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U.S., Korea Ranked Most “Investor Friendly” by Morningstar

By Steven Lang June 12, 2015

Research firm Morningstar released its biannual report on Tuesday that rates mutual-fund investor experiences in 25 countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. The list offers predictable results: The United States for the fourth time was given an A grade. And some unpredictable ones: South Korea was also graded an A!

“A lot of people seeing that are going to be surprised about Korea,” says Kevin Mahn, president and chief investment officer of Parsippany, N.J.-based Hennion & Walsh Asset Management. The firm manages more than $160 million.

Korea received an A this year because of its improved sales practices, up from a B+ in 2013, Morningstar states. “Sales may be improved, but are they improved enough,” asks Mahn, skeptically. “I find it hard to believe that Korea is rated the same as the U.S. stock exchange.”

Korea and the U.S. are in fact the only countries to receive an A grade. Morningstar rates the 25 countries in four categories: regulation and taxation, disclosure, fees and expenses, and sales and media.

The research firm says it seeks out active fund regulation, a low investor tax burden, more disclosure, lower fund fees, a varied fund-distribution system, and local news media that helps to educate investors about their choices.

Here’s a Morningstar press release with a list of the countries tracked, from highest to lowest, then in alphabetical order within each grade.

The report is meant “to improve the investor experience,” Morningstar research analyst Benjamin Alpert says in the press release. “We hope our research about the experience of fund investors worldwide will help serve as a catalyst for positive change.”

However it succeeds in that regard, the report seems to be a springboard for FA views on the subject.

JJ Feldman is an advisor with Miracle Mile Advisors, a Los Angeles-based firm with $550 million under management. He says reports like Morningstar’s help investors make better-informed decisions.

It isn’t infallible, however. For instance, investors shouldn’t make too much of China’s low standing on the list, according to Feldman. “The Chinese ETF FXI is up 17% and doing as well as any of the big countries,” he says.

Bijan Golkar, CEO of FPC Investment Advisory, is similarly unfazed by China’s spot at the bottom of the Morningstar list. “What this report is telling me is that China now knows it has to be more transparent, that it’s getting on the bandwagon,” says the advisor, whose Petaluma, Calif.-based firm runs about $100 million. “In the U.S., sometimes I think we take for granted how transparent we are.”

Meanwhile, Mahn says this of the countries that finish high or low in the grading: “The U.S. and the U.K. — they don’t surprise me. They have a large economic base. But China is a surprise, because their stock market is so attractive.”