There is a simple idea behind the index fund. You create a fund that mimics an index, often published by some other investment company. In doing so, you basically purchase a broad swath of the marketplace, whether it is the top 500 companies, the whole of the marketplace or some other sliced portion of the stock or bond markets. The idea is designed to be cost-effective, in part because once the index is purchased, you basically employ the buy-and-hold strategy until the index itself changes.
So why do the fee vary so widely when it comes to something as simple as an S&P 500 index fund? The answer is they shouldn't. But the truth is, they do. And some are so high, they begin the approach to the fees levied in actively managed funds.
Consider the case (and the motive) for Charles Schwab's recent decision to lower the fees charged to retail investors in their index funds. Any time you lower a fund's fee, it is cause for celebration. Perhaps it is the skeptic in me that asks the question: why were they so high in the first place?
The fee reductions were most noticeable in its two largest index funds. The $4.59 billion Schwab S&P 500 Index Fund (SWPPX) which at one point before the change charged its shareholders 0.19%. Dropping it to 0.9% now positions the fund to take shareholders from the other index funds. But probably not from Vanguard or Fidelity.
Fidelity is selling some of its index funds for 0.1%, while Vanguard Index funds charge around 0.18%. So why care about what Schwab is doing? Low fees are great but to entry level purchases into either of the Fidelity or Vanguard funds can be prohibitive for new investors. Fidelity can charge, in some cases $100,000 minimum investment to get that rate, while Vanguard puts its minimum initial investment at $3,000. Schwab wants only a hundred dollars to open the account.
So should you change for a lesser fee? Yes if the fund is also doing what it intends to do. Numerous index funds drift away from their intended purpose and this error can be costly for investors.
If you are using index funds as they should be (we have often discussed this in our retirement planning blog suggesting that because of the tax efficiency of these funds, it would be somewhat foolish to defer paying the taxes on these types of funds) outside of your defined contribution plan such as 401(k) or IRA, then shopping around and choosing the Schwab alternative might be a very good move.