4. Expense Ratios

This is part four of seven in my attempt to explain how you should invest in your retirement portfolio.  Click here for part three.

As I began google searching for the first ETF I would buy, I quickly realized that there was more than one ETF for each type of index fund that I was looking for. In fact, for most of the index funds, there were at least three ETFs I could choose from. From my research, it appears that there are three main players in the ETF benchmark index world: Vanguard, Schwab, and iShares. These are three companies that actually “make” their own ETFs. Take the Total Stock Market Index, for example. I saw at the very least that I could buy Vanguard’s ETF (VTI), Schwab’s ETF (SCHB), or iShares’ ETF (IWV). Each of the ETFs were created for the same purpose – to track the performance of the broad (as in not just large companies) US stock market. Each ETF used a slightly different benchmark to track the broad market. IWV uses the Russel 3000 index, SCHB uses the 2,500 stock Dow Jones US Broad Stock Market Index, and VTI uses the MSCI US Broad Market index.  Despite the small differences, each index would be acceptable to use for the 25% of my portfolio that was to track the “Total US Market.” Knowing that each of the three ETFs were essentially the same, I was left with one question:

How do I know which ETF to choose? Since I had at least 3 options in front of me, I had to find a reason to choose one over the other. and I didn’t want that to be based on something silly – like which fund had the coolest ticker symbol. This is where expense ratios come in. Expense ratios are the amount by which your annual return will be decreased as a result of fees from the company that makes your index fund. So for example, IWV, the S&P 500 index fund from iShares has an expense ratio of 0.21%. That means if IWV’s annual return is 10%, the actual return reflected in your bank account would be 9.79%.  As of March 2011, these were the expense ratios for each of the three funds mentioned above:

  • Vanguard’s VTI 0.07%
  • Schwab’s SCHB 0.06%
  • iShares’ IWV 0.21%

The expense ratios are not even one whole percent!  The good news is that this is typical for funds that track the major indexes.  ETFs that track more nuanced indexes, like the emerging markets index, have slightly higher expense ratios.  Here are three examples of Emerging Market ETFs:

  • Vanguard’s VWO  0.27%
  • Schwab’s SCHE  0.25%
  • iShares’ EEM  0.69%

Clearly in the two examples above Schwab and Vanguard funds have the lowest expense ratios.  They are in fact almost identical, leading me to question whether the small percentage differences is a valid reason for choosing one fund over the other.

Is one tenth of one percent really that important?  I found a great website that had an article on how expense ratios affect long term performance.  Using the author’s work as a template, I made a spreadsheet of my own so that I could look at the specific examples I started above.  Lets take the first example – the three ETFs measuring the Total US Stock market:

This is a screenshot from the excel file I was using.  Here I am assuming that each fund will return 8% each year after an initial $10,000 investment.  After 10 years, if you put your money into SCHB which has an an effective annual return of 7.96% (8.0% – .06% expense ratio) you would have $120 less than you would have if you did not have to pay an expense ratio.  After 30 years, you would have $1,664 less in your retirement account because of SCHB’s expense ratio.    Lets say you chose to go with VTI over SCHB.  Over 10 years that choice would have cost you $20 ($140 – $120), and over 30 years that choice would have cost you $274 ($1,938-$1,664).  Now in the grand scheme of things, this is not a whole lot of money, especially over 30 years.  Now if you chose  the iShares IWV fund, I really can’t defend that decision.  After just 10 years you would be giving up $296, and after 30 years you would be giving up $4,043!  This is all money that you could have saved if you chose the SCHB fund.

With such low expense ratios – less than .1% –  the difference between competing ETFs is not as noticeable.  If we take a look at the Emerging Market ETFs, however, the differences become even more real:

In this case, choosing the Vanguard fund over the Schwab fund will cost you $39 in 10 years and $522 in 30 years.  Don’t even get me started on what you would loose if you chose the iShares fund.  That decision would cost you over $10,000 ($17,602 – $6,758) in 30 years!  If you are like me, you might be thinking “Expense Ratios really suck” and might ask yourself why you are buying funds that have them in the first place.

Do other assets have expense ratios? Any type of investment that requires a pooling together of different individual stocks or commodities is likely to have an expense ratio.  Consider it the price you have to pay to organize a number of different assets into one fund.  So while individual stocks don’t have an expense ratio, they are assets that are not relevant in this discussion since we are interested in index funds for our retirement portfolio.  If the lack of expense ratios in stocks make you want to buy them for your retirement, just think of the percent of your (likely) underperformance relative to the market as your expense ratio for buying individual stocks.

As far as mutual funds go, they have expense ratios and much more.  Typical expense ratios for actively managed mutual funds are around 1.5% according to Fool.com.  Not only do mutual funds have expense ratios, but many of them also have sales charges called loads.  A front-end load, for example, is a fee that takes a percentage of your money (around 5%) the moment you buy the mutual fund.  So if you wanted to put $10,000 into a mutual fund with a 5% front end load, you transfer $10,000 into the fund, but only  $9,500 makes it into your portfolio.  Then, after they are done stealing your money up front, the fund will still have an expense ratio further reducing your return that wouldn’t have beat the market anyway.  Now just in case I haven’t proved my point on how important expense ratios are, I want to include some examples of higher expense ratios, like those you might find in a mutual fund.  I haven’t bothered to calculate what loads do to your real return, but i didn’t see the point. Hopefully this spreadsheet scares you enough to never want to buy a mutual fund with a high expense ratio, much less one that charges load fees.

Armed with a new understanding of how to chose each ETF that I would buy, I quickly selected the 10 ETFs with the lowest expense ratios.  I logged onto to my Scottrade Account (my online broker at the time) to make my first trade when it hit me:  At $7 a trade, I would be spending $70 every time I put money into my retirement account.

To continue reading, follow the link to Part 5 – Account Fees and Commissions.

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