It's too early for Christmas and too late for my birthday. Nonetheless, I've put together a list of the gifts I would like to receive from the mutual fund industry.
Literature That's More Tom Wolfe Than Tom Hardy
Securities and Exchange Commission
has been on a crusade to wipe away the legalese in documents and make them easier to read. It calls this its plain-English initiative.
As part of that effort, the SEC is calling for all fund companies to overhaul their prospectuses by December.
OK, some fund companies have been trying for years to make their literature more readable. And many of the prospectuses out there have already been simplified.
But there's simplified and then there's decent reading material. Some of this new and improved fund literature feels like perusing a refrigerator warranty.
Fund companies should try to make their fund literature as readable as anything written by Dave Barry.
Full Satisfaction or 20% Off
The underperformance of actively managed funds has grown as annoying as a
Fund companies need to wake up to investors' discontent.
Some firms do have incentive programs in place that at least encourage managers to surpass benchmarks like the
. For example, the majority of
actively managed equity funds carry performance-based management fees.
But the rest of the lot needs to stop giving investors excuses. Instead, firms should offer fee rebates on funds that chronically underperform.
At the very least, I'd like to see some consolation prizes for beleaguered investors, like
tickets. I would even settle for a dozen boxes of
, the San Francisco treat.
What's In a Name?
Your fund manager may not know a growth stock from livestock, but he can give his fund a great name. Something like the
Black Box Quantitative Growth
But wouldn't it be nice to occasionally hear about some more realistic fund offerings?
The "We'll Try Not to Lose Your Daughter's College Tuition" aggressive growth fund. Or the "I Haven't a Clue What I'm Doing, but I'm Still on
All the Time" equity fund. How about the "My Returns Are Terrible but You Should See My Mercedes" value portfolio?
Glorious 5BR/3.5Bth W/City Views
Public companies are required to disclose what their top executives make every year.
The compensation table can be the most engrossing thing to read in a company's proxy statement, footnotes and all. Salary, bonus, company-funded apartment in Manhattan. It's all there.
Frankly, there's no reason that investors shouldn't know the same about a fund company's top managers.
Every year firms should print a table of what their top managers, based on assets under management, are paid. And right next to that table should be the returns of the funds that each one runs and how those funds fared compared to their peers.
Maybe it'll never happen. But firms could at least start telling investors how their managers are compensated, what formula is used in calculating a manager's pay and what incentives, if any, exist.
And for good measure throw in a couple of photos of a manager's overdecorated, faux-Tudor manse in Marblehead, Mass.
The Bill, Please
In an age in which people send email from hockey games, somebody should be able to figure out a way to tell fund investors exactly what they are losing to transaction costs.
These costs, including the commissions and market impact of trading, come right out of a fund's assets and aren't reflected in the expense ratio. Right now, investors have no way of knowing how those costs affect a fund's performance each year.
You may think these costs are just too small to worry about. But think about the 25-cent-off coupons for
you cut out of the paper every Sunday. They add up.
A Little Glamour
If fund investors have to settle for do-nothing directors, then fund boards should at least try to add little glamour by adding some fading celebrities like
Hopefully, a few celebrity names would make investors care more about what is going on with a fund's board. I'm in favor of anything that will improve the transparency of what these boards do.
Investment Company Institute and the SEC have both taken steps to strengthen the independence of fund boards. But until investors know more about who they are and what they do, any initiatives are likely to be rather fruitless.
If somebody like
is too busy making the sequel to
, then it's definitely time for somebody to tighten the screws on these directors.
Vanguard's New Vessels
The Philadelphia Inquirer
will add up to three buildings to its main campus in Malvern, Pa.
Given the firm's
fixation with the sea, I wonder what Vanguard will name the new buildings. The
Dear Dagen aims to provide general fund information. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell funds or other securities.