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Fund Fee Study: Investors Saved More Than $4 Billion in 2017

Our study finds the largest one-year decline in fund fees

Patty Oey, Morningstar Research Services LLC


Our study shows that on average, investors paid lower fund expenses in 2017 than ever before.

Morningstar Research Services LLC (herein referred to as "Morningstar") publishes an annual study on fund fees that examines the trends in fees across U.S. open-end mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.

Last year, investors paid an average 0.52% expense for funds, as measured by the asset-weighted average expense ratio of roughly 25,000 U.S. open-end mutual funds and ETFs. This marked an 8% decline from 2016, which is the largest year-over-year decline that we've recorded since we began tracking this data in 2000.

We estimate this 8% decline translated into a $4 billion savings to investors in 2017. This fee decline is a big positive for most investors, because fees compound over time and can diminish returns.

How we examined fund fees

By using an asset-weighted average, we give more weight to funds most widely held by investors, using asset size as a proxy, to reflect the average fees paid by investors. This figure is a more realistic average, relative to an equal-weighted average.

For example, for U.S. equity funds, the asset-weighted average expense ratio was 0.45% versus the equal-weighted average expense ratio of 1.10%. Funds with expense ratios above 1.10% only accounted for less than 10% of asset invested in US equity funds in 2017, so the simple average does not reflect most investors’ experience.

Investors’ shift to passive funds is pushing down fund fees

Over the last few years, one of the main drivers of falling asset-weighted average fees has been flows into lower-cost funds, primarily the migration from active to passive for U.S. equities exposure.

Also contributing to declines have been aggressive fee cuts for passively managed, core U.S. equity, taxable bond, and international equity index funds, which in turn have drawn strong inflows. On the active side, instead of fee cuts, many fund companies have been more likely to introduce lower cost share classes.

While most passive funds are already significantly cheaper than their active peers, asset-weighted average fees continue to decline at a faster clip for the former group, as shown below.

Cost counts: Flows into cheaper funds have soared

The flows into cheaper share classes has been rising steadily since 2000. But in the last five years, the difference in flows for cheap share classes versus more expensive share classes has accelerated rapidly.

In 2017, funds with a Morningstar Fee Level — Broad rank of Low (fees ranked in the bottom quintile, or 20%, among funds within their category group); saw net inflows of $949 billion, the highest ever, and a 60% increase over 2016 levels. In 2017, passively managed funds accounted for 70% of the net flows into Low-fee-ranked funds, while actively managed funds accounted for the remaining 30%.

Flows out of funds with Below Average, Average, Above Average, and High ranked fees (the remaining 80%) have been ongoing since 2014 and reached $251 billion in 2017, a decline from 2016’s $414 billion, but higher than 2014 and 2015 levels of $66 billion and $212 billion, respectively.

As a result of these trends, most investors are in lower-priced funds. Currently, 83% of all assets are in open-end mutual funds and ETFs that have a Low or Below Average Morningstar Fee Level — Broad rank (fees within the bottom two quintiles), 11% are in funds with an Average rank, and 6% are in funds with an Above Average or High rank.

What might the future hold for fund fees? We’ll be watching

Morningstar research has demonstrated that mutual fund fees can sometimes be a reliable predictor of future returns, as lower-cost mutual funds generally outperform their more-expensive peers. This trend of falling costs for investors is certainly positive--and we’ll continue to monitor it.

Read our methodology for calculating Morningstar Fee Levels. Please see below for important disclosure.

Read the full version of our latest U.S. fund fee study.

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Important Disclosure

All investments involve risk, including the loss of principal. There can be no assurance that any financial strategy or investment vehicle will be successful.  Past performance does not guarantee future results.

The information, data, analyses and opinions presented herein do not constitute investment advice; are provided solely for informational purposes and therefore are not an offer to buy or sell a security; and are not warranted to be correct, complete or accurate. The opinions expressed are as of the date written and are subject to change without notice. Except as otherwise required by law, Morningstar shall not be responsible for any trading decisions, damages or other losses resulting from, or related to, the information, data, analyses or opinions or their use. The information contained herein is the proprietary property of Morningstar and may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, or used in any manner, without the prior written consent of Morningstar. Investment research is produced and issued by subsidiaries of Morningstar, Inc. including, but not limited to, Morningstar Research Services LLC, registered with and governed by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.​

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