If you’re a basketball fan, you may be familiar with the Lopez twins—Brook and Robin. On the surface, they are identical in every way. Both stand seven feet tall. Both went to Stanford University. Both entered the NBA draft in 2008, and both were picked in the first round. Since then, both have enjoyed successful careers.
A casual observer would be hard-pressed to see any difference between the Lopez twins, but there is one: While they are both impressive players, they have different styles, and over the course of his career, Brook has delivered somewhat better performance. This, in turn, has contributed to greater career success. Like all NBA players, both have earned millions, but Brook’s cumulative earnings have been 80 percent higher than Robin’s.
When it comes to your investments—and especially your retirement accounts—it’s critical to be aware of a similar kind of “twins” problem that could have a material impact on your savings.
As you may know, mutual fund companies use a concept known as “share classes” to charge different investors different prices. Depending on how you purchase a fund, and how much of it you purchase, you may pay a higher or lower price. At Vanguard, for example, if you want to buy a fund that tracks the S&P 500 Index, you have four choices: Investor Shares, which cost 0.14% per year; Admiral Shares, which cost 0.04%; Institutional Shares which cost 0.035%; and finally, Institutional Plus Shares, which cost just 0.02%. The underlying investments are identical in all four cases; it’s just the price that differs.
Other fund companies use their own terminology to distinguish among share classes. In many cases, you will see Class A, Class B and Class C. Again, the underlying funds are all the same; it’s just the fees that are different.
Altogether, in the United States, there are approximately 8,000 different mutual funds, but when you add up all the shares classes, there are more than 25,000 different fund options available to investors.
This can be confusing, but at least the share class designation is included wherever you see the fund’s name, and ticker symbols are unique to each share class, allowing you to use publicly-available data sources, such as Morningstar, to compare funds and share classes.
When it comes to your retirement account, however, it is more complicated, owing to a growing trend known as Collective Investment Trusts (CITs). In simple terms, a CIT is a private fund established by an investment firm for an individual employer. It will be an exact replica of a fund available to the public, but here’s what’s tricky about them: CIT funds have names that are identical, or nearly identical, to their publicly-traded siblings, but their fee structures are usually very different.
Let’s look at an example: a popular fund called Vanguard Target Retirement 2040. Suppose your employer offered this fund in your company 401(k) and you wanted to research it. You could go to the Vanguard website, and there you would find a detailed description of the fund and its holdings. You would also see the available share classes and associated fees. In this fund’s case, you would find it available as Investor Shares, costing 0.15%, or Institutional Shares, for 0.09%. By any standard, either of those fees would be quite reasonable, so you might decide to invest.
But here’s the catch: Your company’s variant of the Vanguard Target Retirement 2040 might be something entirely different. It might be a CIT, with its own customized price, created by Vanguard especially for your employer. But it can be hard to know. Since CITs aren’t available to the public, they don’t carry ticker symbols, and this makes them impossible to research on publicly-available resources.
The impact could be significant. In the case of the Vanguard Target Retirement 2040 fund, which is available to the public for either 0.09% or 0.15%, I have seen CIT versions which cost as little as 0.05% and as much as 0.91%. These differences are dramatic. To put it in dollar terms, if you have $100,000 in your account, a 0.05% fee would cost you $50 per year, while a 0.91% fee would cost you $910. And you would incur that cost every year.
In the past, CITs were less of a consideration. In 2011, fewer than half of retirement plans offered them, but by 2016 that number had risen to two-thirds, and they are growing quickly. In some cases, this is a good thing. If you work for one of the companies that is able to offer funds for less than they are available to the public, that’s great, but you’ll need to do your homework. Here are three suggestions:
1. Check your own plans’s documentation to be sure you know exactly which variant of each fund they are offering, and look up the fee on each one. Oftentimes these fees won’t appear on your statement, but they will be available in supplementary materials that you are entitled to review.
2. Recheck your selections periodically—perhaps once a year. That’s because fund companies raise and lower fees from time to time, and you might miss the change within the fine print.
3. Be especially careful of target-date funds like the Target Retirement fund I used as an example here. These funds are popular because they are designed to reduce risk over time as you approach retirement. However, perhaps because of their popularity, I have noticed in many plans that the target-date funds are among the most expensive options. If that’s the case, it may be possible to purchase the constituent parts for less. That’s not guaranteed, but often you can at least come close. To find out, check your employer’s fund menu.
Retirement accounts like 401(k)s and 403(b)s are a great benefit. When you’re evaluating funds, though, just remember the Lopez brothers and be sure you know which twin you’re looking at.