Fund-manager incentives should be disclosed

Dollars & Sense

November 30, 2003|By Russel Kinnel | Russel Kinnel,MORNINGSTAR.COM

Since the Securities and Exchange Commission decided to require disclosure of fund company proxy votes this year, it's time to get down to the good stuff. Proxy disclosure is an entitlement of shareholders, but there are more important things that will directly affect fund investors' bottom lines.

Today, I'd like to discuss an important matter that I hope the SEC will roll up its sleeves and get to work on - namely, manager-incentive disclosure.

Of course, the fund industry could get ahead of this issue so the SEC doesn't have to act. For instance, had the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group, come out with its proxy disclosure proposal soon after the Enron debacle, I doubt the SEC would have adopted its more comprehensive rules. I slightly prefer the rules the SEC came up with, but obviously the ICI doesn't.

A manager's incentives tell you a lot about how a fund will be run. Managers whose bonuses are tied to 12-month returns will run funds differently from managers whose bonuses are tied to three-year returns.

Likewise, those whose incentives are based on pretax returns will naturally pay little heed to after-tax returns. And managers compensated for asset growth are less likely to push to close their funds.

If you own stocks, you can learn what the chief executive officers are paid, how many shares they own, what their bonuses are based on and how their option packages work. The SEC decided long ago that this is material information for a stock investor, and you can be sure that fund managers scour it closely.

I'd like to see similar disclosure for mutual funds. I don't even need to know what managers' salaries are. Just tell me what percentage of their salaries they can earn in bonuses. Then tell me how the mechanisms in their incentive packages work.

Finally, I want to know how much money managers have in their funds. When managers believe in their funds, they tend to invest quite a lot. However, if they don't, then that can be a valuable signal to stay away.

For instance, this information is required with closed-end funds, and we saw some trendy funds that invested in Russia and Vietnam in which the managers hadn't invested a penny.

Similar information for open-end funds might have spared some unfortunate Internet fund investors from the dot-com bubble. In addition, managers who can earn more in their bonuses than they have invested in their funds are likely to be bigger risk-takers.

Further, we've seen that fund managers with truly large sums of money in their funds tend to act as stewards of capital. They're loath to suffer absolute losses, they focus on the long term, and they try to minimize the tax liability because they'll likely get hit with a bigger bill than any of their shareholders.

Some in the fund industry have said that revealing how much managers have in their funds would confuse investors. "You wouldn't expect a manager of a short-term bond fund to have all his money in it, would you?" they ask. Of course not. Someone who bothers to look at this figure no doubt is aware that there's a difference between core funds and peripheral offerings. I wouldn't expect a manager of a short-term bond fund to have all his money at stake, but I would expect him to have something in the fund.

In its fight over the proxy issue, the ICI mailed out phone-book-sized documents to illustrate how onerous the rules would be. You could fit all the manager disclosure information I'm calling for on a postcard.

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