Spiking market volatility and a renewed threat of global economic stagnation caused by COVID- 19 has sent stressed-out investors flocking to advisors.
Many advisors have been reporting a rise in new clients since last spring’s lockdown, and a new survey commissioned by Manulife Investment Management backs it up. It shows 63 per cent of respondents plan to seek investment advice in 2020 compared with half in 2019. And more than half of respondents in Canada indicated they were interested in retirement planning and investing advice.
It’s good that more people are looking for long-term retirement plans managed by professionals, but fear can lead investors into fee traps that consume their investment dollars.
The path to those fee traps typically begins with investors looking to coordinate a mishmash of investments in their registered retirement savings plans (RRSP), and tax-free savings accounts (TFSA). For the vast majority of Canadians, the only route to a diversified, professionally-managed portfolio is through mutual funds.
The price investors pay for diversification and professional management in a mutual fund is an annual fee based on a percentage of the money they have invested called the management expense ratio (MER). MERs vary depending on the fund company and asset class, but a typical MER on a Canadian equity fund purchased through an advisor is about 2.5 per cent.
That might not seem like a lot at first glance, but on a $500,000 portfolio of mutual funds, it adds up to $12,500 annually whether the fund makes money or not. That’s $12,500 each year not invested and not compounding, and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars over a lifetime of investing.
Baked into the MER is a hidden trailing commission, or trailer fee, to compensate the advisor who sold the fund for “ongoing advice.” A typical trailer fee is one per cent annually – or $5,000 on a $500,000 portfolio of mutual funds each year.
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Trailer fees are banned in most of the developed world due to the inherent perception of conflict of interest. You have to wonder if an advisor is selling a fund because it is right for the investor or because it provides the best trailer fee from the mutual fund company.
And it get’s worse.
Some advisors will direct investors toward segregated funds, which are essentially mutual funds wrapped in an insurance product. Seg funds have the potential to make money from the investments they hold but are insured, or partially insured, against losses on the principal amount invested over long terms – often 19 years. Investors pay for that extra security through higher MERs. Manulife – the company that commissioned the survey – for example, sells segregated funds with MERs above three per cent.
Segregated funds have certain advantages for small business owners wanting to protect their savings in the event of bankruptcy, but sometimes appear in workplace defined contribution pension plans.
Advisors sometimes push seg funds on unsuspecting clients through a regulatory loophole known as “the-know-your-client rule,” which requires advisors to document a questionnaire relating to return goals and risk tolerance, and only sell investments in line with the client’s answers.
Some clients might not understand that all investments have some degree of risk and say they expect their savings to grow risk-free. Only segregated funds fit that bill.
Payback Time is a weekly column by personal finance columnist Dale Jackson about how to prepare your finances for retirement. Have a question you want answered? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.