ETF: Low fees double your investment*

Simon BrownETF Blog, Latest

I’ve told the story of my first unit trust many times, so if you’ve heard it before skip to the second paragraph.

The first, and only, unit trust I owned was a small-cap one that I bought around the mid-1990s. It had a fee of some 5% a year. This included the advisor fee, platform fee and of course the total expense ratio (TER), although we didn’t know what a TER was back then. It also had a performance fee, but I never paid that as when I sold it years it still hadn’t ever performed.

We now have local exchange-traded funds (ETFs) at a fee of 0.1% (Satrix40).  Recently I received a press release about an active unit trust that is launching with a fee of 0.52%: all-inclusive and no performance fees. Heck, this is mid-range of local ETF fees.

In the US, where the size of ETFs is markedly larger, they have ETF fees at 0.03%. Back in 2019, as a marketing stunt, one ETF had a negative TER. Yip, they paid you to hold it, but the ETF was closed within the year after the house was sold.

The fee war has truly been won by low fees and it is hugely important.

Consider the South African collective investment landscape, comprising of unit trusts, ETFs and hedge funds. According to the Association for Savings & Investments SA (ASISA), this industry had R3.14trillion in assets under management at the end of 2021!

A 1% fee on all that cash would be R31.4bn, which is an obscene amount of money for the industry, especially since very few funds actually deliver on the promise to beat the market. In other words, they get the money for being bad at their job. At the old 5% a year that’s R157bn a year in fees!

Now imagine we have an average TER of 0.5% instead of 1%. The fun damagers now get R15.7bn, still plenty to fund a third home in Plett) and we investors get an extra R15.7bn in our pockets – where it belongs.

Cutting the fee from 1% to 0.5% at 60 million South Africans results in just over R260 per South African per year saved on fees. That doesn’t change many lives but at R260 a year for an investment lifetime in my pocket, rather than somebody else’s.

But let’s drill this even further.

If we use the original 5% annual fee vs. a 0.5% that equates to just over R2,600 saving for every South African every year. That’s the progress over the last twenty years of fee wars. In total, over 20 years, that’s R49,400 of saved fees saved for every South African (yes not everybody invests).

But here’s where it gets totally wild.

Using that R3.14trillion number and 60 million South Africans, the average person has some R52,000 invested. So the fee saving over the last two decades (excluding any growth) is almost equal to a person’s total investment.

Fees matter and the fee war has been won and it is an enormously important victory for everybody.

* Now sure, not everybody has an investment and how would those poor fun damagers survive on a measly R15.7bn a year? And yes, some large pension funds are already at or below 0.5%. And, finally, yes the industry was not R3.144tn twenty years ago. But the point remains, fees hurt and low fees are the best fees.



ETF blog

ETF blog logoAt Just One Lap, we are big fans of passive investment using ETFs. In this weekly blog, we discuss ETFs on the local market and the factors you need to consider when choosing an ETF. If you have wondered how one ETF differs from another, this is where you can find out. We explain which index each ETF tracks, what type of portfolio could benefit from holding each ETF, and how the costs will affect your bottom line.