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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7. The Solution: Target Date Funds

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

So what exactly are target date funds (TDFs)?  At their core, TDFs are mutual funds.  But unlike mutual funds which might own individual stocks, TDFs are “funds made up of other mutual funds.”  In other words, TDFs do not directly own individual stocks but instead they own index funds, or a bunch of mutual funds in order to provide the investor an appropriate asset mix for retirement (like the asset allocation strategies mentioned in part 3).  In general, TDFs are composed of four primary asset types: 1. US Equity (Stocks and Real Estate) 2. International Equity, 3. Bonds, and 4. Cash Reserves.   The percentage of the fund’s money in each asset depends on the fund’s target retirement date.

For example, Vanguard has a “2020” fund, a “2025” fund, a “2030” fund…. all the way up to a “2055” fund.  If you plan to retire in the year 2055, you should buy the 2055 fund.  The 2055 fund will have more of its assets in stocks than the 2020 fund because more risk is acceptable with retirement that far off.  But the asset allocation of the 2055 fund will not always remain the same.  An important feature of target date funds is that the asset allocation will change (and become more conservative) as you get closer to retirement without you having to buy  a different fund.  So while the 2055 fund may have 90% of its assets in stocks and 10% in bonds today, in the year 2045, your “2055 fund” will have something like 60% stocks and 40% bonds.

Target date funds were created to be a one stop shop for investors.   You start putting money in to one fund in your 20s, and you will continue to put money in that same fund all the way into retirement.  You don’t have to worry about buying different funds to make sure you have the appropriate asset allocation in your portfolio because your target date fund is automatically diversified and rebalanced every year.  Further more, like mutual funds, you don’t have to pay a trade commission every time you put money into it.  So when I first read about TDFs at my HR orientation, it all sounded too good to be true, and I wrote them off because I figured they would have high expense ratios – just like most other mutual funds.  But after months of research on how to be a do-it-yourself investor using index ETFs, I finally concluded it was impossible to overcome the high costs of making online trades – even if it were as few as 3 trades a month.  If I invested $6,000 a year with my ETF strategy, my retirement portfolio would have an effective expense ratio of 6.92%, meaning I would be better off buying mutual funds.  So as much as I had tried to avoid it, it was finally time to reconsider Target Date Funds.

What are my options?  From what I could find there are three major players in the Target Date Fund world: Vanguard, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price.    Here are links to each fund (that is appropriate for my target retirement) along with their expense ratios:

  • Vanguard’s 2050 Fund (VFIFX): 0.19%
  • Fidelity’s 2050 Fund (FFFHX): 0.84%
  • T. Rowe Price’s 2050 Fund (TRRMX): 0.77%

0.19%!  Needless to say I was shocked at how low Vanguard’s expense ratio was, and honestly a little skeptical.  Just for reference, the weighted average expense ratio of all 10 index funds in my preferred asset allocation (described in part 3) was also 0.19%.  By that I mean if you multiplied the expense ratio of each index fund in your portfolio by its allocation percentage you would get your portfolio’s weighted average expense ratio.  For example, the cheapest Vanguard index fund (I’m using vanguard instead of Schwab because overall having a Vanguard account is the cheaper option) for the “Total Stock Market” is VTI with a 0.07% expense ratio.  The cheapest fund for High Yield Corporate Bonds is HYG with a 0.50% expense ratio.  To get the weighted average you would multiply VTI’s 0.07% by VTI’s allocation percentage (25%), add the product of  HYG’s 0.50% ratio and HYG’s allocation percentage (5%), and on and on for each asset.

Though both Vanguard’s Target Date Fund and my ETF portfolio would have the same expense ratio, it is clear that the Vanguard TDF is a much better deal because I wouldn’t have to pay any money on trade commissions (though I still would have to pay the $20 annual account fee).  Even with the obvious solution in front of me, I was curious to know why there was such a difference in expense ratios for funds that were supposed to do the same thing.

Why do similar target date funds have different expense ratios? If you do a little digging you can find out the composition of each fund.  Each fund is slightly different in how much it allocates to US Equity, International Equity, and Bonds, and each fund shows small differences in how that allocation changes over the years.  I’ve include a table below to show the small differences in each funds asset allocation strategy:

What is more intersting, however, is how each fund accomplishes this broad asset allocation.  As mentioned above, each of these target date funds is essentially a fund of funds.  Take the Vanguard Fund.  It is comprised of just 3 funds: The Vanguard Total Stock Market index, the Vanguard Total International Stock index and the Vanguard Total Bond index.  On the other hand, T. Rowe Price’s and Fidelity’s funds are composed of 17 and 20 different funds, respectively.  The extra funds essentially further divide each of the major categories – like US equities – into sub categories.  For example, Fidelity has 10 different funds that make up its “US Equity” allocation and they are shown in the screen shot below:

I suppose that what you are paying for in the extra expense ratio is having your TDF be EXTRA diversified.  The question then is simply this: Is a three fund portfolio properly diversified?  That is probably a question better debated by academics than myself, but I know I feel pretty comfortable with it, especially when considering the drawbacks of the other two funds.

Both the Fidelity and T. Rowe Price funds are made up of actively managed mutual funds – NOT index funds like the Vanguard TDF.  Take Fidelity’s “Small Cap Value Fund” (shown above) for example.  Its investment strategy is to invest “at least 80% of assets in securities of companies with small market capitalizations,”  and to invest in “securities of companies that [the manager] believes are undervalued in the marketplace.”  This is taken straight from Fidelity’s website.  In other words, some guy is picking and choosing what stocks to be in that fund, and as discussed in Part 2, actively managed funds generally do not beat their relevant indexes.  Furthermore, you’ll note that the “Small Cap Value Fund” is part of the US Equity assets, yet it says in the fund’s prospectus that it holds 5% of its assets in international companies!  It’s hard to feel comfortable with a fund whose real asset allocation is almost impossible to compute, much less decided by active management strategies.

The Decision:  In case it is not completely obvious by now, I decided to take my talents, or my money rather, to Vanguard’s target date fund.  Admittedly, I gave up a few things in making the decision.  First, I gave up on the idea that appropriate diversification meant having 10 different funds in your portfolio.  I could have bought one of the other target date funds with a more nuanced diversification – but as I said, I was not comfortable with buying a fund that was composed of actively managed funds.  The second thing I gave up was approximately $2,100 over 30 years.  As it turns out, I can buy the same three funds used in the Vanguard TDF for free with a vanguard account which would result in a weighted average expense ratio of 0.11% percent, compared to the TDF’s expense ratio of 0.19%.  That 0.08% difference adds up to about $2,100 in 30 years.  The way I justify this expense is that I am essentially paying $70 a year to have someone rebalance my portfolio and automatically change my portfolio’s asset allocation as I get older.  To me, having absolutely no stress and no responsibility for my retirement portfolio is worth $70 a year – it may not be for you.

So thats it.  I went from scoffing at target date funds to being a proud owner of Vanguard’s VFIFX fund – and not because I wanted to, but because that was the smartest (and easiest) thing to do.  Hopefully, I’ve convinced you to do the same, but if not, at the very least I hope that you’ll agree that the logic I used to make that decision is sound.