This article was published on 1 May 2010. Some information may be out of date.


  • Real estate agent objects to my suggesting people negotiate with agents
  • Brian Gaynor’s and my differing views on the best way to invest

Plus: Buy a KiwiSaver book for less than half price

QI must take you to task on your comment last week re real estate commission bargaining.

You said: “You should be able to do a deal with a real estate agent if you are listing two properties with them — and then plan to buy another. Approach several and ask them to reduce their commissions.”

I think you’re really showing a bit of disrespect to your audience to assume that the average Joe doesn’t realise that if they wanted to appoint the best real estate agent in New Zealand they would have to pay the going rate. If I found a proven legendary investment adviser (eg: someone with Warren Buffett’s standing) or one of the world’s best heart surgeons, would it not be offensive to advise me to bargain with them?

You should have offered this advice: “Find an agent who understands that their commission may take a significant part of your equity from you. Find an agent who can and has proven in the past that their fee is excellent value for money.”

You may think that not everyone can appoint the best real estate agent in the country, but good advice from you might be to at least “strive to”. That will put money in your readers’ pockets, more so than the advice you gave in your column last week.

Any thoughts?

AI hate to say it, since you are a real estate agent, but comparing the qualifications of agents with those of heart surgeons doesn’t quite cut it — if you’ll pardon the verb. As for negotiating with an investment adviser, why not? Buffett would probably approve.

What about real estate agents? I must admit that I’ve changed my mind somewhat about you guys. I still think that, as a buyer, it makes no difference to me who the agent is. The only thing that matters is the house. But, given that some agents sell many more houses than others, that can’t be true — or at least not for some buyers.

Let’s acknowledge, then, that some agents are apparently superior. And people should probably be prepared to pay them more commission. But it doesn’t follow that sellers shouldn’t negotiate with them.

House listings are not as numerous as a couple of years ago, giving sellers more bargaining power — especially if they have two properties to sell. And it must be less time-consuming for an agent to deal with one seller than two.

If you don’t want to negotiate with sellers, that’s your choice. But I’ll keep suggesting people ask agents if there’s flexibility in their commissions.

I’ve done it myself, successfully, more than once. You might say I probably ended up with a worse agent and therefore a lower house price. Maybe. That would be hard to prove. And at least I paid a less significant part of my equity, as you put it.

QI read Brian Gaynor’s column about KiwiSaver in last Saturday’s Herald, in which he seems to be saying that KiwiSavers need take more risk and invest more in actively managed funds.

Since he names you as a supporter of passive funds, I’m interested to know what your response might be. My understanding is that over the long term, passive funds do better than the average of active funds.

AThat’s my understanding too — from following the debate since I first learnt about passive funds at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s. I invested in a passive fund then, and haven’t changed my mind since.

Let me start by agreeing with one of Gaynor’s main messages last week — that KiwiSavers in the scheme for many years will most likely end up with more money if they invest in riskier funds, which hold more shares and property.

But when it comes to how the funds are run, Gaynor and I part company. He prefers actively managed funds, in which the managers choose which shares — or cash, bonds or other investments — to buy and sell in the hope of performing better than the market averages.

I prefer passive funds, some of which are called index funds because they invest in the shares or bonds in a market index. Other passive funds choose a range of investments to buy and hold. The key point is that passive managers don’t do ongoing research on what to buy or sell when. They also trade much less.

For those two reasons, passive funds are much cheaper to run, and so their fees are lower — often much lower. A glance at the results on the KiwiSaver fee calculator on, which tells you whether a fund is active or passive, will confirm this.

Of course, lower fees aren’t much help if passive funds perform worse, after fees, than active funds. Do they?

In Gaynor’s column, he compares the performance of the largest KiwiSaver providers’ main funds with a fund run by Smartshares, which he calls “the main provider of KiwiSaver passive funds”. He notes that the performance of Smartshares’ fund “has lagged well behind its competitors.”

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, Smartshares is hardly the main passive provider. Gaynor seems unaware that ASB Group Investment’s conservative default fund — by far the largest KiwiSaver fund of all — is 100 per cent passively managed.

Secondly, guess which fund comes first equal in performance in the table with Gaynor’s column — and is singled out for praise from Gaynor? ASB’s conservative default fund.

ASB Group Investments — the biggest KiwiSaver provider — is, in fact, largely committed to passive management. In its default scheme all its funds are passive. The same applies to all the funds with “Tracker” in their name in ASB’s FirstChoice KiwiSaver Scheme.

ASB favours passive because it enables it to keep fees low, “and it’s simple to explain — we’re not trying to describe market outperformance or underperformance,” says head of ASB Group Investments, Greg McAllister.

There are also two other providers whose management is largely passive. Civic Assurance uses passive management for all shares except 10 per cent of international shares. And SuperLife uses passive management in all their funds except Gemino.

The following also use some passive management:

  • Craigs Investment Partners’ kiwiSTART Defined — about 30 per cent of international shares. And in their kiwiSTART Personalised scheme you can go entirely into passive investments if you wish.
  • Fidelity — all international shares.
  • Grosvenor — 60 per cent of international shares.
  • ING KiwiSaver — all international shares.
  • Mercer KiwiSaver — For 30 per cent of the international shares in three funds, the manager uses an “enhanced index” approach.
  • Mercer Super Trust — All of the funds that hold international shares have a 30 per cent “enhanced index” management component.

Because I don’t see any point in poring over short-term KiwiSaver performance, I don’t know how well all of these providers and funds have performed, compared with active managers. But I do know that ASB’s default fund is not the only one to do well.

SuperLife’s funds have performed better than almost all other similar investments, says chief executive Michael Chamberlain. “When compared to the providers who have their returns published by FundSource or Morningstar (which includes all the big providers), we have been very competitive and generally outperformed each of the alternative funds — except one of the Milford ones — largely because of our low-cost and passive approach.”

Interestingly, the Milford funds are Gaynor’s babies. He’s an executive director of Milford Asset Management. More on that in minute.

Firstly, though, why has SuperLife done so well? It bases its international share investments on the MSCI world index, noting that no company makes up more than 2 per cent of that index. But for its New Zealand and Australian share investments, it doesn’t use an index. This is partly because many of the indexes are dominated by one or two large companies, and if they do badly — as Telecom has done recently — that drags down the fund. Instead SuperLife uses another form of passive management.

“For the New Zealand shares, we asked (stockbrokers) Forsyth Barr to pick 20 shares, and broadly equally weight them,” says Chamberlain. “For the Australian shares, they picked 25 shares, and they are also equally weighted.” The funds rarely trade, except to keep the holdings roughly equal. And the strategy has worked well.

But what about Gaynor’s fund, which has done even better — at least in the first two and a half years of KiwiSaver? Is he outstandingly good at picking which investments to buy and sell, or has he just been lucky in a period too short to prove anything much?

Research by Lipper Analytical Services suggests that most stars in the fund performance world don’t last. The study looked at two ten-year periods — long enough to be meaningful. It found that the top performing share fund in the US in 1988–1998 came 1485th out of 2322 funds in 1998–2008. Gulp!

The share funds that ranked second through tenth in 1988–1998 ranked as follows in the following decade: 1977th, 1991st, 620th, 1699th, 2066th, 1460th, 2154th, 2274th and 2123rd. Only one made it into the top half. Six were in the bottom sixth. Abysmal.

Study after study finds that funds that do well in one period frequently do badly — quite often really badly — in the next period. Passively managed funds, meanwhile, plod along, performing about as well as the whole market in each and every period. And over long periods — and if you’re investing in shares it should be over a long period — they do considerably better than average, especially after fees.

There will always be a few active funds that beat passive funds in the long run. Gaynor would no doubt say his will do that. So would other active KiwiSaver managers who bring up this issue every now and then — saying the New Zealand market is different. And perhaps at least some of them will prove correct. But which ones?

I’m not prepared to risk going with a fund that might shine but might fizzle out. I’m sticking with my passive investments.


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Mary Holm is a freelance journalist, a director of Financial Services Complaints Ltd (FSCL), a seminar presenter and a bestselling author on personal finance. From 2011 to 2019 she was a founding director of the Financial Markets Authority. Her opinions are personal, and do not reflect the position of any organisation in which she holds office. Mary’s advice is of a general nature, and she is not responsible for any loss that any reader may suffer from following it. Send questions to [email protected] or click here. Letters should not exceed 200 words. We won’t publish your name. Please provide a (preferably daytime) phone number. Unfortunately, Mary cannot answer all questions, correspond directly with readers, or give financial advice.