The Biggest Ripoff In Investing

Millions of investors get ripped off every day. The odds are good that you're one of them. And the saddest thing is that the vast majority of those who fall prey to this common practice will never know that it costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their lifetimes.

This ripoff is so blatant that it's completely out in the open. No professionals hide it. Yet most people never think twice about it, because it's the common practice among Wall Street investment managers like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) , Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS  ) , and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , as well as mutual funds and other investment vehicles. The ripoff? Charging a fee that's based on a percentage of the assets you own.

What a difference it makes
Ironically, professionals who don't charge based on a percentage basis tend to get the most criticism for their fees. Lawyers charge hourly rates that are directly tied to the amount of work they do, regardless of the amount of money involved (except for those who work on a contingency-fee basis). Similarly, plumbers, electricians, and other household-repair professionals charge hourly rates -- and they tend to be the same rates for a mansion and for a tiny apartment. And while higher-end issues might take more time to solve -- and therefore require a higher fee -- it intuitively makes sense to get paid more when you have to do more work to get the job done.

Yet when investment professionals charge 1% to 2% in annual fees, the amounts involved can be much larger. At first, it might seem like a steal to enjoy the services of a broker or financial advisor for just $20 to $40 in annual fees on a $2,000 investment, even if all it means is a quick hour-long meeting once or twice a year. But as your portfolio grows, that 1% to 2% grows with it. If you're a millionaire, you have to ask yourself: What did your broker do to earn the $10,000 to $20,000 in annual fees you paid?

Over time, those fees add up. According to one study last year, a typical household should expect to pay more than $150,000 in 401(k)-related fees, eating up about a third of their investment returns from their workplace retirement plan. Add in the costs from assets outside your 401(k), such as regular taxable accounts, IRAs, and other investments, and you'll see even more of your hard-earned money siphoned out of your retirement nest egg to support Wall Street lifestyles.

Get what you pay for
Admittedly, some financial advisors do more work for their high-end clients than they do for a typical $5,000 accountholder. The best planners will coordinate work with legal, accounting, and other professionals to put together a comprehensive financial plan that will incorporate estate planning, retirement planning, and other needs. As a client's assets grow, so too do those needs, and so a competent professional should spend more time on that work. Yet unfortunately, under the percentage-of-assets model, there's not as much incentive for professionals to actually do that extra work.

When it comes to smart investing, the essentials of finding great investments are the same whether you have $10,000 or $10 million. Looking for great stocks with solid fundamentals, including prospects for growth and reasonable valuations, is the same no matter how much money you have. If the effort is the same, shouldn't you pay the same -- regardless of how wealthy you are?

Clearly, Goldman, Morgan Stanley, and Bank of America -- all of which offer managed accounts with hefty percentage fees -- think that you should pay more for their guidance as you get richer. But you can and should expect innovators to challenge that belief. The efforts of those willing to challenge the Wall Street paradigm could put hundreds of thousands of dollars back in your pocket and change the way investment professionals do business. All you have to do is refuse to accept the status quo and demand a better alternative.

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (23)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 24, 2014, at 3:45 PM, Mathman6577 wrote:

    The biggest ripoff is paying taxes on dividends (which the company has already paid taxes on before you got the money) and capital gains.

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2014, at 1:42 AM, 8bravo wrote:

    Did you just steal the article from Morgan or is it coincidence that you're writing this just a week after he published about the same topic?

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2014, at 9:54 AM, TMFGalagan wrote:

    @8bravo - No, I didn't steal the article from Morgan. The similarities are obvious and we clearly read the same report. But the issue goes beyond mutual funds to encompass wrap accounts, separately managed accounts, and other products that Wall Street charges for.


    dan (TMF Galagan)

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2014, at 2:33 PM, DS31 wrote:


    You said, "At first, it might seem like a steal to enjoy the services of a broker or financial advisor for just $20 to $40 in annual fees on a $2,000 investment, even if all it means is a quick hour-long meeting once or twice a year."

    Why would you believe this is true? What professional service provider, in any industry whatsoever, would offer their time for only $20 to $40? If someone did, I could only assume the service was provided as a "loss leader" so that higher fees could be earned in the future.


  • Report this Comment On March 26, 2014, at 11:33 PM, goldpd wrote:

    Given that markets are inherently volatile. investors began to question the steady “returns”

  • Report this Comment On March 27, 2014, at 12:06 PM, DrGarnicus wrote:

    Mathman, I did not know that. Damn government always double-dips . . .

  • Report this Comment On May 28, 2014, at 1:24 PM, srfrenchokc wrote:

    Hey, do you offer a Toll-Free number so I can personally speak to an advisor? Can't find it on your website, although when I was initially contacted, one was posted. What is it? Thanks!


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Dan Caplinger

Dan Caplinger has been a contract writer for the Motley Fool since 2006. As the Fool's Director of Investment Planning, Dan oversees much of the personal-finance and investment-planning content published daily on With a background as an estate-planning attorney and independent financial consultant, Dan's articles are based on more than 20 years of experience from all angles of the financial world.

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