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During the past year, the slide in U.S. ETF fees has been most striking in the fast-growing field of actively managed funds.William_Potter/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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U.S.-domiciled exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that were so cheap they stole market share from rival ETFs five years ago are now seen as so expensive they’re bleeding assets to challengers charging even lower fees.

The trend is a sign of continuing fee compression in the US$7.2-trillion U.S. ETF industry as increasing competition forces fund groups to cut costs or hemorrhage market share to more aggressive rivals.

“The goalposts haven’t just shifted. They moved from one end of the field to the other,” says Elisabeth Kashner, director of global fund analytics at FactSet Research Systems Inc.

“In December 2017, the asset-weighted average expense ratio for ETFs that had gained market share from their direct competitors was 0.19 per cent, while the losers cost 0.26 per cent. By December 2021, 0.19 per cent was the price tag on market share losers. Successful funds now cost 0.16 per cent,” Ms. Kashner says of the U.S. market.

“Investors have been flocking to lower-cost options across most segments of the ETF landscape. As a result, asset-weighted expense ratios have been falling across asset classes and strategies. Investor preference for the lowest-cost products has become entrenched,” she adds.

Similar trends are in play elsewhere in the world, even if the absolute level of fees tends to be lower in the U.S. market, which is the most mature and best placed to harvest economies of scale.

Average asset-weighted fees for fixed income ETFs in the U.S. have fallen to 13 basis points (bps) from 15 bps since 2017, FactSet found, with those for equity funds slipping to 14 bps from 17 bps during the same period.

While they remain more expensive, fees for ETFs following narrower asset classes have tumbled faster still, with those for alternative assets down to 67 bps from 89 bps in the past year and fees for geared ETFs sliding 71 bps from 102 bps, although currency funds managed to buck the trend.

“Asset-weighted expense ratios have been falling across asset classes and strategies. No matter the starting point, the destination is the same,” Ms. Kashner says. “There is no place to hide, no matter the asset class or strategy.”

Investors may be able to look forward to many more years of falling charges to come. Ms. Kashner believes fees will ultimately fall to fund providers’ marginal cost of production which, ultimately, would be 1-2 bps for the “biggest broadest funds.”

During the past year, the slide in U.S. ETF fees has been most striking in the fast-growing field of actively managed funds, which don’t track an index passively. Average asset-weighted fees have tumbled to 49 bps from 72 bps in 2020 and 89 bps in 2017.

Last year’s data were distorted by Austin, Tex.-based Dimensional Fund Advisors LP’s decision to convert six mutual funds with combined assets of US$20-billion into ETFs, which artificially lowered the average fee, given that they all charge less than 20 bps.

“They chose a pretty aggressive price point for their funds. Because they converted such a large asset base, they lowered the average,” Ms. Kashner says.

Yet, she did not believe active management was immune to the wider fee war.

“We have seen evidence for fee compression in actively managed ETFs for quite some time, irrespective of Dimensional’s entry. It has followed the pattern that we have seen in other areas,” she says.

Ever-lower fees may not be unalloyed good news for investors, however. One concern may be whether fund managers realistically can be expected to engage effectively with investee companies on ever skimpier revenue.

Average fees for equity ETFs investing on the basis of environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns have halved to 19 bps from 38 bps since 2017, for instance, FactSet found.

However, Ms. Kashner believes meaningful engagement was still possible, given the economies of scale large fund houses, at least, are able to deploy, even though there are between 3,000 and 5,000 U.S. equities that are large and liquid enough for mainstream funds to invest in.

“The largest asset managers have been managing proxy voting for decades. Most of the big groups already have an in-house operation. That’s an area in which scale really matters,” she says.

Kenneth Lamont, senior fund analyst for passive strategies at Morningstar Inc., says the market had been shaken up by market leader BlackRock Inc. aggressively cutting fees for many ESG ETFs. This had removed the possibility for the industry-wide excess profits that typically exist for a few years for new products until competition whittled them away.

Nevertheless, he believes ESG engagement was affordable, even as fees become more compressed.

“Engagement is not free, ESG is not free, and, let’s be honest, the margins on these products are very low. However, it’s a scale game,” Mr. Lamont says.

“If you have six people working on these engagement efforts, that is not going to break anybody’s bank,” he says. “Engagement is becoming a differentiating factor.”

Another downside from falling fees may be a rise in industry concentration if only fund shops with sufficient scale can afford to compete.

Although the triumvirate of BlackRock, The Vanguard Group Inc., and State Street Global Advisors dominate the U.S. market, Ms. Kashner says concentration had held steady or even fallen a little over recent years in some segments as several mid-level players, such as ARK Investment Management LLC, had gained market share.

Mr. Lamont warns that “generally speaking, monopolies have not worked out very well in any industry.”

However, he says “we are a long way away” from such a scenario.

“Falling fees in the ETF industry are one of the most positive developments in asset management over the past 20 years,” Mr. Lamont says.

“The [small] amount that you have to pay now to access markets that you didn’t even have access to before. The doors that have been opened to you and the cost reduction in the asset range are enormous. It really is a success,” he adds.

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