Vanguard Adds Trading Fees to Steer Investors Online

Vanguard Adds Trading Fees to Steer Investors Online

Investors with less than $1 million will pay $25 for using a phone rep to buy an ETF.

Wealth Management Editor
Reviewed by: Staff
Edited by: Ron Day

After establishing a reputation as the driver of low-cost mutual funds and ETFs, The Vanguard Group is shifting course slightly with new fees facing investors starting July 1.

The second-largest ETF issuer with more than $2.4 trillion in 86 exchange-traded funds, Vanguard is leaving fund expense ratios alone. Instead it's layering on fees at the brokerage platform level, which some critics say will hit smaller investors the hardest. The new fee announcement follows by two months Vanguard’s notice that Chief Executive Officer Tim Buckley will be resigning by year end, which has sparked some speculation about a connection.

“To me, it feels like they’re letting the bottom line drive decision making instead of common sense,” said Jeff DeMaso, editor of The Independent Vanguard Adviser newsletter.

According to a notice the Malvern, Pa.-based asset manager sent to customers last week, Vanguard is introducing $25 transaction fees for calling the company for assistance in trading mutual funds and ETFs.

The fees apply to both Vanguard and non-Vanguard funds for any account below $1 million. There are also new fees related to options trading and American Depository Receipts, as well as a $100 fee to close or transfer an account.

While competitors such as Charles Schwab Corp. and Fidelity Investments apply similar fees for using a phone rep to complete transactions, DeMaso and others see this is a potential turning point for a company like Vanguard that basically created the low-cost indexed investing wave.

“Vanguard is essentially using fees to encourage certain behaviors and to discourage other behaviors,” DeMaso said.

Rick Ferri, founder of Ferri Investment Solutions in Georgetown, Texas, described the new policy as “frustrating, nickel-and-dime fees,” but also called the fees “very Vanguardish, because they don’t want anyone else to pay for my costs.”

“The fees try to place the cost more directly on the investor who is creating the cost rather than other shareholders,” he added. “If you think about it, that’s fair.”

Vanguard declined an interview for the story. 

"Investors can continue to trade Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs commission-free online,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Vanguard is committed to helping clients navigate toward secure, simpler, and more seamless digital pathways, and constantly evaluates our brokerage services and products, inclusive of the commissions and fee schedule."

The reference to commission-free online trading is the message Vanguard hopes to underscore, according to Eric Balchunas, senior ETF analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

“I think I get what they’re doing but it is somewhat counter to their image,” he said. “But it would be much more counter to their image if they raised their fund expense ratios.”

Vanguard has struggled to maintain its reputation for top customer service in recent years, a point highlighted when Buckley said he was stepping down. Improving customer service requires big investments, Balchunas said, which may be difficult at a company built on using profits to keep fees low.

“Whenever I see them, I tell them to stop lowering expense ratios,” he said. “I bet if investors could vote they would vote for better service over lower fees.”

Imposing the fees with Buckley still running the company might be seen from more than one point of view, DeMaso said.

“You could look at it as putting the fees on while Buckley is in the lame duck period, so they can blame it on the old guy,” he said. “On the flipside, if I’m the new guy, maybe don’t put fees on that can’t be undone.”

Jeff Benjamin is the wealth management editor at, responsible for coverage related to the financial planning industry. This includes writing, hosting podcasts, webinars, video interviews and presenting at in-person events.

Jeff is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years’ experience covering the financial markets. He has won more than two dozen national and regional awards for his reporting. He most recently worked as a senior columnist at InvestmentNews where he wrote about investment products and strategies, as well as the broader financial planning industry. Prior to that, Jeff worked as an analyst at Cerulli Associates where he researched and wrote reports on the alternative investments industry. Jeff also worked as a money management reporter at Dow Jones Newswires, where he covered the mutual fund industry.

Based in North Carolina, Jeff is a former Marine and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Central Michigan University.