Professor Has Some Questions About Your Index Funds

Lu Zhang, a finance professor at Ohio State University, has something to say about your hot new index funds, and it may not be flattering. 

Not long ago, the typical investment portfolio was a grab bag of stocks, bonds and actively managed mutual funds. Today, it is more likely an assortment of index funds. And not just any index funds. Indexes are no longer content to simply track the market. A growing number of them are attempting to replicate traditional styles of active management, also known as “factors.” I counted roughly 900 mutual funds and exchange-traded funds in the U.S. that track factor indexes, and that number is likely to grow.  

The pivot to indexing may be new, but it was cultivated by decades of research in economics and finance, which gives it the imprimatur of science, or at least robust inquiry. But a new generation of academics, Zhang prominently among them, are re-examining the research and finding much of it questionable. Their work could derail the indexing revolution and, as might be expected, index providers and fund companies aren’t likely to be happy about it.   

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Fidelity’s No-Fee Funds Unleash the Power of Free

Fidelity Investments fired a shot heard around the investing world on Wednesday: It announced it would roll out two index mutual funds on Friday that charge no fees.

Both funds will track market cap-weighted Fidelity indexes. The Fidelity ZERO Total Market Index Fund will invest in the largest 3,000 U.S. companies based on float-adjusted market cap, and the Fidelity ZERO International Index Fund will hold the top 90 percent of stocks within various developed international and emerging countries.

It’s tempting to dismiss the move as a marketing stunt. Fidelity doesn’t need the money. I counted more than 1,000 Fidelity mutual funds, including the various share classes, with close to $1.9 trillion in assets and an asset-weighted average expense ratio of 0.46 percent a year. That translates into roughly $9 billion of annual revenue.

And that’s just the beginning, because Fidelity does more than manage mutual funds. As Russel Kinnel, director of manager research at Morningstar, told Bloomberg News, “Fidelity has lots of ways to make money from customers once they are in the door.”

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