False economy: Cheaper is not always better and premium offerings — from cars to investment products — command higher prices as long as they continue to meet the brand promise. Picture: REUTERS
False economy: Cheaper is not always better and premium offerings — from cars to investment products — command higher prices as long as they continue to meet the brand promise. Picture: REUTERS

Coverage of the investment management industry over the past few months has been characterised by persistent and often excruciating arguments about the level of fees.

"Tracker funds are the future!" scream taglines; "Passive is the only way!" bellow index trackers. The din is such that a casual observer may conclude the argument is over and zero fees the only end-point.

While fees paid to the manager obviously reduce the investment return earned, this myopic focus on the absolute level of fees distracts, like a magician’s skilled hands, from the real trick: after-fee returns received by the client.

This distraction is in many cases no accident. With the exception of a few respected, unfettered financial journalists, many commentators have skin in the game and unashamedly grab media exposure to advance their own passive asset management businesses. At Prudential Investment Managers we are unabashedly active in our approach to investing and committed to adding investment value for our clients as measured by after-fee performance.

What is typically left unaddressed (because it does not fit the narrative) is the obvious drawback that all tracker funds (and many passive offerings) are designed to underperform their benchmarks. That’s correct: failure is built into their DNA. By definition, a fund that delivers the same gross performance as an index will underperform that index by the fee charged, so the investment outcome is guaranteed to disappoint.

This would be true even in a perfect world with frictionless portfolio rebalances to track index changes. In the real world, observed net performance of such funds has been known to lag the index being tracked by more than the fees charged.

The difference in cost between passive and active funds is grossly overstated, implying that trackers are orders of magnitude cheaper than active funds. Both feature a wide range of fees and expense ratios; according to Morningstar data, some passive funds cost more than the average expense ratio of Association for Savings and Investment SA general equity funds.

The emphasis on only buying cheap, with scant regard for the quality of the underlying product, is at odds with consumer behaviour in virtually all other spheres. From wine to cars to clothes, premium offerings command higher prices as long as they continue to meet the brand promise. Similarly, high-quality active asset managers will always cost more than the index-tracking competition, and will continue to prosper if they deliver benchmark-beating returns after costs.

Zero operating costs will, however, never be possible. Managing people’s money is serious business and one cannot wish away the need for robust, accurate, dependable and auditable operating systems.

SA investment managers are adapting to competitive market forces and embracing technological developments. Operational costs are being driven relentlessly downward through technology and efficiency enhancements. Emergent tools such as blockchain can completely transform the transaction and execution cost chain, and established managers are dedicating significant resources towards adopting these and staying ahead of the curve.

Similarly, artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in investment analysis and further reducing active management costs.

Zero operating costs will, however, never be possible. Managing people’s money is serious business and one cannot wish away the need for robust, accurate, dependable and auditable operating systems. It is often in these areas where the quality of an organisation becomes evident — reliability of back office, operational governance, ability to invest in and improve operational stability, minimal error rates and the organisation’s response when the inevitable errors do occur.

If something is free it is not valued. Irrespective of its price tag, an item received without the investment of time or resources is less appreciated than one worked for. Saving for the future is one of the most important aspects of modern life as governments shift the burden of future provision onto citizens and as human life expectancy continues to rise. The future is a very long place!

The danger is that society’s willingness to defer consumption in favour of vague future returns is undermined every time results do not meet expectations. An unthinking take-up of passive funds simply because they are cheap potentially guarantees this unfortunate situation for decades to come.

The cacophony of comment arguing that cheap tracker funds are a panacea for all things investment-related is menacing and misleading. What is required is sober assessment of the characteristics of different investment vehicles, education about the long-term implications of underperformance, honest evaluation of after-fee returns and intelligent illustration of clients’ progress on their personal savings trajectory.

• Geyer is head of business development at Prudential Investment Managers.