Seven Surprising Insights about Advisory Fees

An earlier version of this article contained an error in section 7 (on reasonable fees). This was corrected at 1:11pmET on 7/20/17.

I asked the readers of my Inside Information service, members of the Advisor Perspectives community, and others, to tell me how they were charging their clients, and how much. The most interesting conclusions related to a key question that has arisen from the DOL Rule: what is a “reasonable” AUM fee to charge clients?

To know that, you have to know what others are charging for similar services. Our survey provided key insights.

Of course, I asked a lot of other questions, like how advisory firms were charging (AUM, flat fee retainers, hourly, commissions etc.), and how much of their AUM fees were allocated to asset management activities versus other services (like financial planning). I broke the results down based on the experience of advisors answering the questionnaire, and the size of the firms, and their business structure, to make the data more relatable to a wide spectrum of readers.

Most of the respondents – and, indeed, most of the readers of my Inside Information service – are fee-only, and just under half have more than 20 years of experience. The Inside Information profile tends to be successful thought leaders and early adopters who practice as fiduciaries, which means the sample under-represented sales agents and those who live mainly on commissions.

Here’s what I found from this interesting sample:

  1. Most (almost exactly two-thirds) of the respondents are charging some form of fees other than AUM.

There’s a chart in the survey that breaks this down, but 33.37% of the respondents reported that they charge their clients via AUM only. Just over 11% don’t charge by AUM at all; they either charge retainers only (5.23%), or hourly only (3.24%), or some combination of both (2.93%). More than 43% reported that they now use retainers as a part of their fee structure.

This represents a significant shift in the profession, but the shift is obviously only in the beginning stages. I predict that two years hence, the number of advisory firms that have abandoned AUM altogether will have doubled, and very few firms will be charging AUM only.

  1. There is very little agreement in the marketplace about how much to charge portfolios of various sizes.

When I asked what AUM percentage advisors were charging, the responses were all over the lot, which is made clear by the graphs. The most common responses for a $1-2 million portfolio were 0.50%, 0.75%, 0.90% and 1.00%. But there were significant numbers of advisors who charged more and less than those amounts. (The median was 0.85%.)

  1. There is clear evidence of fee compression for mutual funds, but not as much as I expected.

The movement toward ETFs is alive and well. More than half of the sample told me that the blended expense ratios of their recommended investments were below 0.50%.

But if you look at the data from a different angle, roughly half of advisors are paying more than that. Roughly 10% are still willing to pay more than 1% across client portfolios for active management.