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I started off this examination with a brief introduction to this question.  You can see that discussion by clicking on the following link:


As promised, I will start by using retirees as the individual investors.  The hypothetical example is meant to get you thinking about the reasonableness of investing fees and how they affect you reaching your financial goals.  Of course, I will discuss the same topic but using those individual investors who are saving for retirement.  But now, let’s dive into our discussion of this topic by focusing on those individual investors already in retirement.

Example for Retirees:

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 gradually depleting his/her investment portfolio to pay for living expenses on an annual basis.

Since this person is not working anymore, (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 8.0% 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 9.5%, 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 on an 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.

Now let’s look at our example through the lens of economic principles.  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 Note right now?  The 10-year Treasury closed at 1.85% on January 13, 2020.  When you go to a financial professional, he/she is selecting investments in lieu of you simply purchasing the 10-year Treasury Note.  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 can earn 5.5% during the year, the incremental return is 3.65% (5.50%-1.85%).  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 3.65% in investment returns.  Well, 1.0% is 27.4% of 3.65%.  Thus, you are essentially paying a fee of 27.4% 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 moot.  It is yours to begin with.  You have that money at any given time.  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 9.5%.  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 53.0% stocks and 47.0% cash (5.5% = 53.0% * 9.5% + 47.0% * 1.0%).  Note that I am assuming that cash earns 1.0% 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.

The hypothetical allocation achieves your target return with a simple choice of two assets (an ETF or index mutual fund and a money market).  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 1.85% as of January 13, 2020.  If you allocate your portfolio to 60% stocks, 30% 10-Year Treasury Note, and 10% cash, your expected return would be 5.5% (5.5% = 49.0% * 9.5% + 41.0% * 1.85% + 10.0% * 1.0%).

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 must 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 needs to be 5.5% on a net basis.

So, how much weighting do stocks need to be in your portfolio to ensure that your overall returns are 5.5% after paying your AUM fee?  The answer is 62.5%.  Why?  The expected return of your portfolio is 6.5% (6.5% = 62.5% * 9.5% + 27.5% * 1.85% + 10.0% * 1.0%) before fees.  Given the average retiree’s risk tolerance at age 65 or older, many individual investors do not desire to have a portfolio with 60.0% or larger allocated to stocks.  The more salient observation is that the individual investor had to increase his/her stock allocation by 13.5% in order to pay the 1.0% AUM fee.  This increased allocation to stocks significantly increases the risk of our hypothetical portfolio.  And keep in mind that the historical, long-term average of stocks is just that.  It is an average and rarely is 9.5% in any given year.

But what if we could find a Financial Advisor that only charges 0.5% AUM fee?  How would that change our example above?  So, we now need to earn a gross investment return of 6.0% rather than 6.5%.  The new portfolio allocation is 55.0% * 9.5% + 35.0% * 1.85% + 10.0% * 1.0% = 6.0%.  Our main takeaways here are that the allocation to stocks only increases by 6.0% (55.0% – 49.0%), and this portfolio has a stock allocation less than 60.0%.

Now let’s look at some actual historical data.  The S&P 500 Index did not have a single down year since 2008 if we looked at the subsequent five years of stock returns.  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 December 31, 2019, the S&P 500 Index was up 31.5% for 2019 including the reinvestment of dividends.  Now I am by no means making a prediction for 2020.  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 9.5% 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 2015.  A five-year period covers 2015-2019.  If you start out with $1,000,000 invested in stocks and plan on earning 9.5% per year, you are expecting to have $1,574,239 at the end of five years.  Let’s say that the return of stocks is only 4.5% per year over the next five years.  You will only have $1,246,182 as of December 31, 2019.  The difference is $328,057 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 9.5% 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, 2015 is $1,000,000, your financial plan is set up to have $2,478,228 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 14.7% over that five-year period which is 5.2% higher than the historical average.  As you can see underperformance can really hurt financial planning.  The extremely important point here is that a 1.0% 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.