Is there an actual fee war being waged among exchange-traded fund providers or are fees being adjusted merely according to standard operating procedure?
Either or both, depending on whom you ask.
For example, the Vanguard Group last month slashed expense ratios for three funds while upping expenses for two others. The High Dividend Index Funds ETF shares saw its expense reduced from 13 basis points to 10 bps while its investor share shed 5 bps from 25 bps to 20 bps. Also, the Select Value Fund dropped its expense ratio from 45 bps to 38 bps.
At the same time, two other funds, the International Explorer Fund and the Mid-Cap Growth Fund, upped their expenses from 42 bps to 43 bps and 53 bps to 54 bps, respectively.
But the firm is definitely not engaged in a fee war with other providers, according to Joel Dickson, a senior ETF strategist at Vanguard. Rather, the firm runs its funds at cost and whatever the costs are get divided by the funds' assets to produce expense ratios, he said.
Also, sub-advisors' performance fees are tagged onto the funds relative to how they perform against their benchmarks can also influence the fund's expense increases, according to Dickson. "We're not using funds as loss leaders to try and sell things like advice or other more expensive higher revenue products," he said.
"We've been doing this since our inception in 1975. It's a different approach than what others are doing where you're seeing them decide which portfolios to lower and how much to lower them by. I kind of bristle at the idea that Vanguard is engaged in a series of fee wars because we're not."
If you look at a firm like Vanguard, "they are often obliged to adjust fees when assets reach certain levels because they run the company based on covering costs. So their view is to be cost-efficient for their clients and it is part of the way they work,'" said Deborah Fuhr, managing partner at ETF research shop ETFGI.
There is an awareness "that cost is something that takes away from performance and people are becoming more aware of the costs and how things like securities lending work,'' said Fuhr. "When journalists see a change, they all say it's a fee war."
Yet, it could be. BlackRock's iShares and Charles Schwab Investment Management say they intend to gain share of investors' assets, at all costs. Including lowering fees.
The iShares ETF business at BlackRock last October created the iShares Core Series, a group of 10 ETFs specially designed for long-term, buy-and-hold investors. The funds' expense ratios range from a low of seven basis points for the Core S&P 500 ETF to a high of 18 bps for the Core MSCI Emerging Market ETF. The firm also created a dedicated advertising campaign, including its first-ever television ads, to target smaller retail investors and educate them about the uses of ETFs in their portfolios.
"Essentially we recognize that there are different types of ETF investors and buy-and-hold investors (be they retail or institutional investors) are more sensitive to expense ratios," said Christine Hudacko, a spokesperson for the firm.
The firm currently does not have any current plans to change the pricing on other products.
For its part, Charles Schwab played its part in creating a few war last month by launching Schwab ETF OneSource, which provides advisors and investors access to commission-free ETFs from other providers such as State Street SPDR ETFs, Guggenheim Investments and PowerShares, as well as Schwab's own funds.
"By working with these leading ETF managers to offer the largest selection, we've created a new home for clients to buy and sell ETFs that is an important complement to the tools and resources we offer to help them achieve their goals," stated Charles Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger.
But, of course, there is an ulterior motive here. "What Schwab is doing in terms of offering more products at zero commission is quite interesting for financial advisors and retail investors," said Fuhr. "If you look at the data they provide quarterly on the amount of assets held in custody accounts, they have a very significant weight in terms of ETF ownership in the U.S."
At the end of the year there was $152 billion in custody on the Schwab platform, Fuhr said. "If you're an online broker, the real challenge is getting people to open accounts,'' she said. "So offering zero commission on a broad array of ETFs will likely encourage people to open accounts on the Charles Schwab platform, which means they will be able to cross-sell their products."
Last September, the firm cut the price of its ETFs, in some cases, by more than half. For example: management fees for the Schwab U.S. Dividend ETF has been reduced from 17 basis points to 7 bps, its U.S. Small-Cap ETF from 13 bps to 7 bps and its U.S. Large-Cap ETF from 8 bps to 4 bps.
Schwab also boasts on its Web site that its ETFs "have the lowest operating expenses in their respective Lipper categories-even lower than Vanguard and iShares ETFs."
For example, in the multi-cap core category, the Schwab U S Broad Market ETF (SCHB) boasts expenses of 4 basis points compared to Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF expenses of 6 bps and the iShares MSCI USA Min Volatility 15 bps expense rate.
Let the fee battles continue.