The fee war on ETF trading continues, both for advisors and for retail. Trading platforms providers have been engaged in an ongoing struggle to attract assets by slashing the price of trading, and Vanguard just took a big step. While Vanguard used to charge retail investors a flat fee for trades depending on their AUM (trading Vanguard funds was always free), the company is now cutting transaction fees for aboutx 1,800 ETFs on its platform. No more trading fees at all. The move follows Fidelity’s recent addition of more fee-free ETFs. FINSUM: This is a big deal. 1,800 fee-free ETFs dwarfs the competition and we definitely think it will help Vanguard gather more assets, both retail and institutional.
Back in late 2016, Merrill Lynch announced that it was abandoning commissions for its brokers. On the back of the shift to the DOL’s fiduciary rule, the firm was forcing clients to either move to fee-based accounts or downgrade to its Merrill Edge discount brokerage. Now, with the DOL rule gone, the firm is considering reversing that decision. Merrill admits that some clients left the firm because the cost of fee-based accounts was more expensive than commissions. Merrill will be considering a change for a 60-day review period.
FINSUM: Having only fee-based accounts always seemed like a bad idea to us because a large subset of customers would see their total fees rise significantly. However, the move fit nicely with the pre-DOL rule environment. Now that things have changed, we suspect the stance might be reversed.
Don’t worry, this is a not a story about DOL rule resurrection. The rule remains all-but-dead. This article is about how despite the rule being effectively gone, it has succeeded in completely changing the industry. The famed Michael Kitces summarized the DOL rule’s effect this way, saying “The DOL fiduciary rule really made the discussion of fiduciary for consumers mainstream … You can’t un-ring that bell”. Barron’s focuses on the material changes to offerings in their view, saying “The short-lived standard spurred the industry to lower fees, and prompted brokerages to prune their product lineups and remove conflicts of interest from their compensation structures. These changes are expected to outlive the rule”.
FINSUM: The DOL rule may be gone, but it will certainly never be forgotten.
A lot of advisors have been under pressure to cut their fees. Pressure from competition, both digital and human, has reportedly put downward pressure on the fees advisors feel they can charge. However, Barron’s has put out a piece arguing that advisors should not cut their fees. The reason why stems from the results of a survey which found that advisors who lowered their fees actually brought in less assets and experienced less revenue growth than when they left fees higher. An industry commentator summarized the situation this way, saying “That supports something we’ve seen, frankly, for 15 years, which is, clients don’t leave because of price; they leave because of service issues”.
FINSUM: We think this is a bit of a misleading survey, at least if you buy the “services issues” theory. The reason why is that it is only advisors who have service issues that are cutting fees, which means the lower asset growth does not really have to do with fees, it has to do with a problem with the advisor.
There is a lot of scuttlebutt in the wealth management industry about fee compression. The narrative is that there is much price competition across the industry and investment advisors are having to cut their fees and add services to stay relevant. Well, the reality is fees are actually moving higher. According to a new survey from FinancialAdvisor, many advisors are actually hiking fees between 10 to 25 basis points. The finding adds to another survey from Pershing which found that 84% of advisors had not changed fees in 2017, and those that did had hiked rather than cutting.
FINSUM: This is a very healthy sign for the industry, especially given the fee war going on in ETFs and the asset management industry.