After watching "The Wolf of Wall Street," the thought of investing though a financial middleman may seem as appealing as diving into the ocean right after seeing "Jaws."
The movie shows an extreme example of brokers gone wild. In doing so, it reveals one reason why low-cost exchange-traded funds are one of the fastest-growing areas of the financial industry. Investors have been using ETFs more and more as a way to bypass as many middlemen as possible, so they can keep more money for themselves.
While the film shows stockbrokers pitching penny stocks, there are many other ways the financial industry bites and nibbles at retail investors’ money. A major example is the $13 trillion mutual fund industry. When a broker sells a mutual fund, they get a cut, albeit one that's far smaller than what the brokers in the movie got for their sales. Mutual funds may also feed Wall Street through commissions by turning over fund portfolios at a rapid rate. Those fees are an additional cost on top of the expense ratio and any loads levied.
So what is the cheapest possible way to invest in the market and eliminate as many middleman fees as possible? Below is a very basic portfolio of dirt-cheap ETFs with no loads and minimal turnover that can be bought commission-free from certain online brokerages. With these products you get to keep nearly every dollar of your investment.
For U.S. stock exposure, the Schwab U.S. Broad Market ETF (SCHB) tracks 2,000 large-, mid- and small-cap stocks for a fee of .04 percent. It's literally the cheapest fund since mutual funds were invented in the 1920s, and can be traded commission-free on Schwab’s web site.
For U.S. bond exposure, there's the iShares Core Total U.S. Bond Market ETF (AGG). It tracks 2,000 investment-grade government and corporate bonds and has an expense ratio of .08 percent. The ETF has a yield of 2 percent and carries some interest rate risk, since the fund's duration -- which basically shows how sensitive a fund's portfolio is to changes in interest rates -- is five years. It can be traded commission-free on Fidelity Investment's platform.
For International stock exposure, there's the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund (VXUS). It tracks 5,500 international stocks, has a .18 percent expense ratio and tracks stocks in 44 countries, in both developed and emerging markets, in Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and Canada. Basically you get exposure to every country with a significant stock market outside of the U.S. Users of online trading platforms at Vanguard Group Inc. and TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. can trade it commission-free.
If you invest $10,000 in such a mini-portfolio, you get exposure to nearly 10,000 stocks and bonds for a blended fee of $10 per year (in many cities, that's cheaper than paying to see "The Wolf of Wall Street"). These ETFs produced a blended return of 81 percent over the last 10 years, compared to 100 percent for the S&P 500. The bond ETF is a slight drag on overall performance, but that’s the price of balance. During the financial crisis of 2008, AGG was up 6 percent while the S&P 500 was down 36 percent.
If you're intrigued by this mini-portfolio, an Index Universe article, “How to Build the Cheapest ETF Portfolio,” takes it a step further. It provides investors with the cheapest commission-free mini-portfolios to be found on the online trading platforms of Fidelity Investments, TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. and ETrade Financial Corp.
If you want financial advice with your cheap ETFs, you can always use a fee-based adviser. An example of a progressive, ETF-only adviser is Wealthfront in Palo Alto, California. It will manage your first $10,000 for free; after that, it charges .25 percent. Their average portfolio has an expense ratio of .17 percent. Add it together and you'd pay .42 percent for a balanced portfolio and investment advice.
Other ETF-friendly advisers include The ETF Store, Portfolio Solutions, Penn Financial Group, Global Trends Investment and Pacific Park Financial. Shops like these are the polar opposite of Jordan Belfort’s rapacious Stratton Oakmont.