This week is the first that financial advisors must operate under the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule, subject to Impartial Conduct Standards which require that they must give best interests advice, for reasonable compensation, and make no misleading statements. While much has been said about the impact this will have for advisors and their clients, there’s also a not-well-discussed secondary shift that will be triggered by the DoL fiduciary rule, which will impact actively managed mutual funds and their performance in the coming years – in a “surprisingly” positive way.
In this week’s #OfficeHours with @MichaelKitces, my Tuesday 1PM EST broadcast via Periscope, we discuss how the DoL fiduciary rule will likely end out causing an improvement in the return performance of actively managed mutual funds, thanks to the rise of clean shares and a shift in how brokers are compensated for recommending such funds!
Most predictions about the likely impact of the Department of Labor’s fiduciary rule is that it will lead to a (continued) decline in the use of actively managed mutual funds, and support the ongoing rise of passive ETFs, thanks to the fiduciary rule’s focus on low cost. But the truth is, that there actually is no requirement in the DoL fiduciary rule that financial advisors eschew actively managed funds and switch to lower cost passive funds. The only real requirement is that if an advisor is going to use an actively managed fund, that there needs to be a clear reason and justification for paying that active manager’s fee. And if you can make the case for the active manager, there’s nothing wrong with using the actively managed fund.
There is, however, a requirement to use the lowest cost share class if multiple share classes of the same fund are available. This is why we’ve seen the launch of T shares and clean shares – which either pay a uniform 2.5% upfront commission and 0.25% trails, or eliminate commissions entirely with the broker-dealer then wrapping a levelized commission around the whole fund or account. And this matters, because mutual funds currently have to report their performance net of commissions and broker compensation. But as broker-dealers shift to being compensated by levelized commissions outside of the funds (even if the consumer still pays a 1% fee via the broker-dealer equivalent to the 1% trail in a C share), the mutual fund itself will no longer have to count the broker’s compensation against their own performance!
And this is important because a lot of mutual fund managers have not been underperforming by the amount of the manager’s fee, but instead, they’ve been underperforming because of the drag of the broker’s commission compensation. Which means, “suddenly”, we’re going to start seeing the average actively managed mutual fund begin to improve on its performance… starting this week, with the rollout of the DoL fiduciary rule (and the rapidly rising adoption of clean shares in particular). Not because mutual fund managers are necessarily managing any differently or better, but simply because they’re no longer paying broker compensation out of their own performance track records! Ironically, this may even handicap RIA performance reporting relative to brokers, given that brokers typically point to mutual fund performance (which will not include the broker-dealer’s level commission payout) instead of account performance, whereas advisors in an RIA that want to market GIPS-compliant performance track records will still have to follow specific rules requiring a full accounting for fees.
In the end, this shift may still result in a roughly-similar total cost to consumers – whether it’s a 1% AUM fee, a 1% commission, or a 1% broker-dealer payout wrapped around clean shares – but the net result nonetheless is that with a shift to clean shares, reported performance for actively managed mutual funds is going to start looking better. Which means in a few years, we may suddenly be talking about how much better actively managed mutual funds are doing again. But it won’t be because “the pendulum swinging from passive to active”… or because that’s when the Fed started accelerating their rate increases… or whatever else happens economically from here. It will be because DoL fiduciary reconfigured how brokers get paid, reducing the need for 12b-1 fees, reducing the expense ratio of actively managed mutual funds, and improving the reported performance of the mutual fund itself!