How to Take Advantage of the Mutual Fund Company Price Wars

Fidelity has added two zero cost funds to their line-up of low-cost index mutual funds. One fund tracks the U.S. stock market and the other tracks international markets. These new funds are the latest volley in the index fund price wars. So it’s a good time to talk about the impact of fees on your investments and at what point it makes sense to switch.

Mutual fund fees are extracted from the value of the underlying fund investments. While you never have to pay out-of-pocket for these fees, they reduce the value of your investments, and are therefore, worth paying attention to.

Average fees for funds investing in large U.S. companies are 1.25 percent per year. If you assume the stock market will return 7 percent per year, after fees, your return would be 5.75 percent.

However, there are many index funds with much lower fees. Index funds track a market index, which is a fixed list of company stocks, like the S&P 500, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. There are hundreds of indices which slice and dice the investment markets every which way you can imagine.

Because index funds track a fixed list of companies, the investment process is largely automated. The fund companies don’t have to pay expensive research staff, and therefore the funds are cheaper to manage and less costly to you.

The following table compares investment minimums and fees among a sample of a few low-cost index funds similar to one of the new funds from Fidelity.

Index Mutual Funds Minimum Investment Annual Fees
Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Investor Share Class  $3,000 0.14%
Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Admiral Share Class  $10,000 0.04%
Schwab 1000 Index Fund  $ 1 0.05%
Fidelity Zero Total Market Index Fund  $ – 0.00%

All of these funds are substantially less expensive than the average fund investing in U.S. stocks. That is why index investing has become so popular. Over a ten year period, a $10,000 investment will be worth around $2,000 more in any one of these index funds, versus a fund with a 1.25 percent expense ratio. Give yourself thirty years and the difference will be around $20,000.

However, among these already low-cost funds, the differences are much smaller. The following table shows the difference in expenses over time on a $10,000 investment for the funds above.

Cumulative Expenses Over Time

Ten Years

Twenty Years

Thirty Years

Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Investor Share Class

$256

$1,000

$2,932

Vanguard Total Market Index Fund Admiral Share Class

$73

$288

$849

Schwab 1000 Index Fund

$92

$360

$1,060

Fidelity Total Market Index Fund

$0

$0

$0

If you are just starting out and planning to invest in index funds, going with the low cost provider is a reasonable strategy. While Fidelity has these two new zero cost funds, they also have several index funds with expenses ranging between 0.015 percent and 0.11 percent.

However, if you already have investments, there are a few things to consider when deciding whether to change fund companies for the purpose of getting a lower fee.

  1. It’s important to keep your financial life simple by holding as much of your investments as possible at one institution. If most of your investments are already with Vanguard, it probably isn’t worth it to open a Fidelity account just to take advantage of the new zero cost funds.
  2. While the fund fees may be lower, you could pay a premium to buy and sell a low- cost index fund away from the fund company that manages it. For example, if you buy the Vanguard Total Market Index fund through Charles Schwab, the trade will cost you $76. The Fidelity Zero funds aren’t available there (at least not yet).
  3. If your investments are in a taxable savings account, you will have to pay capital gains taxes on the sale of the fund you already hold to move to a lower cost fund. If you have a high expense fund, it could still be worth it, but it probably won’t pencil out among already low-cost index funds. Of course there are no tax consequences to transactions in your retirement savings accounts.

The mutual fund company price wars are making investing cheaper and more accessible to all investors. Mutual fund fees take a bite out of your returns, so the lower the better. But if you are already invested in a low-cost fund, there can be drawbacks to switching to a new fund, even if it costs less. It may not be worth it to chase the fund companies to save a few bucks.

Image courtesy of sheelamohan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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