Obfuscation in Mutual Funds
57 Pages Posted: 13 Mar 2020 Last revised: 30 Sep 2020
Date Written: September 29, 2020
Mutual funds hold 32% of the U.S. equity market and comprise 58% of retirement savings, yet retail investors consistently make poor choices when selecting funds. Theory suggests that poor choices are partially due to mutual fund managers creating unnecessarily complex disclosures and fee structures to keep investors uninformed and obfuscate poor performance. An empirical challenge in investigating this “strategic obfuscation” theory is isolating manipulated complexity from complexity arising from inherent differences across funds. We examine obfuscation among S&P 500 index funds, which have largely the same regulations, risks, and gross returns but can charge widely different fees. Using bespoke measures of complexity designed for mutual funds, we find evidence consistent with funds attempting to obfuscate high fees. Our study improves our understanding of why investors make poor mutual fund choices, and of how price dispersion persists among homogeneous index funds. We also discuss insights for mutual fund regulation and the academic literature on corporate disclosures.
Keywords: mutual funds; disclosure obfuscation; strategic disclosure; price dispersion; retail investors
JEL Classification: G11, G23, M41, D83, D14
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