Ten years. Two contenders. One winner of a $1 million prize.

On one side, legendary investor Warren Buffett. On the other, fund-of-hedge-funds operator Protege Partners. The battle? Whose net returns will be higher over the next decade: five of the world's most successful hedge funds ... or the passive Vanguard 500 Index Fund?

If it's not obvious by now ...
Buffett believes the index fund will win. It might seem shocking that he'd put so little confidence in such bright investors, but a judgment of investing prowess isn't the reason behind Buffett's bearish bet.

Instead, as he explained in a recent Fortune article, the hedge fund managers' efforts "are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors." [Emphasis mine.]

Buffett's not insulting the investing acumen of hedge-fund managers. But he is making a pretty bold statement about the fees they're charging, and how quickly they destroy investors' wealth.

It all comes down to the price you pay
Every year, the typical hedge fund collects 2% of the amount invested, as well as 20% of any profits made. It's not difficult for any student of mathematics to understand that over time, this seemingly small amount can become quite significant.

And although you might not invest in hedge funds, odds are you have a mutual fund or two -- maybe even more -- in your portfolio. Those funds might charge similar fees that could prevent you from cashing in on gains made with your money.

Compare these two seemingly identical index funds:

 

Vanguard 500 Index

MainStay S&P 500 Index A

Front Load

None

3.00 %

Expense Ratio

0.15%

0.60%

Some of Top 25 Holdings

Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM), Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC), Hewlett-Packard

Philip Morris, Wells Fargo, Hewlett-Packard

3-Year Annualized Returns

(9.98%)

(10.37%)

Morningstar data as of Dec. 3, 2008.

As you can see, the difference in fees between these two funds with identical holdings makes a difference in losses felt, even in as little as three years. Over a decade or more, we're talking about potentially missing out on thousands of dollars.

But it's even more unfortunate, as the Buffett example drives home, that paying high fees for actively managed funds can produce performance far worse than even a cheap, passive index fund.

Here are two funds for which investors paid handsomely, only to reap an even heftier loss over the same time frame:

 

Boyar Value

Natixis Harris Associates Focused Value A

Front Load

5.00%

5.75%

Expense Ratio

1.75%

1.49%

Some of Top 25 Holdings

United Parcel Service (NYSE:UPS), Microsoft, MGM Mirage

Advance Auto Parts (NYSE:AAP), Legg Mason (NYSE:LM), Discover Financial Services (NYSE:DFS)

3-Year Annualized Returns

(13.26%)

(19.77%)

Data from Morningstar as of Dec. 3, 2008.

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This article was first published June 26, 2008. It has been updated.

Adam J. Wiederman owns shares of Legg Mason, but of no other company mentioned above. The Motley Fool also owns shares of Legg Mason. Discover Financial, Legg Mason, and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. United Parcel Service is an Income Investor pick. The Fool's strict disclosure policy is here.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.