Merchandising is a key driver in the investment process
Gordon Powers The National Post Saturday, July 15, 2000
Like an aging political party, Canada's mutual fund industry runs the risk of losing touch with its constituents.

In some cases, more affluent investors have simply outgrown the one-size-fits-all solutions that investment funds offer. For many though, the problem runs much deeper: These people think they've been duped or, at least, left to draw the wrong conclusions.

And they may be right.

An investor staggered by fund overload is likely at the end of the day to gravitate toward the names with which he or she is most familiar. That tends to be those companies that have saturated the advertising and the distribution channels, not necessarily those that have been quietly making money.

To get their individual messages out to advisers, for instance, the top 20 load companies have really been beefing up their sales staffs, increasing the number of wholesalers pitching to fund dealers and individual advisers to 333 in 1999 from 200 in 1997, according to recent data from Environics Research Group. A good wholesaler's sole motivation is to make sure that his fund family is always front and centre before advisers sit down with their clients.

Why should you care? Well, for very practical reasons, most advisers want to deal with only a handful of fund families. As a result, it's the quality of this wholesaler relationship that largely determines the funds you hear about. In fact, following performance, regular contact from a wholesaler ranks as the No. 2 reason advisers cite for recommending a fund, Environics reports.

Don't for a minute think that because you're talking about your life savings that merchandising is not a key driver in the investment process. Grocery retailers don't stock products on shelves in a haphazard manner; they utilize the available space in an optimum fashion, putting popular products at eye level and less attractive ones on lower shelves. The fund business isn't much different.

Similarly, clothing shops that stock inexpensive lines, such as sports stores, will hang the items while an upscale store will generally opt to stack folded clothes. Shoppers who unfold clothes on a table are far more likely to buy something than those who flick through hung garments.

No sane adviser is going to sit down with you and detail some 2,000 funds. But he should have a very good reason why he favours one family over another. Ask.

The other big complaint I hear about is costs. Investors are often ignorant of fees because the industry doesn't do a good enough job of disclosing them. While fund companies will disclose the management expense ratio in their annual reports, they generally don't use a lot of ink highlighting the long-term impact of these tariffs. Add to this the variable costs of ownership -- such as the fund's load, brokerage commissions and goods and services tax -- and you can see why fees matter.

If you don't think you're hearing the whole story on fees, go to and click on the "Investor Resources" box. Then click on "Tools" in the box on the left. The "Mutual Fund Fee Impact Calculator" you'll find there will help measure the impact of both these up-front and indirect costs. Ask your adviser to talk to you about adding some index products or exchange-traded funds -- loss leaders for him -- to see if the two of you can come up with a way to sensibly trim your costs.

While you're at it, talk about trailers. A trailer fee is an annual stipend from a fund company to the individual who sold you your funds. On a typical Canadian equity fund, they run up to 1 per cent of your assets in the fund, contributing greatly toward higher MER costs when compared with no-load funds. Any adviser who can't explain and rationalize these costs -- in other words, earn them -- likely isn't worth doing business with.

If you're still not happy, consider an on-line dealer like ASL Direct Here, you can buy a wide selection of load funds, commission free, and get the trailer fee rebated back to you. Each month though, you'll be hit with a service fee of $29.95, which means, unless you have a fairly sizable portfolio, you'll have to stick with the program for at least a few years to realize any real savings.

Gordon Powers heads up Affinity Group, an Ottawa financial services consulting firm.


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