Low-load and no-load mutual funds, including many that have long prided themselves on offering rock-bottom costs for self-reliant investors, are hastening these days to provide a service their clientele wasn't supposed to need: advice.
Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Fidelity Investments and other fund families are marketing programs and software to help investors cope with an array of financial tasks, including fund selection, retirement and estate planning, and asset allocation, and they typically combine these services with others such as brokerage, annuities, insurance and the like.
"I definitely think it's a trend in the industry," said Sue Stevens, financial-planning specialist at Morningstar Inc., a fund-tracking and research firm that is itself busy getting into the advice business through employers that sponsor 401(k) retirement savings plans.
Many funds, of course, are sold through brokers and others who offer advice. That has been the selling point for "load" funds, which carry a sales charge that goes to compensate the selling broker. And some of the direct marketers such as Vanguard have been offering advice for some time.
But both the demand by investors and the marketing of the services have soared in the past year or so.
"It's certainly hopping at the moment. It's the result of people recognizing that there's some of it they can do on their own and then there are times when they need to get someone else involved," Stevens said.
"A lot of it is coming from people realizing that they've made a lot of money in this bull market and maybe they'd better get some help," she said.
In just the past few weeks, T. Rowe Price has sent out mailings to investors offering a free "one-on-one asset allocation review of your mutual fund portfolio." Investors with $100,000 or more in Fidelity accounts have been offered Fidelity Preferred Services (and Premium Services to those with $500,000 or more), while Vanguard has been pushing its Voyager Service to investors with $250,000 to $1 million, and its Flagship service for those with more than $1 million with the firm.
The programs offer a variety of services, as well as perks, such as direct access to advisers, consolidated statements and access to funds offered by other firms.
The programs themselves are generally free, though as Fidelity notes in the back of its brochure, "some underlying products and services may charge fees and expenses."
Vanguard, for example, offers ongoing "advice and guidance" for a percentage of assets, or a one-time planning service for $500 (discounted to $400 for Voyager clients).
But several industry experts said the motivation behind these programs is often less to generate new revenue than it is to retain existing accounts. Large accounts are very cost-efficient for funds to manage--it costs no more to mail out a statement with six or seven digits on it than one with four or five--and their existence helps hold down expenses relative to assets.
Moreover, the tide of money flowing into mutual funds has slacked off this year, causing many funds to focus on retaining existing customers. One way to do that is with improved service.
"A lot of folks will move not necessarily for performance but for service. You don't have much control over the market . . ., but you do have control over service," said Vanguard spokesman Brian Mattes.
Mattes said Vanguard has had its Flagship programs since the 1980s and Voyager for six or seven years, but new record-keeping capacity at Vanguard has made it easier for the firm to identify households that qualify for the programs.
He said there's no effort to sell them additional funds or products. It's simply to let them know that "their assets are such they should benefit from higher levels of service."
Mattes likened it to flying in coach "and they tap you on the shoulder and say, sir, you belong up in business class, no cost."
The desire for advice has been growing steadily, several fund officials said. In many cases it comes from investors new to the financial markets, but some is also generated by asset growth. Investors who were comfortable managing a six-digit portfolio start getting nervous when it climbs to seven digits.
Another factor in the growth is the huge business being generated by "rollover" IRAs--sums brought to mutual funds, brokers and banks by retirees who have accumulated them in 401(k) and similar savings plans.
While these institutions have long marketed themselves as vehicles for building up retirement nest eggs, they are now seeing clients who have done that part but now need help planning their finances while in retirement.
The rules governing IRAs are so complicated and the consequences of error so severe that many otherwise self-reliant retirees are driven to seek professional help.
A related issue is planning in-retirement withdrawals. Retirees want to know both what the legal requirements are and how much they can withdraw while still achieving their goals--whether they be retaining assets to pass along to their children or simply not running out of money.
In response to that, T. Rowe Price last week unveiled its Retirement Income Manager program, a combination of software and individual counseling designed to help retirees figure out how much they can afford to spend each year without depleting their assets prematurely.
"This is a burden that's never been placed on people before," but the widespread replacement of traditional pensions by 401(k) and similar plans has forced retirees to deal with it, said Joseph P. Healy, Price's manager of retirement and advisory services.
Truly wealthy retirees are willing and able to obtain professional planning services, but many of those with assets between $200,000 and $800,000 are left groping, Healy said. This is the segment the program is aimed at.
Now, for $500, Price will look at a retiree's assets, income desires, and matters such as risk tolerance, and come up with one or more asset allocation plans that have a high likelihood of achieving those goals.
Professional financial planners say they don't feel threatened by the mutual funds' moves. The advice the funds give is often more limited than a planner's comprehensive services, and some of it is simply computer-generated asset-allocation recommendations. In fact, several planners said they may benefit from the funds' programs, which could raise awareness of the need for planning, eventually leading clients to want more complete and personalized services.
Eleanor Blayney of the McLean planning firm Sullivan, Bruyette, Speros & Blayney Inc., who was involved in developing the Retirement Income Manager, said the program will benefit a market segment not now using planning services.
While it does not do many of the things a planner would do for a client, at $500 "it's a good value," she said.