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Separately Managed Accounts (SMA) Tailored to Suit You


An SMA is a personal investment account that is customized and managed for you by one or more professional money managers.

man in suitMutual funds have been, and continue to be, a good solution for many investors seeking professional money management. But when you buy shares of a mutual fund, your assets are pooled with those of other fund shareholders. You gain professional money management, but the fund's manager certainly can't tailor its portfolio to meet your individual requirements.

For investors who want or need a more customized approach--for example, in order to better manage their tax liability or control individual stock holdings--separately managed accounts (SMAs) have become popular. Historically used by institutional investors and high-net-worth individuals, SMAs are now available to a wider group of investors as an alternative to mutual funds, though SMAs typically still require a higher minimum investment than a mutual fund might.

What is an SMA?

An SMA is a personal investment account that is customized and managed for you by one or more professional money managers. In an SMA, your assets are not commingled with those of other investors. With a mutual fund, you buy and sell shares of the fund. Even though each fund share represents a proportionate ownership of individual securities within the fund, your share of each of those securities is tiny. By contrast, you are the sole owner of each security within your separately managed account. You also can place securities you already own in an SMA; with mutual funds, you can't. As a result, you and your financial professional have more control over management of specific investments in an SMA.

Why is that control important? It increases your ability to coordinate the sale of specific securities with the rest of your overall financial plan.

It was once common for SMA programs to require a minimum of $1 million in investable assets, but today you can find separately managed accounts with minimums as low as $50,000. SMAs' lower minimums, along with a growing appreciation of their unique features, have led to their increasing popularity.

How SMAs trump mutual funds on taxes

Mutual funds have an inherent lack of tax efficiency. When you buy shares of a mutual fund, you automatically get a share of its embedded tax liabilities. By law, mutual funds are required to pay out realized capital gains to all fund holders, regardless of how long you have held its shares.

For example, if you buy shares in a mutual fund right before a distribution date, you may receive a distribution and have to pay capital gains taxes  even though you may have held the fund for only a short amount of time. The lack of tax efficiency can be a greater problem for actively managed mutual funds that buy and sell securities frequently than it is for indexed mutual funds.
Also, some fund investors can find themselves owing income tax on their fund investment, even though the fund may have declined in value during the year. If a fund manager sells some of a fund's holdings at a profit but other holdings drop in value, the fund can have a capital gains distribution even though its overall net asset value is lower.

By contrast, each security held in an SMA has an individual cost basis. That allows you to make specific tax-motivated moves. For example, you can generally request that your manager sell a position with an unrealized loss in order to offset capital gains, thus reducing your income tax liability.

Example: You sold a vacation home at a profit, but do not qualify for any exclusion. As a result, you owe capital gains taxes on that gain. To reduce your tax liability, you instruct your SMA manager to sell part of your position in a stock that has dropped in value. The manager sells enough stock to ensure that the losses on it offset any capital gains taxes you would owe as a result of the real estate sale.

How SMAs compare with mutual funds on trading costs, fees, and performance

Unlike traditional brokerage accounts, which are commission-based, SMA fee structures are asset-based. They typically cover the investment management fee, trading costs, custody, reporting, and financial planning services.

One thing to consider when comparing mutual fund expenses against SMA fees is the "invisible" trading costs incurred by mutual funds. Mutual fund expense ratios cover fund management fees, administrative costs, and other operating expenses. However, they don't cover trading costs, which include brokerage commissions whenever the fund buys or sells securities. Although these trading costs can vary significantly by mutual fund (depending in large part on their annual turnover rates), estimates of these costs range anywhere from 0.5% to 1%.

Also, mutual funds often carry a certain amount of cash as a cushion in case they experience a wave of redemptions from investors. That cash can act as a drag on performance. If a fund has to sell securities to meet redemption demands, that also can affect its results. Though an SMA involves its own risks and doesn't automatically guarantee you'll have better returns, you don't have to worry about the impact of other investors' actions, because an SMA has no other investors.

Because of the different ways in which fees for mutual funds and separately managed accounts are calculated, it can be challenging to compare those fees. Generally speaking, the larger your account, the more likely you are to benefit from an SMA. Before investing, ask your financial professional to do an "apples to apples" comparison between SMAs and mutual funds, including total fees and trading costs, to determine which is the better deal in terms of overall costs.

The bottom line

For investors who place a priority on control and tax efficiency, and have the necessary capital, an SMA program may make a lot of sense. Your financial professional can help you crunch the numbers, look at your overall financial picture, and determine if an SMA might be right for you. 

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