NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Is this some kind of a joke?
Could be. Though Fidelity(FNF) - Get Report is not especially known for its sense of humor. So, what are we to make of this excerpt from Fidelity's Freedom 2040 Fund Statement of Additional Information? What could it possibly be trying to communicate to us?
More than half of all U.S. households own mutual funds. It's reasonable to assume that most of these households do not contain a financial professional. (Or a lawyer.) So for whom exactly is Fidelity writing? Is this language the average investor is supposed to comprehend?
(We single out Fidelity, here, but, in fairness, many mutual funds suffer from the same level of opacity.)
In 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission adopted a rule explicitly requiring mutual fund summary prospectuses to be written in "plain English." In 2011, the commission expanded these rules, requiring financial advisers (including mutual fund companies) to include "plain English" descriptions of their investment philosophies, fees, and possible conflicts of interest.
What do you think? Is this excerpt from Fidelity's Freedom 2040 Fund Statement of Additional Information written in plain English?
(The fact that the plain English rules were first adopted in 2008 is confounding. That they apply only to a mutual fund prospectus summaries -- and exclude the full prospectus and other important documents -- defies common sense.)
Despite the plain English mandate, most mutual fund documentation still fails utterly to convey information clearly, concisely, or in any way that an average investor could reasonably be expected to understand. Rather, it bewilders readers before burying them under an avalanche of circular, self-referential, and arcane language.
Collectively, the average mutual fund prospectus and statement of additional information contains more than fifty thousand words. And it's not uncommon for a mutual fund's annual report and semi-annual report together to exceed twenty-five thousand words. It would take an average person roughly five hours to read all of just one funds' documents once -- even if they were written in standard, intelligible English.
But, of course, they are not. Mutual fund literature runs the gamut from schizophrenic to tedious. The typical prospectus brims with legal and technical definitions, peculiar wording, and vague statements that resist comprehension. One has to wonder if it has been designed to persuade readers to put it aside.
And yet there are so very many crucial details tucked among those tens of thousands of words of dense legalese. Funds' disclose fees, risks, and conflicts of interests in these documents. Investors would ostensibly want to know about those topics. But would they be steadfast enough to find them?
We believe most investors do want to understand how their money is being invested. But the vast majority of financial communication is designed not to shed light but to cast shade. And it is intentional; unseemly details can be hidden in complexity. The legal and technical language characteristic of any mutual fund prospectus ensures that the average investor skips right over it.
This is wrong and it's unfair to investors.
Mutual funds -- and all money managers and financial companies -- should publish statements of disclosure that are simple, straightforward, and intelligible. After all, if their products are too complicated for them to explain, perhaps they don't understand them sufficiently.
In that case, perhaps they shouldn't be selling them to us.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.