It’s All About the Fees, Fidelity

Fidelity announced its less-than-groundbreaking entry into the booming world of smart beta in April with the launch of a large-cap, value ETF. Now the mutual fund giant is back in the news with another me-too move: It recently cut prices on 27 passive index funds in order to beat or match the already low, low fees that its largest competitor, Vanguard, charges for similar funds.

Jim Lowell, editor of the Fidelity Investor newsletter and website, called the move “hugely significant” — but perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. The Fidelity Small Cap Index Fund, for example, cut fees from 0.23 percent to 0.19 percent, and the Fidelity 500 Index Fund cut fees — wait for it — from 0.095 percent to 0.09 percent.

Still, it’s easy to see why Fidelity felt like it had to do something. Investors are increasingly demanding lower fees, which is somewhat problematic for a fund family like Fidelity that is widely associated with expensive, actively-managed funds. According to Fidelity, investors yanked close to $19 billion (net) last year from its actively-managed stock funds. At the same time, investors poured a record-breaking $236 billion into Vanguard, a bastion of low-cost, passively-managed funds.

Fidelity no doubt wants to get on the right side of fund flows, but let’s get real — some modest fee cuts to Fidelity’s index funds aren’t likely to transform Fidelity into a go-to passive manager. Fidelity can, however, do something truly significant: It can slash prices on its actively-managed funds.

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Check Your Safe Havens at the Door, Brexiters

Steven Major, HSBC Holdings’ head of fixed-income research, calls Brexit a mere “sideshow.” Howard Marks says Brexit isn’t likely to have a meaningful effect on the economies of the U.K. or the European Union. George Soros thinks Brexit has unleashed a 2008-sized debacle. Larry Summers views Brexit as the worst shock to Europe since World War II. Paul Krugman predicts that Brexit will make Britain substantially poorer.

I don’t belong on the same list as the worthies noted above, but last week — before Brexit happened — I questioned how much EU membership actually boosted the U.K.’s GDP or productivity after joining the group in 1973. I thought dismal currency and market outcomes had already been baked into the U.K.’s performance going back years. How much worse could it really get, I wondered?

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Britain’s Challenges Are More Basic Than Brexit

The Brexit vote is coming! The Brexit vote is coming!

Much has been written and said about what might happen if U.K. voters decide to ditch the European Union tomorrow, and much of it hasn’t been reassuring. The U.K.’s economy will slow. U.K. companies will be poorer. Jobs will be lost. George Soros thinks the pound will plunge — even more than it did when he made $1 billion betting against it back in 1992.

That sounds bad. But before investors freak out about a Brexit-induced meltdown in the U.K., they would be wise to consider the current state of play.

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Rip Off the S&P 500’s Cover. What’s Inside?

Passive investing has plenty going for it. It’s cheap. It’s tax efficient. It has paid investors handsomely over long periods. And it’s, well, passive — all you have to do is sip lemonade and watch the grass grow.

The poster child for passively buying the market, of course, is the S&P 500 — the first index fund — and it has been particularly generous to investors in recent years. The S&P 500 Index has returned 11.6 percent annually over the last five years from June 2011 to May 2016 (including dividends), while the S&P 500 Value Index — an active strategy that excludes pricey growth companies from its basket of stocks — returned just 10.5 percent annually over the same period.

But the S&P 500’s run may be coming to an end. Active strategies have outshined the S&P 500 so far this year. And the S&P 500 Value has returned 5.3 percent this year through May, whereas the S&P 500 has returned just 3.6 percent.

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