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Fund Investing At a Penny a Day


Behold the typical mutual fund investor. This prime customer, according to the Investment Company Institute, has $80,000 in household income and $200,000 in financial assets. This customer typically had $120,000 invested in four mutual funds.

The problem is that most Americans, at least 70%, don't fit this profile, according to SaveDaily, a technology supplier and registered investment advisor based in Seal Beach, Calif.

And most don't invest in mutual funds. Which is what SaveDaily is trying to change.

SaveDaily is marketing a low-cost mutual fund trading platform to banks, credit unions, employers and other retail financial service providers. The SaveDaily platform allows moderate- to low-income investors access to more than 13,000 mutual funds. And an investor can place as little as a penny a day in each fund, for a $6 monthly fee.

The company has worked for eight years, and spent $14 million, to develop this proprietary technology.

"We are really bringing managed money to the poor, to the vast majority of the American public," says Matt Nunez, SaveDaily's director of business development.

The system, via omnibus accounting agreements with mutual fund operators, can pool multiple small investments into large, aggregated orders which reduce the cost of transactions and get around the investment minimums of many funds. This allows many modest savers and low- to moderate- income investors the chance to access mainstream mutual fund products that previously were unavailable to them.

"A customer can take a dollar and put one penny into a hundred funds and do it every day that the markets are open that month," Nunez says.

SaveDaily sees its prime market targets as two social groups: the lower middle class, with household incomes of up to $75,000, and the working class, which makes from $16,000 to roughly $30,000. These two groups account for roughly 60% of the U.S. population.

According to the 2011 Investment Company Fact Book published by the Investment Company Institute, just 22% of households with income under $50,000 had investments in a mutual fund. Only 44% of all U.S. households had mutual fund investments.

SaveDaily has attracted a number of notable supporters, including economist and author Harry S. Dent Jr., who serves as the company's chairman. Dent is the company's largest shareholder, having invested more than $5.5 million in the company. Quail Bend Capital Partners, a hedge fund, is also investing up to $3 million in SaveDaily.

SaveDaily markets itself as a technology platform, not as a competitor, so it has been able to generate relationships with several clearing houses with access to roughly 13,000 mutual funds in the United States.

Its code can be integrated into a financial firm's existing systems under the firm's own brand. The code has an open architecture, and handles all compliance and regulatory requirements, including security licenses, Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, and so on.

The system automates the administration of fund transactions and is capable of receiving funds from a variety of sources and pushing money to a variety of recipients via secure electronic networks. It also takes advantage of the digital signature laws signed into place by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and supports online registration, confirmations, quarterly statements and tax reporting, among other functions.

SaveDaily's approach comes in two varieties. The first product, which generates roughly 70% of SaveDaily's revenue, is a retail platform marketed to mass financial service providers, such as retail and savings banks, employer administrators, debit card providers and community groups.

Under this service, the financial firm typically pays $4 per month per individual user to SaveDaily, while typically charging $5.95 to the user. The customer for this channel generally makes under $50,000 and has average mutual fund investments of about $2,200.

The second product, which generates the other 30% of SaveDaily's revenue, is a managed platform marketed to large wire houses and small-to-medium broker dealers. With this, the financial firm uses the platform to reduce the cost of managing existing fund accounts. SaveDaily typically would charge 15 to 25 basis points of assets under management per year.

The system is used in four ways by clients: small investor accounts; health savings accounts (tax-advantaged accounts for people to save for medical expenses); qualified retirement plans and education savings plans.

SaveDaily has already developed such systems for the Affiliated Computer Services health savings account service of Bank of New York Mellon, as well as US Bank, Patelco and UMB Bank. It also offers its services through such employer sponsors as Xerox, Culligan, Walmart and the Black Worth Network. Nunez says it is currently in talks with "dozens" of other firms, many of them retail and community banks.

Its investment base is small, but growing: $167 million under management in 48,000 accounts as of December 2011.

One factor in its favor: low startup costs for client firms. Nunez says the system typically costs $10,000 to $30,000 to set up, at the most around $45,000. It has a $2,500 simplified model for firms that have only a few hundred accounts.

These are the fees for systems launched under the client's brand. SaveDaily is also willing to forgo a significant amount of these expenses for companies that are willing to jointly market the platform.

So, are the masses ready to embrace mutual funds?According to Oliver Pursche, president of the Westchester, N.Y.-based investment advisor Gary Goldberg & Company, history is in favor of the masses. Pursche says that any mass mutual fund marketer needs a few things in its favor: a simple system with few moving parts such that "once you achieve a critical mass, every dollar you add is profitable."

"You also need to heavily educate the public to the nuances, and headaches, of the market," he says.

Meanwhile, bank veteran Bert Ely wonders aloud whether any company can sustainably make money targeting the low-income investor. He notes that The Vanguard Group and Fidelity Investments have launched no-load mutual funds, to increase penetration into the non-affluent market. But generating profits from small accounts can be a challenge without economies of scale, he says.

"How can they make money with someone who has a balance of only a few hundred bucks?" Ely asks.