Sunday, 13 November 2011

High fees dampener for unit trust

High fees of 5-7% as front end commissions for unit trusts are simply outrageous, you can not expect to make much more than that over a year in the long run given the relatively low Corporate Governance standards in Malaysia, see my previous blog post:

Giving away the gains of one whole year in commissions is therefore utterly ridiculous. If you own a house that you want to rent out, do you give the agent a commission equivalent to one year rental?

The authorities should come down hard on these kind of practices. Fees of 1% (for larger amounts) up to 2% (for smaller amounts) are reasonable.

As long as that has not happened, boycot the ones that charge more, and go for the online portals or the niche operators with the more reasonable fees

Unit trusts are gaining popularity among investors as an important source of investment and retirement savings. But are investors getting a fair deal from the high charges being imposed by the industry and will lower charges really mean better returns for investors?

THERE is nothing that really fazes a seasoned investor. They are used to losing and making money on the stock market. They understand the game.

But if there's one thing that irks veteran investor Jason Yap, who has been a unit trust investor for a decade, is that he already starts losing money before he has a chance to make a profit.

What irritates Yap, who is a retiree, is the high upfront fee he has to endure, and that has a profound impact on the return on his investment.
“The upfront fee of between 5% and 7% is rather high and should be lowered for us to enjoy better returns. The upfront charge one has to pay when buying into a fund will impact the returns received from the fund. It is pointless to invest in something that at the end of the day will bite into' the returns or monies received from the particular investment.

“Many of us have taken out monies from our savings to invest in unit trusts. For unit trust to be effective in boosting retirement savings, the charges should be lowered or even abolished,” he adds.

That argument is as old as the industry itself. Since establishing its roots in 1959, the unit trust industry in Malaysia has grown steadily over the years and has really blossomed since the various periods of market turbulence, especially the Asian financial crisis in 1997/98.
Foo says a dichotomy exists in Malaysia where different rates are being charged to different entities.

One of the major qualms among investors for some time now is its high sales charges.

The main grouse has been the upfront charges, which is money people have to pay when they buy into a fund. Then there is the exit charges, which are money paid when they cash out of a fund, and the annual management fee, which is a charge imposed by the fund to manage people's money.

The current upfront fee ranges from 5% to 6.5% on the invested amount, except for money from Employees Provident Fund (EPF) to invest in funds (under the EPF Members Investment Scheme) which is capped to 3% since Jan 1, 2008.

The exit fee may be 1% or higher but much depends on the structure of the fund. The annual management fee ranges from 1% to 1.5% and the trustee fees is from 0.5% to 1%.

A call to review sales charges
Is there a need for the industry to review its charges to make the unit trust industry more appealing to investors? Some industry observers think so.

Malaysian Financial Planners and Advisors Association (MFPAA) deputy president Robert Foo thinks front-end fees should be reduced or completely removed so that investors can enjoy higher returns.
The other purpose of such a radical but common practice in matured markets is that the whole industry can then move from a sales push culture to that of a professional advisory culture where investors can work with licensed and professional financial advisors if they so wish.

“It should be noted that in developed countries like Britain and Australia, there is a regulatory push for such financial products to be delivered on a fee for service basis rather than on a high push environment with upfront sales commissions. In Britain, the government has legislated that by Jan 1, 2013, all financial products are not allowed to have commissions attached.

“Agents or financial advisors are required to charge investors directly for services provided, therefore ensuring that their interest aligns with that of the investors,” he adds.

Foo, who is also the managing director of licensed financial planning company MyFP Services Sdn Bhd, says a dichotomy exists in Malaysia where different rates are being charged to different entities.

For money withdrawn from the EPF, people pay 3% to buy into a unit trust, but for walk-in customers, they are charged 6%.

“Does it mean that your EPF money is more valuable than your hard cash?” he asks.
“I think the upfront fee is too high and eats into the returns of investors. The average compounded rate of return of equity unit trusts in Malaysia over the last 10 years is only about 7.5% per annum, and losing 6% upfront is too high a cost for investors,” Foo says.
An industry observer says the Securities Commission should consider compelling unit trust companies to waive the upfront charges, similar to funds under Fidelity Investment, which is one of the largest mutual fund companies in the world with over US$1.46 trillion in assets under management.

Foo says it is cheaper to buy funds through the Internet, for example through or, which imposes an upfront charge of 1% to 2%.

Much higher than regional peers
Licensed financial planner Jeremy Tan of Standard Financial Planner Sdn Bhd says the upfront fee is considered high compared with countries like Singapore and Hong Kong.

Tan says that depending on the sophistication of the product, the unfront fee in Singapore ranges from 3% to 5%, but adds that there is an alternative platform for investing in unit trusts, with upfront fees ranging from 0.75% to 2%, depending on the amount invested. In this latest alternative, there is a wrap fee of up to 1% per annum.

He says the alternative is also available in Malaysia, where the upfront fee is lower than what is currently charged by investing directly through the fund house.

He expects the industry to eventually lower the charges in line with other Asian countries such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Foo says that due to the open nature of the Hong Kong and Singapore markets, where local funds have to compete with global fund houses at the retail and wholesale market sector, the fund companies can reduce the upfront charges to even zero. Also, there is no tied agency structure in these countries unlike Malaysia.

Lower charges, better returns?
Those arguing for lower charges will undoubtedly look at the average return of 7.5% per annum over the past decade by unit trust firms and say a lower fee will bump up returns.

Tan, however, believes lowering the sales charges will not necessary provide better returns to investor. It depends on the performance of the fund manager or the fund house in relation to the funds invested among others.

Pacific Mutual Fund Bhd executive director and CEO Gary Gan concurs. He says the performance of a fund and its relevance to investors is key rather than merely looking at charges.

At the end of the day, the basic rule of investing is making an informed decision. This means investors need to have sufficient information and knowledge of the product they are investing in, he notes.

MAAKL Mutual Bhd CEO Wong Boon Choy says any attempt to restructure the front-end and back-end charges will require very careful study and strong will on the part of the authorities to make tough changes to the rules and regulations on existing distribution channels which is dominated by a tied-agency system.
“Agent commissions have already been compressed when the EPF capped the maximum service charge to 3%. This translates to more than 50% reduction in the normal service charge. The front-end service charge is the primary means of compensating the agents for the service they provide to investors,” he explains.
Wong, who is also the president of the Financial Planning Association of Malaysia (FPAM), estimates the tied agency force to be over 60,000 at the end of last year.

Meanwhile, Areca Capital Sdn Bhd CEO Danny Wong feels the market should determine the fee structure as ultimately good performance and achievingthe investor's objective are more important.
Tan says the upfront fees are considered high compared with Singapore and Hong Kong.
He says there are funds with upfront fees distributed by banks or unit trust companies as well as those with almost no front-end fees being solddirectly by niche fund managers or via online portals. He points out that there is no evidence of superiority of either practice as the choice of investment is left to the investors.
Lowering or abolishing sales charges, says Steve Lim, chief product officer of HwangDBS Investment Management Bhd, will provide investors a quicker path to garnering returns on their investment, but at the same time, might encourage many to make regular withdrawals.

From the perspective of unit trust management companies, the lowering of sales charge to 3% has helped change investors' mindset and allowed them to realise that unit trust is a viable investment and pension planning instrument, Lim adds.

CIMB-Principal Asset Management Bhd CEO Campbell Tupling says the industry fee structure in Malaysia is primarily on the front-end as the back-end fees are not significant.

“Investors know what they are paying for. Fees are transparent and clearly stated. Investors are free to choose how they wish to be serviced. There are other means of investing at a lower cost, for example exchange traded funds (ETFs). However, investors have yet to embrace ETFs in a meaningful way,” he adds.

With high sales charges of unit trust funds, which generally are open ended funds, will it make more sense for investors to switch their investments into close-end funds or other instruments like ETFs? Bhd managing director Tan Teng Boo does not think so. Unless the fund manager has an excellent track record, he says it is hard to promote and list a close-end fund like Bhd on Bursa Malaysia.

Tan says any such fund has to go through an initial public offering process and is not so profitable for fund management companies to promote and list close-end funds as there are no entry fees or front-end loadings or commissions, he adds. At the same time, he says investors in Malaysia are not familiar with closed-end funds. Bhd is the only listed closed-end fund in the country.

From the company's records, Bhd's cumulative returns for the five-year period (between Oct 19, 2005 and Dec 30, 2010) stood at 109%. (Note: the fund was not traded on Dec 31, 2010).
The top half of the Equity Malaysia Funds (equity unit trust funds) returns range from 84% to 196% during the five-year period (Dec 31, 2005 to Dec 31, 2010).

Wong says that in general, unit trust funds are more popular than closed-end funds. With the so-called guaranteed buy-back feature, investors can be assured that the unit trust management company will buy back their units in the event the investors need to make a redemption or liquidation.

“Unlike unit trust funds, the trading price of the closed-end fund is dictated by market force and investor sentiment. In the event the investors of the closed-end funds want to liquidate their holdings, they can only liquidate or sell through the brokers on the stock exchange where the units are subject to the market forces of supply and demand.
“Therefore, the prices can be volatile in the secondary market where investors may sell their units at a discount or premium. In this case, liquidity is one of the major concerns for investors of closed-end funds,” he says.

Foo feels investing in closed-end funds or open-end funds has its pros and cons, but much depends on the skill and capability of the investment manager to deliver the returns by taking advantage of the inherent features of the two structures.

Tan of Standard Financial Planner says more research and analysis on close-end funds is required before investing, compared with unit trust investment where the fund's objectives of distribution policies, inherent risks, minimum investment period are clearly spelt out in its prospectus.

Every investor wants to preserve capital invested and a return corresponding with the risk taken, he explains.
Currently, there are over 580 unit trust funds in the market compared with only five listed ETFs on Bursa, namely CIMB FTSE Asean40, CIMB FTSE China 25, FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI ETF, MyETF Dow Jones Islamic Market Malaysia Titans 25 and ABF Malaysia Bond Index Fund.
For example, returns to date (Jan 1 to Oct 31) of FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI ETF stands at -0.16%. The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI was down 2.71% during the same period.

Lim says ETFs can be a good choice for investors who have knowledge of the stock market and have the expertise to make investment decisions on their own. For the normal saver, however, unit trusts tend to be more appropriate as the investments are managed by professionals who have the skill sets to make complex investment decisions.

Gan, however, feels investors should consider other factors rather than solely relying on returns data. Factors like volatility of the instrument and fund size are equally important when investing in a particular fund.

Growth momentum and key challenges
With the current uncertainties in the global economy coupled by the eurozone debt crisis, is the unit trust industry able to ride out the global economic slowdown to continue its growth path?
Industry players generally think the industry will continue to grow albeit at a slower phase. CIMB-Principal's Tupling projects a low single-digit growth for the rest of the year and anticipates the industry's asset under management to grow about 5% to RM104bil this year.
In terms of net asset value (NAV), the investments in unit trust funds held by 14 million account holders stood at RM240bil last year compared with RM44bil in 2000, an increase of about 45% per annum.
Wong feels the market should determine the fee structure as good performance and achieving objectives are vital.
He says that new investment in equity funds has slowed but it is not a significant drop, adding that redemptions are also lower than expected.
The growing risk aversion, he says, will result in higher demand for more defensive and conservative asset classes like dividend-yielding equities and fixed income securities.
Lim of HwangDBS expects single-digit growth this year due to poor market sentiment and high risk aversion in view of the uncertainties in the global economy.

He says the main challenges faced by the industry is the need to address the question on how growth momentum can be maintained as well as to promote unit trust fund as a staple in building long-term wealth. He says there is also a need to change the short-term investor mindset.

Gan says while the current gloomy outlook may have impacted equity funds, not all can be lumped in the same boat. Funds like Islamic and money market are thriving and the factors that will ultimately attribute to industry growth is how well funds perform and deliver products that meet investor needs.
Areca Capital's Wong expects the industry to continue growing at a double-digit rate. With investment markets getting more volatile, he says investors may find it harder to grow their investments resulting in migration of more funds into the fund management industry.

Competition from international players is the other main challenge for local players, he notes. To face the challenges, Wong adds innovativeness and excellent service standard is needed.
It is therefore important to allow different types of business models and strategies to combat that threat, especially when facing the establishedgiant international players, so that each player will continue its role and find its niche within the industry, he says.

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