Fidelity Index Fund Fee Cuts Reflect New Industry Realities

An announcement this week that Fidelity is launching retail mutual funds with management expense ratios of zero basis points shows how asset managers are evolving to capture a greater share of a shrinking fee pool.

Fidelity this week announced a sweeping initiative to reduce fees for retail investing customers, including the launch of a series of “Fidelity ZERO Index Funds,” which are billed by the firm as “self-indexed, zero expense ratio mutual funds.”

Coinciding with the launch of these funds, Fidelity says it is implementing “across-the-board zero minimums to open accounts, zero account fees, zero domestic money movement fees, and zero investment minimums on Fidelity retail and adviser mutual funds and 529 plans.”

As explained to PLANSPONSOR by a Fidelity spokesperson, the significantly reduced and simplified pricing on the new and existing Fidelity index mutual funds “[is] meant to deliver unparalleled value, simplicity and choice for clients.”

“Right now, these funds are only available to our retail customers,” the spokesperson noted. “However, we’re always reviewing and evaluating our product lineup, and we do currently offer a broad selection of low-cost index funds that are currently available to plan sponsors for their defined contribution [DC] lineups. These [new index] funds are available for IRAs [individual retirement accounts].”

According to the firm, the Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund and the Fidelity ZERO International Index Fund are among the industry’s first self-indexed mutual funds with a zero expense ratio available directly to individual investors.

“This means investors will pay a 0.00% fee, regardless of how much they invest in either fund, while gaining exposure to nearly the entire global stock market,” Fidelity suggests. “The funds will be available on as of August 3.”

In addition to offering the self-indexed mutual funds with a zero expense ratio, Fidelity is reducing the pricing on its existing stock and bond index mutual funds. Fidelity says it will provide investors the lowest-priced share class available, ensuring every investor, regardless of how much they invest, will benefit from the lowest possible fees. The average asset-weighted annual expense across Fidelity’s stock and bond index fund lineups will decrease by 35%, with funds as low as 0.015%. These changes will save shareholders approximately $47 million annually, according to the firm.

Implications for the retirement planning market

The news is important for the retirement plan market insofar as it includes the broad pricing cuts on index funds and the new availability of zero expense ratio mutual funds for individual retirement accounts. But these aren’t the only reasons why retirement industry practitioners should take note. As highlighted in the July issue of “The Cerulli Edge, U.S. Asset and Wealth Management Edition,” there are multiple causes of fee compression in the asset management industry today, and the distinct causes of fee compression are compounding upon each other to prompt dramatic industry change.

At a very high level, the increasing importance of asset allocation advice, both within retirement plans and for individual wealth management clients, is perhaps the strongest driver fueling a decline in asset management fees and margins for providers. Bing Waldert, director at Cerulli and lead author of the report, observes that managers “are in many cases actually dropping fees on asset management products to near zero.” Fidelity’s move this week is a perfect example.

“Instead, they are choosing to charge for asset allocation, a task traditionally performed by the wealth manager,” Waldert observes. “The growth of asset allocation advice demonstrates how asset and wealth managers are using these industry trends to enter each other’s value chains and attempt to capture a greater share of a shrinking fee pool.”

While the trend has not yet fully come to pass, Cerulli’s reporting suggests automation is another factor that continues to compress overall management fees.

“Automation will lower the cost of transactions, bringing down fees in wealth management,” Waldert adds. “In addition, digital advice platforms emphasize asset allocation, which pressures fees in individual asset manager products and benefits exchange-traded funds [ETFs].”

Reflections on Fidelity’s position

Fidelity already made waves once this year with shifts in its fee practices. In February, the firm made an unanticipated announcement that it would begin charging a 0.05% fee on assets invested through its institutional retirement plan recordkeeping platform into Vanguard products, including that firm’s popular (and very low-cost) suite of index-based target-date funds (TDFs) and collective trusts.

The announcement grabbed attention for some obvious reasons, including that Fidelity and Vanguard are two of the largest-volume providers of retirement plan recordkeeping and investment products for defined contribution (DC) retirement plans in the U.S. Speaking then with PLANSPONSOR, a Fidelity spokesperson confirmed that the nominally small fee “applies only to new clients.” But, given the sheer volume of business conducted by Fidelity and Vanguard in a given year, the fee change could result in a significant amount of new revenue for Fidelity.

Fidelity is still in the process of rolling out the fee on its recordkeeping platform, so it is a little soon to tell how clients may react. However, what is clear is that the move, like the one this week to introduce zero expense ratio mutual funds to retail customers, reflects a fundamental ground shift that is occurring in the way clients perceive the cost-value equation in asset management, both on the retail and the institutional sides. Until only just the last few years, the defined contribution investment only (DCIO) side of the asset management industry remained strongly profitable for diversified providers such as Fidelity, even as clients pushed back on high recordkeeping fees. Today, client expectations are shifting yet again, and there is clear evidence of a similar race to the bottom in terms of costs on the investment management side.

In this respect, it is interesting to ask whether this type of zero expense ratio product could one day work in the institutional space, where it may be harder for a firm to run such products profitably on trading fees alone. This approach is seemingly the bet Fidelity is making on the retail side by offering ostensibly free asset management in its newest funds.

The Fidelity spokesperson declined to specifically address this question, but Kathleen Murphy, president of Fidelity Investments’ personal investing business, shared the following statement: “We are charting a new course in index investing that benefits investors of all ages—from Millennials to Baby Boomers—and at all affluence levels and stages of their lives. The groundbreaking zero expense ratio index funds combined with industry-leading zero minimums for account opening, zero investment minimums, zero account fees, zero domestic money movement fees and significantly reduced index pricing are unmatched by any other financial services company.”