Rising Commissions? Since When?

I had to double check to make sure what I heard over the weekend was correct. A.G. Edwards (AGE), a St. Louis based firm with 7,000 brokers nationwide, is planning to raise their commissions by 5 percent beginning on March 15th. In addition, their postage and handling fee is jumping 10 percent to $5.50 per transaction. Yes, that is correct. The company will charge customers $5.50 to mail them each trade confirmation. BrownCo actually only charges $5 to make a trade, so you can see how out of whack these fees really are.

Amazingly, full service brokers continue to thrive, even when they are ripping off millions of investors. AG Edwards stands to bring in an estimated $50 million in incremental revenue from the price hike, as they generate $1 billion per year in commissions (40 percent of total sales). Now I understand investors take comfort in having a personal broker with whom to work with, but at what point does one think twice about paying these astronomical fees? After all, it costs next to nothing to execute trade, which is why discounters can charge less than $10 and still make a lot of money.

The statistics have shown that analysts aren’t good stock pickers (sell-side research generates the investment ideas brokers in turn recommend to their clients) and the majority of mutual funds lag the market, so the buy side isn’t that great either. Meanwhile, discount brokers now offer all kinds of stock research reports, the same research high-priced brokers are using.

Why then are investors content to pay a 2 percent commission to full service brokers? Think about it this way. Let’s say you hold your average stock for a year. If you are paying 2% when you buy it and another 2% when you sell it, you’re 4% behind the market’s return assuming your stock picks are average performers.

With valuations where they are today in the U.S. stock market, the S&P 500 is likely to only average a mid-to-high single digit annual return for the rest of the decade at least. So, a full service brokerage customer is going to make about 4% per year net of commissions if the market returns 8% per year. Mutual funds will return about 7% in such a scenario, but transaction fees and loads could take that number even lower. No wonder index funds have become so popular. Compared with actively managed mutual funds and full service brokers, they are often a better option.

This current state of the investment advisory industry is exactly why I started Peridot Capital Management. The average mutual fund investor is going to underperform. The average stock broker is going to underperform. Investors who pick their own stocks often buy what they know and like, paying no attention to valuation. In doing so, they buy overpriced blue chips stocks that have done wonderfully over the last twenty years, and as a result, are set to underperform.

Unless you can earn above-average returns on your own, index funds are the best option of the four most common investment options, but by definition you can not outperform by owning them.

The answer, at least in my eyes, is pretty simple; investing with superior independent research from a personal investment manager, who is not working on commission, through an online discount brokerage account. Hence Peridot Capital was born.