Wrap Fee Programs: What They Are and How They Work - MagnifyMoney

What Is a Wrap Fee Program?

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If you’ve ever planned an exotic beach vacation, you’ve likely considered staying at an all-inclusive resort. Wrap fee programs are the all-inclusive resorts of the financial advisory world. Enrolling in one means you pay a single fee that covers your advisor’s guidance plus additional trading expenses typically associated with a brokerage account.

But is a wrap fee program right for you? If you expect a high trading volume, wrap accounts might make sense. But long-term investors might want to steer clear.

What is a wrap fee program?

A wrap fee program is an investment account that bundles fees for portfolio management and brokerage services into a single consolidated charge. Accounts can vary in scope and services, but wrap fees typically cover a combination of expenses, including:

  • Advisor fees. What your advisor charges to manage your portfolio and offer advice.
  • Custodial fees. The administrative fees that financial institutions charge to safeguard your assets.
  • Transaction fees. The brokerage fees you pay to execute individual trades.
  • Expense ratios. Fees that mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) charge investors to cover internal operating costs.

Wrap fee programs, also known as investment management programs or asset allocation programs, offer clients certainty and predictability around how much they’ll pay in fees. Investors who don’t pay wrap fees may see their brokerage fees fluctuate based on trade frequency and market conditions.

How do wrap fees work?

There’s no one rule dictating what services a wrap fee must include. While some may only cover advisory services and transaction fees, others may include internal expense ratios charged by mutual fund companies and, in some cases, financial planning services.

Luckily, figuring out what a wrap fee program includes isn’t tricky. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires registered investment advisors (RIAs) to provide a separate wrap fee program brochure as part of the annual Form ADV filing. This document details which expenses a wrap fee covers, how much the program costs and more.

Like a financial advisor’s management fee, wrap fees get calculated as a percentage of your assets under management (AUM). So, for example, an investor with a $100,000 account would be charged $2,000 per year under a 2% wrap fee.

Asset management fees vs. wrap fees: What’s the difference?

A conventional advisory fee doesn’t cover your account’s brokerage and administrative expenses. Instead, you pay these fees separately and, generally, directly to the brokerage. With a wrap account, your advisor uses a portion of your fee to pay for all your account’s brokerage fees.

But these all-inclusive programs are by no means a panacea. In 2021, the SEC issued a risk alert warning that these programs can create conflicts of interest for advisors. For example, wrap fees can incentivize portfolio managers to trade less frequently within a client’s account to reduce operating expenses and increase profit margins.

An SEC examination of 100 advisors raised “concerns that clients whose wrap accounts are managed by portfolio managers with low trading activity are paying higher total fees and costs than they would in non-wrap accounts.”

What’s an average wrap fee?

It’s difficult to pinpoint an industry average, but these charges typically max out at 3% of AUM each year, according to the Financial Planning Association.

What’s more important to know is the difference in fees you’d pay with an all-inclusive wrap account versus a regular brokerage account. The answer will likely depend on the frequency and number of trades your advisor executes within your account. The more trading that takes place, the more likely a wrap program will save you money.

The SEC recommends asking your advisor the following questions to determine whether a wrap fee program is appropriate:

  • What fees and expenses does the wrap fee cover?
  • What additional costs and expenses will I incur that aren’t included?
  • Why does a wrap program make more sense for me than another account?
  • Will my account be actively managed, or will it employ a buy-and-hold strategy?

Should you use a wrap fee program?

It all leads to the question of whether you should enroll in a wrap fee program. Here’s the nitty gritty: Wrap fees benefit certain investors but may cost others more money.

A wrap fee program might make sense if:

  • You have an actively managed portfolio. Lots of trades mean you’ll spend more money on commissions and transaction fees, which can make a wrap fee a bargain.
  • You want a more predictable fee. Wrap fees offer a higher level of predictability and consistency.

A wrap fee program might not make sense if:

  • You’re a buy-and-hold investor. If you’re a long-term investor with a low trading volume, you’re likely better off in a standard brokerage account.
  • You prefer passive investments. If your portfolio relies on passive investments, like low-cost index funds and ETFs, you may also be better served by a brokerage account.

What’s next?

Now that you understand wrap programs better, you’re ready to tackle the next phase in your investing journey. Depending on your financial goals and needs, consider these three next steps:

  • Learn about the different financial advisor fee structures. Knowing whether your advisor is fee-only or fee-based is an important step.
  • Create your financial roadmap. Learn what’s included in a comprehensive financial plan and why one’s essential to your goals.
  • Find a fiduciary advisor. MagnifyMoney can help match you with an advisor legally bound to act in your best interests.

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