Financial advisers are in the crosshairs

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Will the other shoe drop?

For the past decade, fund investors have eschewed actively managed funds, those that aim to beat the market. Instead, they have poured money into passively managed index funds, which seek to replicate the performance of a market average.

That shift has driven down investment costs. But even as fund expenses have fallen, one cost has held remarkably steady: the price paid for financial advice.

Will we see an end to the standard 1% of assets charged each year by many financial advisers? My hunch: Traditional advisers won’t cut their fees—but they’ll need to beef up their offerings or risk losing clients to low-cost online advisers.

Falling costs

Over the 10 years through year-end 2014, index funds have grown to 35% of stock-fund assets from 18%, according to Chicago investment researchers Morningstar. The figures include index-mutual funds, which are bought directly from the fund companies involved, and exchange-traded index funds, which are listed on the stock market and trade like individual company shares.

That shift has sharply lowered fund costs. Morningstar calculates that stock investors now pay 0.64% of assets in annual fund expenses, versus 0.92% a decade ago.

It isn’t just do-it-yourself investors who have made the move to index funds. Many financial advisers have also switched—and, in the process, saved clients a bundle in fees.

Read: Diversification won’t work in 2015

Before, clients might have paid 1% a year to their adviser and 1% for the actively managed funds that the adviser recommended, for a total of 2%. Today, these same clients might still pay 1% to their adviser, but now they own index funds that charge 0.2%, so their total cost has dropped from 2% to 1.2%, a 40% decline.

To be sure, in lowering clients’ costs, advisers have also taken away the chance to beat the market. But the odds of that happening were, in any case, extremely slim—and getting slimmer, argue Larry Swedroe and Andrew Berkin in their book, “The Incredible Shrinking Alpha,” published this month.

The two authors write that, “as the ‘less skilled’ investors abandon active strategies, the remaining competition, on average, is likely to get tougher and tougher. As the trend to passive investing marches on there will be fewer and fewer victims to exploit, leaving the remaining active managers to trade against themselves. And that is a game that in aggregate they cannot win.”


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