mind that US Treasuries are among the safest investments in the world.  They are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.  Stocks, bonds, real estate, gold, and other investment options all have an added degree of risk.  With the additional risk, there is a possibility for higher returns though.  How does this relate to your 1.0% AUM fee?

Think about it this way:  why are you paying your Financial Advisor?  You are paying him/her to select investments that can earn you more than simply buying a US Treasury bill, note, or bond.  As an investor, you do not want to just settle for that return in most cases.  With that being said though, you can just start out there and forget it.  You do not need to engage a Financial Advisor to simply buy a 10-year US Treasury note.  This means that you are paying the Financial Advisor to get you incremental returns.  In our example above for a retiree, your target investment return is 5.5%.  If you are able to earn 5.5% during the year, the incremental return is 2.99% (5.50%-2.51%).  Remember that you are paying the Financial Advisor 1.0% in an AUM fee.  Therefore, you are paying the Financial Advisor 1.0% of your assets in order to get you an extra 2.99% in investment returns.  Well, 1.0% is 33.4% of 2.99%.  Thus, you are essentially paying a fee of 33.4% in reality.  Now your financial professional would flip if the information was presented in this way.  He/she would say that it is flawed.  The mathematics cannot be argued with; however, I will admit that many folks in the financial services industry would disagree with this type of presentation.

Remember that you started out with $1 million.  You could have gone to the bank and gotten cash and hid it in a safe within your residence.  AUM fees are always presented by using your investment portfolio as the denominator.  In our example, your investment fee is 1.0% ($10,000 / $1,000,000).  I urge you to think about this though.  Does that really matter?  Of course, the fee you pay to your Financial Advisor will be calculated in this manner.  But what are you paying for in terms of incremental returns?  If you want to calculate what you are paying for (the value that your Financial Advisor provides), the reference to the starting balance in your brokerage account is really moot.  It is yours to begin with.  Therefore, it should be removed from the equation when trying to quantify the value your Financial Advisor provides in terms of investment returns on your portfolio.

Now remember that I said your target investment return was 5.5%.  The long-term historical average of stocks is approximately 8.0%.  If you choose to simply allocate only enough of your investment portfolio in stocks and the rest in cash to reach that 5.5% target, you will select an allocation of 68.8% stocks and 31.2% cash (5.5% = 68.8% * 8.0% + 31.2% * 0.0%).  Note that I am assuming that cash earns no interest at all and that you can select an ETF or index mutual fund to capture the long-term historical average for stocks.  Now your financial professional is working with you to select an investment portfolio that achieves the 5.5% target return, and their investment recommendations will be different than this hypothetical allocation.  With that being said, the hypothetical allocation achieves your target return with a simple choice of two assets (an ETF or index mutual fund and hard currency).  Keep in mind that you will normally have a portion of your portfolio allocated to fixed income.  The 10-Year US Treasury note is trading around 2.50% as of October 25, 2013.  If you allocate your portfolio to 60% stocks, 30% 10-Year, and 10% cash, your expected return would be 5.6%  (60% * 8.0% + 30% * 2.5% + 10% * 0.0%).

Whatever your Financial Advisor is charging you in terms of fees, you need to make that percentage more in your total return on a gross basis such that your net return equals your target return.  In our example above, the assumed AUM fee was 1.0%.  That investment fee means that you have to earn 6.5% on a gross basis because you need to pay your Financial Advisor 1.0% for his/her services.  After the fee is paid, the return on your portfolio would be 5.5% on a net basis.  If we keep the allocation at 30% 10-Year and 10% cash, how much weighting do stocks need to be in your portfolio to ensure that your overall returns is 5.5% after paying your AUM fee?  The answer is 72.7%.  Why?  The expected return of your portfolio is 6.5% (72.7% * 8.0% + 27.3% * 2.5% + 0.0% * 0.0%) before fees.  Given the average retiree’s risk tolerance at age 65 or older, most people do not desire to have a portfolio with 65% or larger allocated to stocks.  Plus, the historical, long-term average of stocks is just that.  It is an average and rarely is 8.0% in any given year.  For example the S&P 500 Index has not had a single down year since 2008.  The returns for 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 were 26.5%, 15.1%, 2.1%, and 16.0%, respectively.  The average return over that span was 14.9%.  As of September 30, 2013, the S&P 500 Index was up 19.8%.  Now I am by no means making a prediction for the remainder of 2013 or 2014 for that matter.  However, I wanted to drive home the fact that, if your Financial Advisor sets up your financial plan with the assumption that your stock allocation will earn 8.0% on average, any actual return lower than that estimate will cause you to not reach your target return.  What is the effect?  You will not be able to maintain the lifestyle you had planned on, even more so if there are negative returns experienced in stocks over the coming years.

Essential/Important Lesson:

Let’s look at the next five years starting in 2014.  A five-year period covers 2014-2018.  If you start out with $1,000,000 invested in stocks and plan on earning 8.0% per year, you are expecting to have $1,469,328 at the end of five years.  Let’s say that the return of stocks is actually only 4.0% per year over the next five years.  You will only have $1,216,653 as of December 31, 2018.  The difference is $252,675 less than you were expecting.  The analysis gets worse at this point though.  How can it get any worse?  Well, if you were planning on 8.0% returns from stocks per year, the next five-year period 2019-2023 needs an excess return to catch up.  Thus, if your starting point on January 1, 2014 is $1,000,000, your financial plan is set up to have $2,158,925 as of December 31, 2023.  If you are starting behind your estimate in 2019, the only way you can make up the difference is to have stocks earn 12.2% over that five-year period which is 4+% higher than the historical average.  As you can see underperformance can really hurt financial planning.  The extremely important point here is that a 1% AUM fee will cause you to be even further behind your goals.  Remember that the illustration above is gross returns.  You only care about net returns and what your terminal value is.  Terminal value is simply a fancy way to say how much money is actually in your brokerage account.

Example for Those Saving for Retirement:

For those of you that are saving for retirement, you should use a different bogey than the 10-year US Treasury.  If you are 35 years old, you can simply invest in the 30-year Treasury bond (the jargon on Wall Street is “the long bond”).  The closing yield on the 30-year Treasury on October 26, 2013 was 3.60%.  Thus, I would suggest that you use this benchmark to calculate your incremental return.  If your financial professional tells you that this analysis does not apply to you because you are 45 years old and your timeframe to retirement is 20 years, I would agree.  With that being said though, you can find the current yield on a US Treasury bond with 20 years to maturity.  Most people are familiar with the Treasury yields quoted in the financial media and on financial websites.  Those yields are calculated based upon on-the-run Treasuries.  On-the-run simply refers to the most recently Treasuries sold at auction.  Once the Department of the Treasury sells new bills, notes, or bonds, those last financial instruments are referred to as off-the-run.  Keep in mind that the off-the-run Treasuries still trade on the bond market.  You always can get a current yield for them.  It is harder to find, but it is available on the Internet.  You can find out more information directly on the Department of the Treasury’s website:  http://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/data-chart-center/interest-rates/Pages/yieldmethod.aspx if you wanted to learn about this concept in more detail.  I would never recommend using a bogey less than the 10-year Treasury note though even if you have fewer than 10 years to retirement.  The aforementioned analysis for the calculation of incremental returns and the value-added from your financial professional will apply as in the example for retirees.

I will admit that this is a novel way to look at fees on investment portfolios.  However, there are a number of financial professionals that are using this approach now.  Keep in mind that one of the hardest questions to answer is in regard to the measurement of how much value your Financial Advisor provides.  How do you know if he/she is doing a good job for you?  The more common approach is to look solely at investment returns and compare it to a standard index return(s).  This analysis is meant to supplement the discussion.  I am hoping that this presentation will give you added incentive to seriously consider managing your own investments.  Or at the very least maybe try to find a financial planner that charges an hourly fee or flat fee.  You can pay a financial planner an hourly fee to sit with you and decide if your life situation and the current state of the financial markets warrant a change to your portfolio allocation among asset classes.  That financial planner also can work with you on your emotional intelligence and the urge to sell all your stocks and/or bonds because of current negative news and events.

Of course, I will not dissuade you from seeing a Financial Advisor.  On the other hand, I encourage you to have them walk through the value that they provide for you.  What can he/she do for you that you cannot do for yourself by buying an index mutual fund and US Treasury notes absolutely free?  You can use this analysis as a template for your discussion.  Most financial services firms essentially bundle financial advice.  Even if you do not need legal, tax, and complicated financial planning advice, you are still paying for it.  Now it is nice to have it available to you at any given time, but, if you do not use it or never use it, do you really want to pay for it?  It is very difficult to find financial services firms that can separate out those higher level services and provide advice on portfolio allocation and distribution of income to supplement retirement income only.  The vast majority of investors do not need complex advice though.  For example, the current exemption for estate taxes is $5.25 million.  Thus, if you do not have a net worth more than this, estate planning will not be a major concern.  Furthermore, if you are not planning on setting up a charitable trust for giving, legal advice is not necessary either.  In terms of tax advice, most investors simply have to record capital gains and dividends.  There are some techniques to “harvest” capital losses to reduce capital gains, but that is pretty simple to do on your own.  In terms of sophisticated financial planning, most investors do not have life situations that necessitate the advice (e.g. providing for the long-term needs of a special needs child, concentrated wealth in a family-owned business, significant stock options, etc.).  If your financial services firm offers that advice and you do not use it, you cannot just tell your financial services firm that you do not want to pay for it.  There really is not an ala carte option.  You will pay your 1.0% (or whatever it may be) AUM fee.  The ironic thing is that, if you have a large enough investment portfolio where this advice comes into play, your AUM fee will almost certainly be significantly less than 1.0%.  Doesn’t this make you want to learn more about investments and if you can take more of an active role?  I sure hope so.

I welcome comments/feedback and constructive criticism.  If there are Financial Advisors that totally disagree with my logic and presentation, I would love to hear from you.  I can be contacted at latticeworkwealth@gmail.com.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I wanted to hear from you.  I appreciate the topics selected.  In my next few posts, I will devote some time to discussing the issues that were suggested by you.  I will get back to my normal selections in a week or so.