Expense ratios are the first thing most investors will look at
when evaluating an ETF, and that's information that is easy to find
on an issuer's website. What may surprise investors, however, is
that the expense ratio may not be entirely accurate.
The reality is that for many of the 1,400-plus U.S.-listed
on the market today, the expense ratio is not a set-in-stone fee,
but rather a moving target that goes up and down as a result of
changes in a fund's total assets. That means that the fee for an
ETF can change every day.
This isn't news to industry veterans. These type of expense
ratio calculations are widely used among the major U.S. fund
providers, but it's an issue that came front and center recently
when iShares-the largest ETF provider in the world-updated
prospectuses on 43 of its ETFs late last year.
The fresh round of paperwork was procedural. Regulators require
ETF providers to update prospectuses on funds once a year, but
iShares surprised an industry that has grown accustomed to
declining ETF fees by listing higher expense ratios on 40 of those
43 funds on Dec. 31.
While several news services and publications-including
IndexUniverse-reported on the fee changes, which affected big
popular funds including the $50 billion iShares MSCI Emerging
Market Index Fund (NYSEArca:EEM), iShares was quick to challenge
the notion that it was increasing fees, arguing that the new
expense ratio figures were already stale, a symptom of
backward-looking regulatory filings.
As they stood, the Dec. 31-dated prospectuses listed expense
ratios that reflected a 12-month rolling average of fees accrued
during the fiscal year ended Aug. 31, 2012.
Since then, many of those ETFs-including EEM-have seen solid
asset growth, which meant expense ratios were in fact going down,
Legally, iShares had to report in its new prospectus that the
fee on EEM had climbed to 0.69 percent from 0.67 percent in the
prior filing, but grappled with the fact that the actual fee that
an investor would pay for EEM on Jan. 1 was actually lower than the
price in the prospectus:0.66 percent.
A New Way Of Stating Expense Ratios
What followed is perhaps one of the most interesting new
developments in the evolution of ETFs and fees. iShares decided to
try something new on its website and start listing not one, but two
expense ratios for 105 of its 280 ETFs.
"As an advocate for greater transparency of ETFs, we felt that
it was useful to provide investors with more current information on
expense ratios," said Robert Nestor, managing director and head of
iShares Global Product Marketing.
The iShares Web page for EEM, therefore, now posts two expense
ratios:0.69 percent as the stated expense ratio as of Aug. 31,
2012, and 0.66 percent as the expense ratio as of Dec. 31,
Which should you believe?
The truth is neither 0.69 percent nor 0.66 percent.
The 0.69 percent in expenses is from the prospectus, which
calculates the average annual expenses for the 12-month period
ending Aug. 31, 2012. The 0.66 percent in expenses is derived
solely from asset levels on the final day of the quarter, and this
one-day calculation will be updated at the end of each quarter
But what's the expense ratio today?
iShares, like many ETF providers, sets its investment advisory
fee-by far the largest contributor to the total expense ratio-based
on a sliding scale of assets:The more assets, the lower the fee.
That's a good thing, because the firm is sharing economies of
scale. But as an investor, with the asset-dependent fees, you have
no way of knowing what you're paying. And the reality of fund
accounting is that BlackRock is waiving fees-voluntarily, per the
prospectus-that exceed a certain threshold. That waiver, in the
case of EEM, expires in 2014, and history would suggest that once a
cap is in place, it tends to stay in place.
It's worth noting, of course, that iShares is not alone in any
of this:Fees at many issuers are asset-dependent, and the
expense-cap game is commonplace.
Vanguard, for instance, runs its funds at cost and regularly
adjusts fees both up and down to account for asset growth or
Between A Rock And A Hard Place
On the surface, the reason for the iShares change in
expense-ratio reporting was to increase clarity for
investors-something many were quick to congratulate iShares
"I think that's great that they put a more nuanced expense ratio
up on their website," said Dave Nadig, director of research at
IndexUniverse. "My initial take is we should applaud them for it;
iShares was caught between a rock and a hard place.
On one side, it faced a regulatory requirement that says an
issuer has to publish the same expense ratio for an ETF in its
marketing materials as it has in its most up-to-date
To remain compliant, iShares would have to report that the
published expense ratios on 40 of its funds were higher than in the
previous prospectus-a PR disaster, no doubt, at a time of downward
pressure on expense ratios.
On the flip side, the firm grappled with the reality that these
higher price tags were in fact no longer accurate. Because issuers
have up to 120 days to update prospectuses after the end of the
fiscal year-and we are told most issuers wait until the very last
day to do so-many of the iShares funds in question had gathered
enough assets to see those ratios drop in the last three months of
2012. Got it?
The result was this unprecedented approach-the listing of two
expense ratios-as iShares looked to sweep up a public relations
challenge it didn't fully anticipate.
In defense of iShares, it all comes back to the fact that the
prospectus is a snapshot in time, and the firm is trying to
minimize the impact of a potentially misleading fund cost figure in
an annual document.
"They're not real-time documents," said Kathleen Moriarty, a
partner at Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York, said about fund
"It might be reflective of the price on the day you buy it, and
it might not," Moriarty said, who helped write the prospectus on
the first U.S.-listed exchange-traded fund, the SPDR S&P 500
It's not clear whether iShares sought or obtained approval from
regulators to add a second snapshot of fund expense ratios on its
105 ETFs that are structured with expense ratios that change as a
function of fund assets.
An official at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority
declined to talk about company-specific regulatory matters, and it
wasn't immediately clear from iShares officials whether there were
conversations between its compliance department and FINRA.
clear is that by including the 0.69 percent figure on the website,
iShares has remained in compliance by explicitly acknowledging the
legally binding characteristics of a fund's prospectus.
To Each His Own
While iShares isn't alone in its math, that doesn't mean other
companies will follow iShares' lead just yet in breaking out
multiple, time-period-dependent, expense ratios.
As an example, Vanguard just cut the expense ratio on its
Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (NYSEArca:VWO) by 10 percent to
0.18 percent based on a 23 percent increase in assets in the 12
months ended Oct. 31, 2012.
The fund's assets have climbed another 7 percent since then, so
that means the fee is indeed lower than 18 basis points, but
Vanguard has no plans to break out that more-current fee.
"While the continued asset growth of VWO will likely result in
additional savings, Vanguard will continue to report the fiscal
year expense ratio figure, as is industry standard, so that
investors may make apples-to-apples comparisons with peer ETFs,"
Vanguard Head of Public Relations John Woerth said.
For the record, all of Vanguard's funds have expense ratios that
rise and fall in line with changes in assets-and expenses-and
iShares, as noted, does so on 105 of its 280 funds.
For its part, State Street Global Advisors, the No. 2 U.S. ETF
company by assets, only uses this fee structure on its sector
funds. On the rest, it employs a so-called unitary fee structure
under which the expense ratio is set by the fund board and doesn't
change until the board decides to.
Blame The Fee Wars
You might ask, as you take in the differences in price that
iShares is parsing with its new double-expense ratio disclosure,
What is a basis point or 2 worth at the end of the day?
From an investor perspective, 1 basis point is $1 in annual fees
for each $10,000 invested.
While regulators are quick to point out that small numbers can
lead to big differences in returns over time, many others in the
money management industry aren't impressed by such small
"To me it just seems like a tempest in a teapot," Moriarty said,
adding she doubts regulators would pay too much attention to how a
company reports its fees if the differences from what's in the
prospectus are so small.
Rick Ferri, president of Michigan-based registered investment
advisor Portfolio Solutions, goes one step deeper in his analysis,
linking the undue focus on iShares' initiative to a fee war that
has been sweeping through the ETF industry for the past few
"This wouldn't even be a story if it weren't for all the focus
on fees in the past year,' Ferri told IndexUniverse.
But investors and industry sources may agree to disagree.
"Even small differences in fees can translate into large
differences in returns over time," the Securities and Exchange
Commission warned on public documents on 40-Act fund fee
And from iShares' perspective, 1 basis point in fees on a $50
billion ETF like EEM is worth $5 million in annual revenue.
And that certainly sounds important-whether that's added to or
subtracted from the world's biggest ETF company's top-line
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