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What Everybody Needs to Know About Investment Fees

If you are trying to find out what you're paying in fees and it's taking longer than 15 minutes or so to get an answer, you might want to make a change.

I recently read an article in The Wall Street Journal where a reporter went on an epic quest to discover exactly what fees she was paying within her employer 401(k) plan. Unfortunately, the difficulties encountered, and the time invested, only led her back to where she started — confused and unclear.

This is an all too common experience for investors today. I was moved by her story and reached out to see if she ever found answers to the valid questions she was asking. Her response was telling. She was receiving so many emails in response to her article, more response than she had received from anything else she had ever written, that she felt she did not have time to even set up a quick call.

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This got me wondering, why are fees such a hot topic, consistently generating significant attention and emotional turmoil?

I think it comes down to one key concept: value.

Most people are OK paying for something if they can perceive an appropriate amount of value in it. Based on the complexity and confusion often encountered when trying to clearly understand how much you are paying in fees, how can anyone decide if they are getting value? If you have no idea what you are paying, how can you make this important decision? No one likes the feeling of being confused or that feeling of being kept in the dark, especially when trying to decide if they are willing or unwilling to pay for something.

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We live in the “information age.” We have access to more technology and more information on our phones today than NASA scientists had when launching rockets into space 30 to 40 years ago, and this is also true of professionals in the world of financial services. There is no reason why it should be so hard to clarify and clearly explain investment fees so that the investor can decide if the options being presented provide the desired levels of value. Especially when considering the push for fiduciary standards across the financial services industry, clients and investors should come to expect 100% disclosure and clarity when it comes to understanding the investment fees they are going to pay.

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Getting back to the question of why fees are such a hot topic, I do not think it is because fees are inherently bad - this is how many financial services professionals get paid, and there is nothing wrong with that as most provide a valuable service to their clients. The issue, I think, is feeling a lack of control and awareness when a client or investor wants to know what they are paying, and finding that no one is able to quickly provide an exact answer. That is anything but comforting.

How can an adviser uphold his or her fiduciary commitment to clients if they can neither understand, nor clearly explain fees? How can an adviser be sure they are doing what is in the client’s best interests? Again, it is not the fees that are inherently bad, it is the lack of clarity surrounding them. It is the complete inability to decide if the fees are fair, if they make sense, if the services being provided for the fees are helping to reach defined goals, and if they are providing value.

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When starting your investigation into investment and advisory fees, there are a few basic categories you can use to help clarify who you are paying and exactly what you are paying for. I encourage people to have a clear understanding of their “All In” number so they can understand the total they are paying in fees. See the categories below:

Adviser Fee

This is the fee that is charged by your financial adviser if you have decided to hire someone for additional help. This can range widely based on different pricing structures, but annual averages should be somewhere around 1% - 1.5% of assets under management, depending on account size. Other advisers charge by the hour. The adviser fee is sometimes mistaken for all the fees the client is paying, but this is not usually the case.

Investment Management Fees

These are the fees charged by money managers to manage the funds and strategies being used to invest client money. These can range widely and can drive up the “All In” number behind the scenes without proper disclosure and close monitoring. Investment management fees can range from 0.3% - 2.5% per year levied on the amount invested.

Platform Fees

Depending on how the adviser is setting up his or her investment models, there may be added fees for the investment platform being used. These fees can range in the area of 0.5%. These can be harder to spot and often relate to different custodians and/or TAMP-UMA services.

Transaction Costs

These also happen behind the scenes and can cause the most difficulty when trying to find them out. Depending on the investment style of the funds being used, there can be costs for buys and sells executed to adjust the holdings of a given fund or strategy. They vary from year to year. An efficiently run fund could cost a few hundred dollars per year in addition to adviser, platform and management fees.

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Use these criteria to guide your search for understanding your fees and add them all up to get your true “All In” number. With this number in mind, now you can properly assess if it is worth it or if you want to look around to find better value elsewhere. Keeping everything at or below 2% is a decent general benchmark to keep in mind.

For example: A 1.2% adviser fee, investment management fees of 0.5%, and a platform fee of 0.3% would give you an “All In” total fee of 2% before counting transaction costs.

It should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes to find an answer to the simple question, “What am I paying in fees?" If it takes more than 30 minutes of actual research, or no one can get back to you within a few hours with a clear answer, you may want to reconsider who you are working with when seeking financial advice.

About the Author

Ian Maxwell, Financial Adviser

Founder & CEO, Reviresco Wealth Advisory

Ian Maxwell is an independent fee-based fiduciary financial adviser and founder and CEO of Reviresco Wealth Advisory. He is passionate about improving quality of life for clients and developing innovative solutions that help people reconsider how to best achieve their financial goals. Maxwell is a graduate of Williams College, a former Officer in the USMC and holds his Series 6, Series 63, Series 65, and CA Life Insurance licenses.Investment Advisory Services offered through Retirement Wealth Advisors, (RWA) a Registered Investment Advisor. Reviresco Wealth Advisory and RWA are not affiliated. Investing involves risk including the potential loss of principal. No investment strategy can guarantee a profit or protect against loss in periods of declining values. Opinions expressed are subject to change without notice and are not intended as investment advice or to predict future performance. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Consult your financial professional before making any investment decision.

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