11/30/2012 7:15 PM ET|
7 gifts funds should give investors
Greater transparency could give savers what they want this holiday season and beyond: Increased earnings.
With a full 33 shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, mutual fund executives have plenty of time to pull together a meaningful gift for shareholders: improved disclosures.
The changes mutual funds could make to help shareholders are endless, but I'd settle for just a few upgrades a year. In fact, fund companies should fulfill shareholder wishes not because 'tis the season for it, but because it's the right thing to do. Regulators know it, but they will require the disclosures I'm hoping for only if and when some sort of wrongdoing comes to light that forces them to give the fund world a slap on the wrist. Really, every round of mutual fund "reform" is just about injecting some common sense into the investment process.
With that in mind, here is my wish list for the 2012 holidays. Nothing too fancy. Just a few details I want fund companies to give shareholders. Fulfilling these requests should be easy to accomplish:
1. Stop selling mediocrity.
If a fund's biggest asset to the sponsor (or management company) is that marketers can sell it -- rather than that it can deliver superior performance -- it is not in investors' best interests for that fund to keep going.
Yet mediocre funds create something of an annuity for their sponsors, regularly delivering fees from investors who are inert or simply oblivious to the fact that they are settling for inferior, uninspired results.
Make the fund world a meritocracy. If a fund doesn't deserve to keep going -- if performance is undistinguished and second-rate -- kill it off. Merging it with something better or simply liquidating it and encouraging investors to find a more-worthwhile alternative would be a blessing.
2. Tell investors how sister funds do -- or don't -- work together.
If investors buy funds with similar investment styles and significant overlap in holdings, they don't get the diversification they're seeking.
Fund honchos know which of their funds are substantially similar; investors should be told, too. A simple statement showing which members of the family have, say, 20% overlap would do. Disclose -- in the part about risks of ownership -- that buying a fund if you already own certain sister funds creates the risk of concentrating a portfolio, rather than diversifying it.
3. Provide comparative fee information.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but above-average costs are a sign that a fund is going to have a tough time in all market conditions. Yet when a fund discloses its expense ratio, it doesn't show how those costs shape up against the competition.
If funds can compare performance to an index or average -- as they are required to do in the prospectus -- they can compare expenses with the average fund in the peer group.
They could simply add a column or two to the fee chart, showing the fund's costs followed by the averages for actively and passively managed funds in the same category or peer group.
4. Show manager records, relative to the same benchmarks used for the fund.
Continuing the theme of better comparative data, funds should disclose each manager's career track record relative to the peer groups and benchmarks each has competed with.
That way, shareholders can not only see clearly if a new manager has been good or bad since they replaced the old skipper, but also get a clear view of a manager's evolving career history. It would give investors a better idea of the manager's abilities. Even if some stinker that the manager ran in the past was killed off, the record of it wouldn't be buried.
Fund companies have these numbers: They use them to judge managers and decide which ones deserve to keep their jobs (or are qualified in the first place). Give shareholders the data on individual managers (and on team-managed funds, give us the record of the team), and let us decide for ourselves.
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5. Pay directors with fund shares, and disclose which funds they choose for their compensation.
Shareholders want independent directors' interests to be aligned with their own. Paying directors with shares would help accomplish this. Not only would it prevent directors from having no stake at all in the fund -- an all-too-common reality that investors can discover only by reading deep into fund documents -- but it would also tell investors which funds directors are most comfortable with.
That information is so valuable that it might get shareholders -- or their financial advisers -- to dig further into the disclosure documents.
6. Offer a quick summary of prospectus changes.
Whenever a fund changes its prospectus or the rules it operates under, those adjustments should be highlighted upfront. Sports rule books, for example, typically do this. By highlighting what is different this year, the fund immediately alerts investors to what has changed and what they might want to look at, even if all they do is skim the documents.
7. Declare what a fund really means to its manager.
We'd all like to believe that the fund we own is the most important task on our fund manager's agenda. But read a fund's "statement of additional information" -- it's the second part of a prospectus, the one that funds don't actually send you -- and you may find that your fund boss runs other funds, hedge funds, private accounts and more.
What shareholders really want to know is how much money the manager (or team) handles, how much of that their own fund accounts for, and how much of the manager or firm's income is from their fund. When a fund is a small part of the manager's responsibility or compensation, we probably shouldn't make it a big part of our portfolios.
And while we're improving disclosure about managers, let's put the disclosure of a manager's holdings in a fund into a one-line boldface sentence right below their bio. It should be in the part of the prospectus that shareholders are sent, rather than buried in the back.
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