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Expense Ratio

Understand the Expense Ratio Concept

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Expense Ratio

In This Article
  • What is the definition of an expense ratio?
  • Which formula calculates the expense ratio?
  • Why does the expense ratio matter?
  • How does the expense ratio affect investor returns?

Expense Ratio Definition

The expense ratio represents the proportion of a fund’s assets allocated to operating expenses per year.

The expense ratio is particularly important to investors in mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

In short, the expense ratio reflects the costs incurred to operate a specific mutual fund or ETF, such as overhead and administrative expenses.

Each year, mutual funds and ETFs must pay operating expenses such as:

  • Management Fees and Employee Salaries
  • Administrative Expenses and Customer Support
  • 3rd Party Fees (e.g. Accountants, Lawyers, Consultants)
  • Marketing and Distribution Fees (e.g. 12-1B Distribution Fees)
  • Overhead Costs (e.g. Office, Equipment, Utilities)

Expense Ratio Formula

The expense ratio is calculated by dividing a fund’s total annual operating expenses by the average value of total assets managed.

Expense Ratio Formula
  • Expense Ratio = Total Annual Operating Expenses / Average Fund Assets

For example, let’s say a mutual fund incurred $2 million in operating costs for a given year.

If we assume the fund managed $200 million in assets, its expense ratio comes out to be 1.0%.

  • Expense Ratio = $200 million / $2 million = 1.0%

Expense Ratio and Impact on Returns

A higher expense ratio reduces a fund’s adjusted returns, all else being equal.

Considering the ratio compares expenses to assets managed, a higher ratio suggests that expenses are incurred for each asset managed by the fund.

On the other hand, a lower ratio implies the fund incurs fewer expenses to manage its assets.

A high expense ratio raises the minimum threshold in performance to generate the same returns as a fund with a low expense ratio.

Rather than being directly charged to investors, operating expenses indirectly reduce the fund’s total assets (and the returns to investors).

The expense ratio for an actively managed mutual fund usually ranges around 0.50%, but for passively managed investment vehicles, the expense ratio can be as low as 0.10%.

Drivers of Fund Expense Ratios

An actively managed fund’s operating costs are higher, especially management fees – resulting in a higher expense ratio.

Since a fund’s operational costs are shared among its investors, a greater fund size means the fees will be spread out across more investors.

Other factors that investors must consider are the following:

  • Transaction Costs: Purchasing and Sale of Securities (i.e. Commission, Brokerage)
  • Sales Charge: Paid when “Buying In” (i.e. Purchasing Unit Shares of Mutual Funds)
  • Redemption Fees: Early Sale of Shares in Mutual Fund Before Specified Date)

Expense Ratio Calculation Example

Suppose you invested $400,000 into a mutual fund with an expense ratio of 0.50%.

Then the dollar amount paid each year to support the fund’s operational costs is $2,000.

  • Operational Expenses = $400,000 * 0.50%
  • Operational Expenses = $2,000

While the $2,000 expense can appear marginal relative to the amount invested, these seemingly minor differences in fund cost structures can significantly affect long-term returns.

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