Zap zombie funds within your portfolio

November 1, 2011

zombie index fundsDo you have zombie index funds within your portfolio?

Instead of eating up your brains, they devour your nest egg with high expenses and walking dead performance. They may be lurking within your 401(k)-type plan or individual retirement account.

I like index funds because they generally can track nearly any kind of asset class. As such, they are the white bread of investing and should cost about the same from fund to fund. The cheaper the better. Why pay Nieman-Marcus prices for the same thing you can get at Costco or Sam’s Club for less?

You can vanquish these funds without overtly violent acts, but first you have to identify them. Unfortunately, mandated fee disclosure is still pending, so you have to take the initiative.

So how do you identify a zombie fund? First you need a reliable benchmark for comparison purposes. The easiest way is to look at the index that the fund is supposed to be tracking. A good proxy for the U.S. bond market, for example, is the Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index. It’s a basket of listed bonds. If a fund tracks the index return within 0.20 percentage points or less, then that’s pretty good and not expensive.

A low-cost bond index fund would look like the Fidelity Spartan Intermediate Term Bond Index investor class fund, with a 0.20 percent expense ratio. You’d need at least $10,000 to get into this fund, though.

You want to pay a manager more to get less return on bonds? The ING US Bond Index portfolio charges a hefty 0.95 percent annually, meaning it will lag the index by nearly a full percentage point every year.

What about garden-variety stock index funds? Suppose you were stuck in a fund like the Principal Large Cap S&P 500 Index fund (C Shares). The managers charge you 1.3 percent annually to hold a basket of the largest U.S. stocks. You could reap huge savings by replacing it with the Fidelity Spartan S&P 500 Index Advantage fund, with an expense ratio of 0.07 percent.

Here’s where “less is more” refers to more than architecture. The Principal fund lagged the S&P index by roughly a percentage point over the past year through Oct. 28.

The Fidelity index fund, in contrast, slightly beat the index over the same period. By lowering your expense ratio, you got back that percentage point you would’ve lost in the more expensive fund.

Over time, the numbers add up. Let’s say you had $100,000 in the Principal fund earning 5 percent over 30 years. At the end of that period, you’d have lost more than $140,000 to fees and foregone earnings. The Fidelity fund would have only cost you about $9,000. So one decision can save you roughly $131,000. Run your own numbers on the free SEC Mutual Fund Expense Analyzer. It will take about two minutes.

If you have a zombie fund in your portfolio, run away from it and consider offerings in the DFA, Fidelity, iShares, Schwab, TIAA-CREF or Vanguard groups.

Have a nest-egg eater in your 401(k)? Suggest alternatives to your employer or plan administrator. By law, they must provide the most prudent, low-cost choices. You can sue them if they’ve loaded your plan with zombies. Several employee groups have done so in recent years — and won.

Should we be facing a “new normal” era of single-digit returns in stocks and bonds, fund expenses will make the difference between a robust retirement or falling short. Costs matter, but don’t be among the walking dead who never bother to look at fund expenses.

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