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The Hidden Expense

Expense Ratio is the basked of charges that a fund deducts from your account for managing your money

Free. The word evokes a different kind of feeling than what it actually means in today’s world. Make no mistake about it, absolutely nothing is free today. Even things that are said to be free have a hidden cost to them. Wherever you read that four-letter word, the omnipresent ‘conditions apply’ will be there as well. You always pay for what you get, one way or another. A price for every product and a charge for every service. A doctor charges you for his services, a consultant charges you for telling you what you probably already know and in the same vein, a mutual fund charges you for managing your money. The Expense Ratio is also known as Annual Recurring Expenses. This basket of charges comprises the fund management fee, agent commission, registrar fees and the selling and promotion expenses. The expense ratio is disclosed every March and September and is expressed as a percentage of the fund’s average weekly net assets. A fund’s expense ratio states how much you pay a fund in percentage terms to manage your money.

For example, let’s assume you invest Rs 10,000 in a fund with an expense ratio of 1.5 per cent. This means that you pay the fund Rs 150 to manage your money. The expense ratio affects the returns you get as well. If the fund generates returns of 10 per cent, what you will get is just 8.5 per cent after the expense ratio of 1.5 per cent has been deducted. Hence, this makes it necessary for investors to know the expense ratio of the funds he invests in.

Since the expense ratio is charged every year, a high expense ratio over the long term can eat into your returns massively. For example, Rs 1 lakh invested over a period of 10 years would grow to Rs 4.05 lakh if the fund delivers returns of 15 per cent per annum. But when we deduct the expense ratio of 1.5 per cent per annum, then your returns come down to Rs. 3.55 lakh, down by almost 14 per cent over the period of 10 years.

Different funds have different expense ratios. However to keep things in check, the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has stipulated an upper limit that a fund can charge. The limit stands at 2.50 per cent for equity funds and 2.25 per cent for debt funds.

The largest component of the expense ratio is the management and advisory fees. Then there are marketing and distribution expenses and all those involved in the operations of a fund like the custodian and auditors also get a share of the pie. Interestingly, brokerage paid by a fund on the purchase and sale of securities is not reflected in the expense ratio. Funds state their buying and selling price after taking the transaction cost into account.

Now that you know everything about expense ratios, let’s see if it really matters. The answer is yes, it does, especially in the case of debt funds. Debt funds generate about 7 – 9 per cent returns and any percentage of expense ratio becomes a substantial amount in the case of such low yields. On the other hand, in the case of actively managed equity funds, the issue of expenses is more complicated. The wide divergence of returns between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ funds makes the expense ratio secondary. However, if you are stuck between two similar funds, the expense ratio can be a good differentiator. But keep in mind, expense ratio is charged even when the fund’s returns are negative.

Overall, before you invest in a mutual fund, it is imperative that you check out the fund’s expense ratio. But remember that a low expense ratio doesn’t necessarily mean that the fund is good. A good fund is one that delivers good returns with minimal expenses.