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Value, Not Fees, Must Drive Investment Decision-Making

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Following the market crash of 2008, the disappointing performance of active managers and hedge funds during the crisis, and the emergence of low-cost, tech-driven investing platforms, fees have played an increasingly important role in investment management. Passive funds have seen inflows soar, and this, coupled with increased regulation and the persistent low interest rate environment have combined to put pressure on advisors to provide lower fee offerings to clients.

At the same time, the Department of Labor fiduciary rule, though delayed, has shined a not-always-flattering spotlight on how some advisors are compensated. Industry competition has major players in what feels like a race to zero: In late February, Vanguard, Fidelity and Charles Schwab announced they were dropping fees on indexed ETFs within days, even hours, of each other.

When you’ve been in the business awhile, these types of pendulum swings from one investing environment to the next are all but expected. But they can be especially challenging for investors, who tend to be more easily swayed.

We’ve always believed that a strong focus on fees and transparency is important — before the 2008 crash, too many investors overpaid for investment management that did too little to protect them from the market downturn. But in our view, fixation on fees presents the danger of obscuring some real portfolio risks and may prevent an advisor from helping clients achieve their shared investment objectives.

Most investors claim to recognize the value of advice — more than two-thirds according to Natixis’ 2016 global survey of investors — and realize that an advisor is much more than a stock picker. And yet that seems to directly contrast with the move to a no-fee or low-fee environment. We think investors may have internalized a false dichotomy: High fees or low fees are the only two choices and low is better. Or, put another way: active or passive, and passive is preferred.

In our view, the premise that passive and active are mutually exclusive is false. The two strategies can and should peacefully coexist in a well-built portfolio constructed with the investor’s objective in mind.

The burden to articulate these finer points of the fee discussion of course falls on advisors. They need to be able to demonstrate value across a spectrum of factors that go beyond returns. One way to articulate this value equation is in three Fs: function, fit and foresight. These provide a framework for talking about portfolio construction in terms of goals and objectives rather than just costs.

The function of an investment strategy is to achieve the goal it was assigned. For a passive vehicle, that should include whether it tracks its index effectively, is simple to implement and cost efficient over the long term. For active approaches, that should include whether it delivers some combination of excess return and/or reduced risk, at a reasonable fee evaluated on a fair and objective basis over a reasonable period of time.

When it comes to fit, a portfolio strategy, whether active or passive, needs to align with an investor’s overall strategy and be supported by a clear, disciplined management approach. Passive could well form the low-cost core of a portfolio. Active allocations, in our view, should add potential return enhancement, diversification, downside risk protection or volatility hedging.

In terms of foresight, the vehicles should align with an investor’s risk profile over the long term, while recognizing the possible short-run behavioral responses of investors to market volatility. Passive allocations alone can subject an investor to the full brunt of market risk, leaving them without adequate buffers or other help when the markets go down in the short run. But, balanced by thoughtful active allocations, with an inclusion of alternatives not so strongly correlated with stocks or bonds, this approach creates the potential for an effective combination of return enhancement, risk reduction and emotion control in the long run.

In the end, what matters are the long-term goals an investor develops with their advisor. The goal of a smart portfolio isn’t to buy the cheapest products available; it’s to build a strategy that gives the investor the best chance to achieve their financial goals, whether that is wealth accumulation, current income, educational funding or a lasting, comfortable retirement. In our view, this requires portfolio construction that is fee sensitive, but brings together the best of both active and passive approaches to provide sustainable long-term value to the investor.