Monthly Archives: December 2016

The critical role of a consultant in umbrella funds

Sanlam Employee Benefit’s head of special projects David Gluckman penned the following in response to a recent article published as part of a Sygnia marketing campaign.

Consistency is the only currency that matters” is a well-known slogan of one of South Africa’s leading asset managers.

At the other end of the spectrum, a new player entered the commercial umbrella fund market less than 4 months ago proudly announcing “one all-in fee as a percentage of assets under management” and illustrating projected cost savings to clients adopting this model versus the competing leading commercial umbrella funds. Besides some fees such as costly hedge funds being over and above the so-called “one all-in fee”, importantly all these projections assumed there would be no need to separately pay for the services of a consultant. Today the message is slightly different and we should now understand that these projections were never accurate in that the true intention was always to leave “financial room for the employment of independent consultants.”

Two recent experiences highlighted to me that a very important question to explore is what will in the future be the role of the consultant in commercial umbrella funds.

  1. One highly respected independent consultant to a large book of Sanlam Umbrella Fund clients (and who also has many clients participating in other major commercial umbrella funds) raised the issue with me at our 2016 Sanlam Employee Benefits Benchmark Symposium, and said he is worried about the sustainability of his business given the increasing power of the major commercial umbrella fund sponsors.
  2. Various senior Financial Services Board officials also raised the matter in an April 2016 workshop with Sanlam Umbrella Fund representatives, essentially asking whether consultants introduce an extra and unnecessary layer of costs. They wanted to explore whether Sanlam could instead provide these advisory services thus savings costs for the ultimate clients of umbrella funds being the members.

The Sanlam Umbrella Fund governance model was structured consistently with thinking as set out in my paper entitled “Retirement Fund Reform for Dummies” presented to the Actuarial Society of South Africa as far back as 2009. In that paper I argued:

The role of intermediaries (aka consultants) requires particularly close scrutiny. I would argue their role is a particularly vital one if we want to create a culture of effective competition.

Rusconi argues “In the institutional space, however, savings levels are less likely to change and marketing is more about attracting another provider’s customer than about motivating additional savings”.

Such arguments emanate from the premise that intermediaries do not add value to consumers – an assertion that I would challenge. My view is that there are both good and bad intermediaries, and we need to find a model where market forces will push in the direction of forcing intermediaries to continually “up their game”.

The difficulty in determining cost effectiveness

Determining what added value you get when you pay above-benchmark investment fees for your collective investment scheme is similar to weighing the cost-effectiveness of a luxury German sedan against a Korean family car.

Will you get enough additional value from the investment to compensate you for the extra money you have to pay? Put simply, will you get bang for your buck?

If a fund delivers a 100% return during a particular year, an investor will probably have no problem sacrificing 10% of the return in fees. But if the return was 11%, forfeiting 10 percentage points in costs would make no sense.

This is probably the most important point in evaluating the fees you pay for your collective investment, says Pankie Kellerman, chief executive officer of Gryphon Asset Management. It is not about the absolute quantum you pay, but about what you buy for it.

The impact of costs

Calculations compiled by Itransact suggest that if an amount of R100 000 was invested over 20 years at an investment return of 15% per annum (inflation is an assumed 6%) at a cost of 1%, the investor would lose 17% of his returns as a result of fees. If costs climb to 3%, the investor would sacrifice almost 42% of his returns.

Unfortunately, it is not always that easy to get a clear sense of what you pay and what it is you pay for, but the introduction of the Effective Annual Cost (EAC), a standard that outlines how retail product costs are disclosed to investors should make this easier.

Shaun Levitan, chief operating officer of liability-driven investment manager Colourfield, says the time spent looking around for a reduced cost is time worth allocating.

“I think that any purchase decision needs to consider costs, but there comes a point at which you get what you pay for.”

You don’t want to be in a situation where managers or providers are lowering their fees but in so doing are sacrificing on the quality of the offering, he says.

“There tends to be a focus by everyone on costs and [they do] not necessarily understand the value-add that a manager may provide. Just because someone is more expensive doesn’t mean that you are not getting value for what you pay and I think that is the difficulty.”

Costs over time

Despite increased competition and efforts by local regulators to lower costs over the last decade, particularly in the retirement industry, fees haven’t come down a significant degree.

Figures shared at a recent Absa Investment Conference, suggest that the median South African multi-asset fund had a total expense ratio (TER) of 1.62% in 2015, compared to 1.67% in 2007. The maximum charge in the same category increased from 3.35% in 2007 to 4.76% in 2015. The minimum fee reduced quite significantly however from 1.04% to 0.44%.

Are financial services companies missing the point of savings month

July is savings month in South Africa. This is an initiative that is meant to encourage us all to be more serious about putting away money for our futures.

The premise is obvious. South Africa’s savings rate is abysmal and we need to do something to fix that.

However, many of the messages coming from financial services companies this year have not focused on the country’s savings habits. They have rather been about our spending habits.

Sanlam, for instance, has collaborated with rapper Cassper Nyovest and actress Pearl Thusi on a project called #ConspicuousSaving. The two, who are usually known for their big spending, have been posting on social media about doing things like home facials, clothes swapping or a haircut at a roadside barber to save money.

At a media luncheon in Cape Town on Thursday, Liberty also looked at ways in which South Africans might try to moderate their spending. Based on the findings of a survey conducted by Alltold, Liberty showed where consumers look to cut back to make their money go further.

The primary lesson from the study, entitled The Frugality Report, was that South Africans don’t like to compromise on their lifestyles. Even when they are spending less, they don’t want to cut anything out. They just look for more cost-effective ways of doing the same things.

This suggests that South Africans are probably too attached to the kinds of lifestyles they want to lead. They aren’t willing to seriously assess what they spend their money on and how much of it is really necessary.

In isolation, there is nothing wrong with highlighting these issues and questioning our spending habits. The first step towards financial freedom is always spending less than you earn.

However, it is only that – a first step. Only encouraging South Africans not to spend so much doesn’t really address the key issue of savings month, which is how to get more people to save more of their income.

Even if one of Thusi’s Twitter followers does heed the message and saves money by doing her own nails, buying second-hand clothes and turning down the temptation to buy a new handbag, what then? What does she do with the extra money that she now has?

This is where the financial services industry itself needs to do some serious introspection. It is simply not doing enough to make it easy and cost-effective for South Africans to save and invest.

Even acknowledging that this is not a simple thing to do, it doesn’t feel like too many companies are really trying very hard. The level of innovation in building simple, appropriate and appealing products is poor.

Even some firms that already have options that could be used to attract first time investors don’t market them as such. For instance, the Stanlib Equity Fund may be the only unit trust in the country that accepts debit orders of just R50 per month, yet I am not aware of any advertising from the company that has ever centred on this fact.

Easy Equities is a rare exception trying to make investing exciting and accessible, but why has it remained an outlier? Why aren’t more companies looking at ways to do similar things?

Many of them will say that it’s not easy when faced with the amount of regulation involved, and there is truth to that. However, this is not insurmountable. There are already online platforms that allow an investor to complete, sign and submit all the documentation they need for an investmentment online and simply upload their Fica documentation. It’s a process that needn’t be burdensome on the consumer.

It is indisputable that the level of financial education in South Africa needs to improve. It is also clear that we need to reconsider our spending habits.