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Dennis Hall: Why we are reducing portfolios to just one fund

Dennis HallIf you agree with the premise that funds with high charges generally underperform those with low charges, then you must also agree a portfolio that accrues high costs will generally underperform one with lower costs.

And if you accept this, the obvious conclusion is to hack away anything that increases that cost.

Switching from higher-priced active funds to lower-priced passive funds reduces costs at the fund level, but what about at the portfolio level?

This question has been nagging me for some time and, over summer, I vowed to do something about it.

Are model portfolios still on point?

I deal with portfolio cost issues by using a platform with the lowest costs for the service and functionality we need. Platform charges are between 12.5 and 15 basis points, which are competitive. But with our portfolios typically holding 12 or more funds, the costs of rebalancing soon mount up.

Could we deliver a better client outcome by only having one fund?

Our research is not quite complete but the early indications are that we could. And even if we cannot do it with one fund, it looks very doable with two, especially within Isa and Sipp tax wrappers.

This then raises other questions, such as “will my clients buy it?” and “does this threaten my business?” The latter really gets to the heart of what value clients think you bring to the table.

For the past decade or so, my conversations with clients have mostly been about financial planning needs rather than portfolio management. Knowing they are on track to achieve their plans is more important to them than the underlying asset allocation.

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Yet would they really buy a single fund strategy, even if I could prove it would be better for them? It would be confronting the “all my eggs in one basket” argument and the strange and pervasive desire for humans to make things more complex than they need to be (complexity bias).

So, I asked the question among those clients with seven figure portfolios. I figured if I could convince them, I could convince my other clients. There was surprisingly little resistance, particularly as we could demonstrate efficiency gains leading to better performance and more simplicity in their lives.

Our investment proposition has always eschewed active or third-party discretionary fund managers, and our portfolios are mostly populated with Dimensional and Vanguard funds, so it was a relatively small step to mentally let go of a multi-fund portfolio and to embrace just one or two.

Dennis Hall: Don’t let unconscious bias hurt your advice

I anticipated it would be a tougher sell to my clients but we have already seen a few million pounds of new money go straight to single fund propositions without push back.

There will be transactional cost savings in relation to rebalancing and fewer hidden costs incurred depending on how the fund is being priced (toward true offer or true bid). It should also reduce the time spent on rebalancing activities, which should be reflected in lower adviser charges too.

Dennis Hall is managing director of Yellowtail Financial Planning



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There are 59 comments at the moment, we would love to hear your opinion too.

  1. Absolutely agree.

    This frees up so much more of your time to do what is important for your client which is the planning.

    The only downside is the FSCS risk of one fund in an investment being only £50k, increasing to £85k next year. However, the chances of an asset manager going to the wall and having to meet liabilities out of client funds is negligible.

    • Hi Dennis, great article.

      Investors should remember that there are only two reasons to invest. 1) To keep pace with and beat inflation 2) To keep pace with and beat their personal rate of portfolio withdrawal.

      I also appreciate that it is difficult for you to disclose whether you are using V or D for the investment choice but they would be better than 90% of other investment approaches which frees up your time and I guess costs to focus on working with your clients.

    • An asset manager cannot meet any liability out of client money. If you remember back to your exams, you may remember ring fencing. Client money is not the asset managers, they simple manage it.

      As such the only risk to the clients money is investment risk and fraud.

  2. “If you agree with the premise that funds with high charges generally underperform those with low charges, then you must also agree a portfolio that accrues high costs will generally underperform one with lower costs.”

    Is this not a data-free assumption? Is not the fund’s forecast returns and previous track record (noting the adage ‘past performance is not a guarantee of future returns’), the appropriate measure?

  3. If Dennis Hall is happy to lump all of his clients into a single fund that’s fine. I assume he is looking for comments by saying so, however, and I must say that I would not be happy with that approach, having seen some reasonably big falls in a few funds that you wouldn’t have expected that from, over the years.
    I would, generally, use four or more funds, myself, but it depends on what I feel suits each customer. I also tend to mix passives and actives.

    Whether or not it is easy to get your theory over to a client is neither here nor there, when it come to what might be right or wrong, however.

    When it comes to “efficiency gains leading to better performance” good luck with proving that one.

    • Four funds Patrick, I suspect we’re not so far apart. When I approached the subject of reducing the number of funds we used, I started asking whether we could do it with 8 or 6 or another number that was simply ‘lower’ then the current number. That approach had some merit, but we found we were simply making ‘trade-offs’ about which asset/market was more important than another.

      To enable us to shift our thinking we decided to see if we could do this with a single fund. As the article says, the research isn’t quite finished, but there is strong evidence that it is possible, and compelling enough for some clients to want to adopt this (alongside a different service and fee structure).

      Whether we ultimately end up with a single fund, or two, three or four is largely immaterial, the objective is to simplify as far as possible (but without oversimplifying) and to reduce charges as as much as possible.

      • I was suggesting a minimum of four funds Dennis. The average would be higher than four. I would guess six or seven, which is still a lot lower than the RSM (among others) portfolios that I have seen which would be well over the top for most IFAs in my position.

  4. Andrew Alexander 16th August 2018 at 4:42 pm

    What if that one fund tanks, ala 7IM? I get the cost aspect and certainly Vanguard Lifestrategy has done very well, albeit in a broadly untested market. However you are ultimately diregarding the fundamental principle of diversification in favour of concentration risk for a few basis points.

    I get the need to reduce costs. I get your ambivalence for investment selection. But does that binary selection increase risk?

    • That would be my concern. Taking Vanguard as an example, I would say that their fixed income options are limited to say the least. If we get a problematic bond market (and there’s every chance we might at some point in the next 10 years), I would be concerned whether they had the necessary tools to act.

      Would they move to cash? I doubt it.

  5. Mr Hall seems to suggest that performance is a poor second to planning. I suggest that he revisits the situation after the next major correction.

    • I’m suggesting no such thing David. I think if you read the article again you’ll find that I actually said my conversations with clients were mainly about planning rather than asset allocation, but that’s not saying I consider it a poor second. As for major corrections, I’ve lived through a few in my 30+ years, and I’ve not found the active management sector covering itself with glory. Over the period covering 2008 and beyond, our (mostly) passive annually rebalanced portfolios have outperformed the vast majority of other portfolios we’ve been looking at.

  6. No, sorry, I just don’t agree at any level. No fund, no strategy, no ‘idea’, will work all the time and so the risk of getting something wrong increases if we put all our client’s eggs into one basket, which is what this is.

    Keep it very simple, yes, but don’t lose sight of the benefits (and, yes, costs) of diversification. Even very, very good fund managers can make mistakes, as history shows us all too regularly.

    Does anyone know how the GAM problem will unfold? Did anyone see it coming? I couldn’t imagine having to deal with that if all of my client’s money was tied up in one of the affected funds. A bad idea, sorry.

  7. Diversification is king. Every serious research says so – as well as the Regulator. I used 20-30 funds (both OEICS and ITs) for large portfolios and my results over 25 years vindicate this (as does my personal portfolio).

    Sure costs are an important factor. How much do you charge Dennis? 0.25% (or even a flat fee) for large portfolios certainly helps.

    • Of course diversification is King Harry, who says it isn’t? But where do you need the diversification, at the ‘manager’ level or at the ‘asset’ level. You could invest in 100 different managers but if they’re all buying the same assets are you actually diversifying?

      Take the Vanguard 60% Equity 40% Bond LifeStrategy Fund, currently invested across 18 other Valguard Funds – with (at a guess) more than 10,000 underlying different underlying holdings – is that enough diversification for you?

      As for my charges for this part of my work – close, 0.35% but we’re working on doing it for less than that. Could we do it for nothing? Not sure, but we’re asking the question.

      • Well Said Dennis. VLS 60% had 20,132 holdings by last count.

        These funds are also subject to OEIC and UCIT’s fund structure’s which offer investors the highest level of protection afforded to them, making FSCS funding pretty pointless for these structures.

        In other words assets are ring-fenced and held in Trust away from the fund manager by a Trustee/Depositary.

        Many of the main asset managers do not operate under the UCIT’s structure.

        Add to this the fact that the charges are now 50% lower than launch, this is a pretty compelling proposition for advisers and direct clients.

      • Well shoving clients into one (or even 4 funds) could be regarded as practically worth nothing. Couldn’t most sentient clients do this for themselves?

        If I had an adviser that did this, I’d soon fire him and take on the funds directly. Not everyone is a patsy.

        • That depends entirely on what you are paying your adviser for. I know many individuals that do not use there annual pension allowance, CGT and ISA allowances, have no idea about annual and lifetime allowance planning without the help of an adviser. Many sit on cash holdings at zero interest, they may even not claim higher rate tax relief or benefits which they are entitled to. Many can panic and crystallise losses at market lows, others can buy at points of market hysteria. So I guess it depends what you pay your adviser for. If you can do all that then fair play, but in my experience most can’t, and frankly don’t want to.

        • To be honest, Harry, I can’t think of a single one of my clients, off the top of my head, that could manage their own portfolio in a constructive way. And most of them don’t have sub-average IQ’s.

  8. How to run a successful ‘Financial Advice’ business and increase profitability:
    1) Increase Charges.
    2) Streamline your process so you spend less time and need fewer staff.

    Result! (And ‘present’ it to the client as a ‘benefit’)

  9. The current state of this industry is labor intensive and of course the high infrastructure (platform) maintenance together with poor agility and the lack of seamless experience makes it hard to compete with passive funds. I really understand why you want to reduce portfolios to just one or two funds for your clients, but reducing costs is not the only driver. Easy broad exposure to a variety of markets, a growing demand among self directed tech savvy investors who prefer ease of use, fast execution and less risk are more important for investors, than only focus on costs.

  10. I suspect Dennis the reason you may not of had to much resistance from your clients on this new thought process is ….they trust you and they have trusted your advice over (probably) many years and they respect your arguments for a single fund strategy, that is indeed the value you bring to the table, possibly not the few basis points you may save them in doing so ? after all, I think you are a ethical enough and hold your clients in such high esteem, that if things don’t turn out as you may have liked, you can revert back (and their funds) to your tried and tested method ?
    As for the whole one fund V 20 fund debate……. that is down to an individual opinion, as none of us (as far as I am aware) has a crystal ball….. so historical performance is fine upto a point, and may be used as an indication for the future…… however (always the however, you may have guessed it)no guarantee for the future.

    Good article by the way, I think many of us have struggled with the same topic in one way or another.

    I sit in the portfolio camp, and your thought process does raise some questions !

    • Thank you for your comments and your balanced views. I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer, and if it doesn’t go quite as we expect, well as you point out, we can revert to the original plan. We certainly won’t be able to satisfy all of our clients all of the time, but we’re trying to do the right thing by them, without the benefit of a crystal ball, and this is my conclusion as how best to deliver value. I appreciate that others will see things differently, and they will try to deliver value according to their world view, and the view of their clients.

  11. Good luck with this. I think you will probably need it.

  12. Has anyone considered the likely views of FCA or FOS if a client complains in the future? How does this meat WOM requirements? Multi-asset is not diversified enough – you are still relying on one “manager” strategy. In the case of Dimensional smaller cap, value investing, with in some funds, large exposure to N. America. I’m not sure clients get this. I see some trouble ahead.

    • VLS is market cap so it is not a “manager” strategy. You will get the returns that the market has on offer, it just so happens that the market tends to beat the large majority of funds over the medium to long term.

      With regards to the regulator, surely the starting point in any conversation should be the market returns. VLS is a very real benchmark because it is the market less costs. If I can’t proove, without a crystal ball, that a manager can consistently beat this real benchmark then why would the regulator be bothered about WOM?

      Conversely By increasing exposure to different “managers” you are improving the odds of diluted performance because of costs and asset allocation incompetence, or lack of foresight.

      It takes a brave person to bet against US companies, Small Companies and Value.

  13. Whittington Dick 18th August 2018 at 6:41 am

    Dennis, I can see entirely your point – and not just from a charges perspective, either. It’s always good to challenge the status quo, and this is a classic 80-20 rule scenario, i.e. when you strip things down to their component parts and examine all the added bells, whistles, and biases, a new clarity can be revealed.

    I confess, whether I would have the dangly bits to stick with it exclusively could be another question, but that’s no doubt bourn of that little voice in the head trying to pull me back onto the worn and trusted path, so to speak.

    I think many advisers feel the need for complexity to justify their fees – and I don’t mean that in contrived or negative way – they fully believe in it and see it almost as a sacred duty to their clients (Harry?), as somehow, it feels right, and they acquire lots of evidence to prove it (confirmation bias, perhaps?).

    It’s clear that you yourself have struggled against the standard perceptions in examining this, but been brave enough to take the blinkers off and see it through as bias free as one could.

    You make a very interesting and valid argument, Dennis.

  14. I must say I find it hard to agree on this one Dennis.

    If you don’t mind me saying so, it sounds like the tail of considering the time and resources needed to focus on more than one fund, ie several, and the possible few bps saving on portfolio rebalancing costs, involved in maintaining several funds as opposed to just one, or two, is wagging the portfolio diversification dog … and all of the academic evidence and grandma sucking eggs points to diversification (surely at least to some degree, even if kept to a minimum) being the irrefutable bedrock of portfolio planning?

    The basic advantages of several global multi asset funds having differing, even if relatively minor, asset allocation is surely key here? As as been said, nobody has a crystal ball, but the time and few bps in extra costs of holding a few funds, even if similar, is surely fundamentally value adding … and could lead to a few hundred bps difference in outcome: albeit that whether the difference is a positive or negative one is a symterical risk.

    I would also add in that I think the years ahead are going to see advisers need to consider different types of investments for client portfolios, not just asset class and geography. There are just some things that passive and active cannot do, that might need to be done in the years ahead, including creating viable returns in range bound, possibly flat and possibly falling markets, that don’t rise as needed, for purely passive and most active portfolios to deliver the returns some investors will need or want, etc. Best of breed structured products, offered by providers who have emerged and evolved since past issues affected the sector, can present compelling portfolio options that can add value alongide passive, smart beta and active for objective advisers and their clients. Take a look at Tempo’s Long Growth Accelerator Plan, as an example.

    • A very erudite post. Exactly what I was trying to point out (less ably than you).

      “…diversification IS the irrefutable bedrock of portfolio planning”

      So a Vanguard fund has 20k holdings. How many holdings do you think 15 or 20 OEICS and ITs have? And these can be changed(switched) if necessary and probably hold a greater diversity. (Many ITs hold private equity and unlisted securities and can hardly be called high risk – see RIT for example).

      I have mulled this over several days and can only come to the same conclusion as I did originally – this is a cop out and is in danger of savvy clients going DIY.

      • And whats wrong with savvy clients going direct Harry?

        • Nothing. But running a business plan that potentially encourages this isn’t really they way to run a firm.

          • So, are you saying that the needs of the firm should be of greater importance than the needs of the client?

            Quite frankly, I have lost no clients. We are very open with potential new clients when we feel they may be better served going direct.

            Financial planning is so much more than just investment planning.

            Over complication to justify existence is on the verge of becoming an extinct strategy to attract and retain clients.

            Simplicity and honesty (of what actually works best) is the key.

      • Whilst you’ve been ‘mulling things over’ for several days, we’ve been researching and analysing over several months. Do you honestly think that I woke up one morning and decided to write an article about something that just popped into my head…actually you probably do.

        The problem with ‘mulling things over’ is you don’t really challenge your own inherent biases. By psoing the question the way we did “could we do this with just one fund” it forced us to look at things slightly differently, and we have been surprised at the results.

        We’ve compared the returns against a large number of portfolios we’ve been able to gather data on, including many from clients who have had DFMs in the past, and the net results have shown us we’re looking in the right direction.

        As for your question “how many holdings do you think 15 or 20 OEICS/ITs have” you’d need to specify which ones otherwise it cannot be answered, as it could be anywhere between c300 and 30,000 perhaps. Oh, and using the word “probably” as in probably has greater diversity, doesn’t really give me any sense of rigour in your analysis.

        Finally, is there anything wrong with a ‘savvy’ client going DIY? That idea of everything being so complex that clients are bamboozled into working with advisers, or buying things they don’t understand, or giving up because everything takes too much time and effort, has got financial services the bad reputation that it has.

        The only cop out here Harry, is thinking that everything needs to remain the same. I don’t yet know what the final results will be once we conclude our research, but it certainly won’t be sticking with the status quo.

        • Very well put Dennis.

          The only thing I could possible add is that a multi-active fund portfolio’s will almost certainly suffer from low active share and therefore demonstrate signs of closet “trackerism”

        • Odd then that well renowned asset managers and stockbrokers, whose research is no doubt as rigorous as yours, don’t go down the same path. While you may denigrate my ruminations, I wonder what Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan etc thinks of your research?

          • Really Harry?! I can’t imagine stockbrokers and investment banks encouraging one stop shop investments unless they are their own. I don’t really know, but I would imagine they they would prefer to encourage more trading, not less given that they have a vested interest to do so!

  15. Very well put Dennis.

    The only thing I could possible add is that a multi-active fund portfolio’s will almost certainly suffer from low active share and therefore demonstrate signs of closet “trackerism”

  16. Hi Dennis, great article.

    Investors should remember that there are only two reasons to invest. 1) To keep pace with and beat inflation 2) To keep pace with and beat their personal rate of portfolio withdrawal.

    I also appreciate that it is difficult for you to disclose whether you are using V or D for the investment choice but they would be better than 90% of other investment approaches which frees up your time and I guess costs to focus on working with your clients.

  17. @ Rob Wood

    That is precisely my point. They also have a vested interest in making money for the clients. If the didn’t they would soon be out of business.

  18. Harry. If you want truly independent analysis you need to look at peer reviewed independent academic evidence (Spiva, Cass Business School etc)

    Anything else is just marketing, especially if it comes out of an investment bank!

    • I knew a Prof from Cass. He was just an academic. Never made a profit in his life and had some very odd ideas. Sure fund managers, investment banks etc are there to make money, but as I said, if they don’t make money for the clients as well they wont be in business long.

      How much money has the Cass business school made from implementing this research compared to (say) what a decent investment bank or stockbroker makes for their clients? That research would be valuable.

      • He was ‘just’ an academic?

        He never made a profit in his life?

        He had some odd ideas?

        Wow, Harry, your bigotry is coming over loud and clear here.

        Plus, you’re confused about what business schools do.

        Rob Wood has been making some valid points, yet you find it impossible to acknowledge any of them. The fact is active management costs have been too high for too long for too little return to the client. They’ve been found out, and about time too.

        • Why is it bigotry to tell the truth? I knew the man, had meals with him and extensive conversations.

          As the saying goes “Those who can do, those who can’t teach” (In the main).

  19. Academics are impartial and have proven that Asset management extracts value at the expense of clients, hence why the floodgates have opened.

    Academics have done pretty well out of low cost strategies (Dimensional/Jack Bogle?!).

    Active management is hemmouraging money because people are waking up to the truth. Deep pockets have kept this truth behind a wall of marketing but academia has exposed it.

    Those deep pockets are no longer there and only yesterday JPMorgan announced job cuts. Staberdeen announcing an AI fund. “Smart” Beta launches from active manager’s. Consolidation, merging underperforming funds into average funds. All different ways to peddle the same nonsense.

    At the end of the day the only way to succeed with investments is patience and low cost, or at high cost with a lot of luck. Markets are too efficient, and always will be.

  20. An interesting article Dennis. However I’m going to take a contrarian viewpoint and explain my reasoning for it.

    I personally believe that the key points for this “argument” are as follows:

    1.) Passive vs Active: Although it is clearly demonstrable that since 2008-2009 “passive” has on average outperformed “active” management, this does not mean that passive is better, it simply means that many “active” managers don’t actually make significant calls on assets and for the most part set out to “track” the market, but with higher costs.

    2.) Higher costs is bad? This argument has raged back and forth, but simply put I doubt any client really cares about what the “cost” is, what they care about is the bottom line. If adding 1%pa higher costs adds a further 2%pa out performance, few people would try to argue that passive was better.

    3.) Diversification is king – Diversification helps to smooth out returns but it doesn’t necessarily help to reduce actual risk or increase returns, volatility is not risk, it is simply a flawed measure of risk. Massive diversification simply means that you become more and more likely to achieve the market average. Is that what you want to achieve?

    Fundamentally, my personal view, is that passive works best for well researched, large, developed markets, but for smaller, less well developed markets, where research is absolutely key, good quality active tends to win.

    I believe that diverisifcation across asset classes and sub asset classes (e.g small, mid and large cap) is key. But likewise active asset allocation is also key, simply because being in the right asset classes is far more important to returns, than any other form of activity.

    There is also the consideration that as more and more money is passively managed, this means that volatility within the markets will tend to increase. Simply because the market price is driven by buying and selling, so if say 50% is passive, then 1 sale or purchase by one vendor, will tend to move the market by more than if the market were mostly/all actively managed.

    Personally my view is that part active, part passive underlying assets, with active asset allocation and truly alternative asset classes included will tend to produce smoother, higher returns over the longer term, whilst also providing clients with more protection on the downside, even if that means some under performance in consistently rising markets.

    I would also observe Dennis, that part of your research is fundamentally flawed as markets have been remarkably benign and rising fast with low levels of volatility since 2009, which favours passive returns. In different market conditions, active may well tend to outperform.

    So whilst I applaud your sticking your neck out and expressing a contrarian viewpoint, I think you’ve potentially missed a fundamental flaw. Which is the inherent bias within your own investment beliefs/philosophy.

    However we are all different and much of the time there is no right/wrong answer.

    • Hi Duncan

      I cannot argue against your viewpoint as you make valid comments, but I will respond to your specific points.

      1) There are some active managers who have, over time, been able to demonstrate some outperformance, consistently, but it’s virtually impossible to identify them at the beginning of their career. Not even Anthony Bolton could identify successful managers to take over his fund. I don’t want to be in that position.

      2) I agree, if you could get 5% pa outperformance for an additional 1% would you complain – probably not. But I don’t believe I can identify the managers who will achieve this year in year out.

      3) 2 points here, diversification will generally dampen performance without necessarily protecting the downside in the worst situations, though more often than not it will protect downside risk somewhat. I completely agree with risk not really being about volatility, despite what the FCA say and any of the risk profiling tools.

      I go along with most of what you have to say BTW, but take issue with your comment about my research being fundamentally flawed. You’re making the assumption that we have only used data from the past 10 years, but we’ve gone back to as early as 1900 for index data, and for several decades for some funds. This is not a 10 year data set.

  21. I think MM must be very pleased with Dennis. This has turned out to be clickbait par excellence.

  22. You may want to review a recent FoS decision DRN8801962.

    Snapshot only of course and there were other issues but here the ombudsman didn’t like a single managed fund for a pot of £190,000.

    “After the transfer and the deduction of the adviser’s initial fee, Mr C’s pension was around £190,000. The recommended fund for the new pension was a managed fund. It was not a multi-manager or fund of funds where the investor has the benefit having more than one fund manager making investment decisions. I consider it would have been prudent for a pension of Mr C’s size to have had more diversity of fund management rather than relying on a single fund manager.”

  23. A very good article Dennis and thanks once again for putting your head above the parapet.
    I don’t entirely agree with you, but it doesn’t make the debate any less worthwhile.
    As someone else said “Fundamentally, my personal view, is that passive works best for well researched, large, developed markets, but for smaller, less well developed markets, where research is absolutely key, good quality active tends to win”
    Our client portfolios are structured with this view but we try not to have masses of different fund managers as we don’t think it that necessary for diversification of holdings or managers.

    • Philip, thank you for your reply. It’s an interesting exercise putting one’s head above the parapet, not for the obviously unthinking replies, but for those well argued alternative responses. Despite me keeping an open mind it’s impossible not to be swayed by the outcome I’m looking for, and having other people point things out enables me to keep an open mind for longer!

  24. Incidentally, which platform are you using at 12.5bps?

    • We use Raymond James as our primary platform, and have done for almost a dozen years – we’re very happy with them and so are our clients. The base cost to our clients is 15bps plus dealing charges. Our wealthiest get a 12.5bps deal.

  25. Thank you Dennis you and Whittington Dick have got this spot on in my opinion

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