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It's never been cheaper to invest in the markets as asset managers slash fund fees by $5 billion

Key Points
  • Fund fees are dropping as competitors like Charles Schwab, Fidelity and Vanguard compete on lower prices.
  • Investors saved roughly $5.5 billion in mutual funds and ETFs fees last year, according to new research from MorningStar. The 6% fee decline was the second biggest year-over-year drop in almost two decades.
  • “One of the more surprising trends is just how shrewd investors have become,” Ben Johnson, Morningstar's director of ETF and passive strategies research, tells CNBC.
Unlike actively managed mutual funds, ETFs track indexes, making them passively managed.
Daniel Fung | Getty Images

Investors are the real winners as giant asset managers race each other to lower fees.

Last year, investors saved a total $5.5 billion in ETF and mutual fund fees, according to new research from Morningstar. The 6% decline was the second biggest year-over-year drop in two decades. Since 2000, the cost of fund investing has been cut in half, according Morningstar data, first-reported by Axios.

"There is a growing fee consciousness among investors," Ben Johnson, Morningstar's director of ETF and passive strategies research, told CNBC in a phone interview. "One of the more surprising trends is just how shrewd investors have become."

Costs are down across the board: both actively managed funds and passive funds have seen a steady decline in the past two decades. But in both cases, new money flowing into the funds is gravitating towards cheaper options.

The majority of money being invested flowed into the cheapest 20 percent of funds, according to Johnson. Those saw net inflows of $605 billion. And 97% of net new money flowed into the least costly 10% of all funds. The remaining 80 percent of more expensive options saw net outflows of $478 billion.

"The relationship gets flipped on its head when you're selecting funds — the less you pay the more you on average tend to get," he said.

Price war

Competition between large asset managers has been the driving the price cuts. Fidelity fanned the fee-slashing fire last summer by getting becoming the first fund company to get rid of fees on its two core index mutual funds.

"Investors will pay a 0.00 percent fee, regardless of how much they invest in either fund, while gaining exposure to nearly the entire global stock market," Fidelity said in a release at the time.

In response, J.P. Morgan, Vanguard, BlackRock and others have since lowered fees on some of their top funds. Vanguard announced last week that it was lowering fees two of its largest funds, and 19 others. In March, Black Rock said it was cutting fees for institutional clients on its biggest equity mutual fund while J.P. Morgan announced its lowest-fee ETF yet. New entrants like online lender Social Financial, or SoFi, have started out by offering zero-fee ETFs.

"It's an area where we see more and more power consolidating in the hands of a small handful of large operators that can afford to cut fees to rock bottom levels," Johnson said. "In the case of Fidelity and a handful of its index mutual funds, it can lower fees because they have such massive scale and such a diverse set of lines of business."

The bar continues to get lower for management fees on core ETFs. Some are even going below zero.

In March, Salt Financial filed with regulators to introduce an exchange traded fund that will temporarily pay people to invest. The promotional deal gives investors a 50 cent deposit for every $1,000 invested in a new low-volatility index fund for their first year. It's temporary though. After the first year, they will be charged a fee of $2.90 per $1,000.

Johnson doesn't expect the pay-you-to-invest theme to accelerate. But the bigger incumbents will likely keep racing to the bottom.

"I certainly expect it to continue," he said. "It's a trend that's been in place now for the better part of two decades — but that said, in many corners of the market we're reaching levels where we don't have much further to go."