ETFs Made Easy: Expense Ratios

You can and should control what you pay for a fund, but knowing the exact price can be tricky.

Reviewed by: Dave Nadig
Edited by: Dave Nadig

You can and should control what you pay for a fund, but knowing the exact price can be tricky.

In this series, we answer the questions investors are afraid to ask. You can submit your questions to me at [email protected]. All correspondence will remain anonymous.

How much your investments cost is one of the only aspects investors can know in advance. You can’t predict which way the stock market will go, or where interest rates will be, or even how much money you’ll be able to invest. But costs are usually something you can plan for in advance.

They’re also one of the most important things to consider when making any investment. If you put $10,000 in a fund that costs you 1 percent a year, and the fund returns 5 percent a year, you have $20,876 at the end of 20 years. If you can find a similar fund that charges just 0.1 percent, you end up with $24,793! That’s a significant difference, and just for finding a cheaper fund.

Sometimes, however, it can be a bit tricky figuring out just how much your ETF is going to cost you.

Total Expense Ratio

The most commonly quoted cost number you’ll see on fund issuer websites or fund fact sheets or here at is the “total expense ratio” or “expense ratio” for short. When you hear someone talk about how much an ETF—or traditional mutual fund—“costs,” expense ratio is generally the number they’re going to use.

The expense ratio isn’t what the issuer charges to run the fund, however. Instead, it’s quite simply all of the expenses that a fund has incurred over the course of a year, divided by its average assets during that year. So if a fund has $100,000 in expenses, and an average of $10 million in assets, its expense ratio is 1 percent.

But just like your household expenses, running a mutual fund isn’t necessarily that predictable. Each ETF (or mutual fund) is in fact its own little business, and it will have expenses not just to pay an advisor like BlackRock or Vanguard to run the fund (usually called the management fee, or advisory fee), but expenses for things like attorneys, pricing services, accountants and custodians, or even just maintaining its listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

Different ETF issuers deal with these expenses in different ways. Many choose to simply absorb all of these expenses for simplicity’s sake.

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Different Fund-Sponsor Approaches

The iShares MSCI ACWI ETF (ACWI | A-97), for example, has a single line-item in its semiannual reports for expenses: “management fees.”

BlackRock, the company that owns the iShares ETF brand, agrees to do all of the things required to manage the fund. It’s not just buying and selling stocks, but doing all the accounting, all the paperwork, all the daily calculations and so on. It does it all for a fixed fee, and absorbs all of the little costs of running the fund.

So when you see the expense ratio listed as 0.33 percent in the fund’s prospectus, you can be sure that it’s going to stay that way.

Other issuers do things a little differently.

The AdvisorShares Peritus High Yield ETF (HYLD | C) has a management fee of 1.1 percent, and any other expenses beyond that management fee will get paid by the fund. Based on its most recent filing, the total expense ratio is 1.18 percent. That’s an additional 0.08 percent in other expenses based on the last six months of operations.

Mind The Cap

There’s one last little wrinkle.

When funds are small, they often have much larger expenses as a percentage of their assets than investors would be willing to pay. Issuers know this, and so they often will agree to “cap” the expenses of a fund at a certain level.

In the examples above, BlackRock is just agreeing to charge a flat fee, no matter how small the fund is or how large the real costs are. AdvisorShares, if you dig into its prospectus, promises that HYLD will never cost more than 1.35 percent.

Those caps act as a kind of backstop to your expenses, but you should always look carefully to make sure you understand what your expenses could be if the cap expires.

At the time this article was written, the author held no positions in the securities mentioned. You can reach Dave Nadig at [email protected], or on Twitter @DaveNadig.

Prior to becoming chief investment officer and director of research at ETF Trends, Dave Nadig was managing director of Previously, he was director of ETFs at FactSet Research Systems. Before that, as managing director at BGI, Nadig helped design some of the first ETFs. As co-founder of Cerulli Associates, he conducted some of the earliest research on fee-only financial advisors and the rise of indexing.