Mutual funds giant Vanguard used to pay bills and write checks, for free, on behalf of investors with at least half a million dollars in Vanguard funds. No more.
Vanguard told clients last week that it is ending VanguardAdvantage accounts, which since 2002 had made the branchless, $5 trillion-asset Malvern investment company a little more banklike.
“We sincerely regret this inconvenience," which “will require you to establish similar services" with a bank or other rival financial company, James M. Delaplane Jr., principal at Vanguard’s Flagship Services unit, which targets clients with at least $1 million in Vanguard investments, told customers in a note.
Vanguard believed that the service wasn’t used enough to justify the expense of arranging partnerships with banks to set up the accounts, or opening customers’ mailed-in checks.
“Less than 2 percent of eligible clients signed up for the service; of those, only half of those were actively using” VanguardAdvantage, said spokesperson Emily Farrell, adding that the company claims eight million U.S. retail customers. It won’t say how many have at least the half-million dollars needed for the service.
The program will end July 31, but Vanguard urged clients “to begin the transition process now” to make sure bill payments switch to new providers on time. The change will complicate some customers’ filings for the current tax year, obliging them to report payments from multiple accounts.
The company rolled out VanguardAdvantage in 2002, when Vanguard had about $500 billion in total customer assets, about one-tenth of its current size.
Back then, Vanguard promised “the flexibility of a traditional bank checking account with Vanguard’s low-cost, high-quality brokerage and investment services,” plus a Visa Gold check card, no check minimums, overdraft protection, and a “cost-basis” accounting service tracking gains and losses in taxable accounts for convenient income-tax reporting.
Vanguard in recent months has stopped making the claim in its SEC filings that it provides services “at cost.”
Vanguard consoled customers with a note that money-market funds linked to its bill-paying accounts tend to yield “above the national average,” allowing customers “to make the most of your cash,” once they’ve made arrangements with another financial institution.
While rolling back some services, Vanguard has continued to cut fees, according to data collected by Morningstar Inc.
For example, on Feb. 26, Vanguard listed 10 exchange-traded funds whose fees "would be lower in 2019 thanks to economies of scale as the funds have grown,” Morningstar noted. “The changes are small on an absolute basis — just 1 or 2 basis points each,” but half the 10 funds now charge less than one-tenth of 1 percent a year.
Vanguard offers hundreds of exchange-traded funds and has waged a “price war” to drive down ETF fees at its rivals — competition that has been “good news for investors,” Morningstar concluded.