How Does Global Custody Work?

Understanding Global Custody Accounts and Fees

Global Custody Account Definition
A global custody account is a special type of account at a financial institution allowing affluent investors and institutions to hold all of their stocks, bonds, and other securities in a central place while working with multiple stock brokers, wealth managers, and other advisors. Roy Scott / Getty Images

One of the things that separate inexperienced investors from those who have amassed quite a bit of capital and utilize private portfolio managers is an understanding of global custody and global custody accounts.  How does global custody work?  How much does it cost?  Who are the major providers of global custody services?  Let's take a few minutes to go through these issues so you have a working knowledge of one of the most important decisions you'll have to make once you become affluent.

What Is Global Custody and Why Should Investors Care?

When you purchase a stock, bond, or other security, the broker of your choice executes the trade.  It handles the paperwork, records the details of the price that was agreed upon between the parties, and arranges to exchange cash for the stock certificate (or, these days, electronic entry) on the corporation's books via the transfer agent showing that you now own the asset.  Typically, trades settle in three business days here in the United States.  That means by the deadline, you have to show up with your part of the deal - in this case, liquid cash to complete the purchase - and the counter-party has to show up with their part of the deal - the asset that is to be transferred to your name.  Failure to deliver or settle can result in penalties, fees, and problems with regulatory bodies.

Small investors don't give this process much thought because of retail stock brokerage firms almost all, without exception, couple custody with execution services.

 If you put $10,000 into an account at a discount broker like E-Trade, you deposit cash into your brokerage account, enter the trade, see the money taken from you instantaneously, and the shares deposited onto your account ledger.  That's not, actually, what is happening.  E-Trade is simply taking your money and holding onto it until the settlement date, then taking possession of your shares for you.

 In almost all cases, they won't even register the stock in your name directly, but rather, will enter it in their name while recording you as the beneficial owner.  In such a situation, it is said your stock is held "in a street name" since the company you own doesn't actually know who you are.  They just see your brokerage firm on the roster of owners as they are holding it on your behalf.

This has all sorts of benefits.  It makes life considerably easier for you, the investor.  You can frequently buy and sell in a heartbeat.  You can often instantly pledge margin debt against your stocks and bonds, using the securities as collateral in case you want to come up with money quickly without realizing your capital gains and losing the advantage of deferred taxes.  Even better, most of the downsides are taken care of for small investors because if your brokerage firm goes bankrupt, and it is a member of SIPC, there isn't much reason to worry in most cases due to the fact account balances of up to $500,000 are insured against firm failure (the cash component is lower so be careful).  This system was setup back in the 1970's following a spate of brokerage house failures that spooked investors and sent shockwaves through the financial community.

 It was so bad at the time that the father of value investing and mentor to Warren BuffettBenjamin Graham, wrote in his classic book The Intelligent Investor that every single investor should consider using a custody account at a local bank to protect himself or herself.

For investors with considerably more than $500,000 and who want all of their assets held in the same place, on a single statement; who want the freedom to hire a registered investment advisor, invest in limited partnerships, hold U.S. Treasury bonds, and a host of other valuable property, while not worrying about the $500,000 insurance limit; a global custody arrangement, preferably with a bank trust department (it has more stringent rules than broker-dealers that protect you in case of institutional failure), is the way to go.

 You can even pay to have every single position registered directly in your name through the DRS, or Direct Registration System. You assign a cash, money market, or other liquidity accounts to fund all of your purchases or receive all of your income distributions, and you instruct your global custodian to accept any incoming buy or sell orders from pre-approved brokers with whom you work.  The broker executes whatever buy or sell orders you tell it to execute (provided it believes you are good for the trade - remember, it no longer holds the securities so it has to check with the custodian to make sure you're going to keep up your end of the bargain) and the custodian sends the money or receives the asset.

At that point, the custodian handles its other major responsibilities, known as "asset servicing".  These responsibilities frequently include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Providing daily or monthly asset price history so you can see the value of your holdings over time on your account statements.
  • Making sure your dividends and interest are received according to the corporate announcements that have been made.
  • Informing you of corporate actions and handling any necessary paperwork (e.g., stock splits, tender offers, merger proposals).
  • Tracking expenses charged to your various accounts.
  • Providing snapshots of liquidity so you know how much free, unrestricted cash is available at any given time.
  • Establishing an audit trail to prevent fraud or having your securities stolen.
  • Facilitating securities lending if you want to make some extra money by letting short sellers borrow your shares.
  • Measure compound annual growth rate figures over time so you can see how well your holdings are doing.

The "global" part of global custody adds a few more benefits for investors who want to hold assets outside of the United States.

  • Cash balances can be tracked, and settlement handled, in multiple global currencies on multiple global stock exchanges.
  • Collecting income in other currencies such as interest on foreign bonds.
  • Establishment of a base reporting currency allows you to translate the equivalent value of your foreign holdings and currency at any given time so you know the purchasing power in your home country.
  • Handling tax treaty issues on the receipt of international dividends.  For example, American investors are entitled to a low 15% withholding tax rate on dividends paid by Swiss companies such as Nestlé.  If you held shares of the food conglomerate directly in Switzerland, rather than through the ADR, you wouldn't want the Swiss government keeping more of your money than it should have been entitled to keep, even temporarily (you could be earning more passive income on those funds!).  The global custodian figures out your foreign tax credit reporting to give to your accountant when it comes time to file your returns with the IRS so you can claim the overpayment or deals with the Swiss tax authorities so the lower 15% rate is withheld int he first place.

Who Are Some Major Providers of Custody Accounts and Global Custody Services?

The Bank of New York, State Street, Fidelity, Charles Schwab, T.D. Ameritrade, Scottrade, UMB Bank, U.S. Bancorp, Northern Trust, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Mellon Financial are just a few of the major global custody providers in the United States.  In Switzerland, Credit Suisse and UBS are among the biggest institutions offering the service.  Elsewhere in Europe, HSBC is a major global custodian.

How Much Do Global Custody Accounts Cost?

Like investment management services, global custody services are often contracted on a negotiated basis depending upon the level of assets you have and the complexity of your needs.  Municipal pension funds, for example, can often get custody services that charge as little as 1/2 of a single basis point - that is 1/1,000th of 1% - per U.S. stock position per year, plus a few bucks at the time of trade execution (higher for foreign holdings depending on the development of the nation; e.g., you're going to pay less for a French stock than you are one in a third-world country).  Other, smaller, individual global custody accounts might involve an annual fee of a few hundred, or a few thousand, dollars per annum plus a set charge per position plus so-many basis points.

One major bank global custody fee schedule I saw earlier today called for an annual fee of $500 per account plus a flat 5 basis points of assets per annum with a minimum fee of $6,000 each year on accounts up to $50,000,000 (all fees counted toward that minimum).  Global custody accounts of $50,000,000 to $100,000,000 were charged 2.5 basis points per annum on top of the per account fee.  For a successful family that has amassed several million dollars, this is a rounding error and certainly worth the peace of mind and convenience of having everything in one place, knowing you are less exposed to institutional failure.  No matter how many wealth managers, advisors, or brokers you utilize, your capital is safely parked in the custody account; a central treasure hoard from which all activity flows.

Personally, I suggest not trying to go for the cheapest custody service arrangement but rather, for service.  A good custodian makes life so much easier, including for wealth managers.  Imagine someone approached me tomorrow and said, "Joshua, I want you to manage $25,000,000 of my family's fortune alongside your own family's money.  I'll pay you a flat 1.00% per annum to put together a diversified collection of global stocks with an emphasis on Europe, North America, and Asian, all currency exposures to be unhedged, all market capitalizations considered but, domestically, a preference for smaller companies."  With the global custody account arrangement, I don't ever have to worry about the liability or safekeeping of handling that money or checking insurance limits at countless brokerage firms.  In fact, I can't actually touch it.  Rather, I have the ability to direct the investments and order the broker to buy or sell stocks, bonds, REITs, and other assets.  The custodian is only going to release funds upon getting confirmation of trades I've placed.  Throughout the year, my pro-rata fee is going to be withdrawn by the custody agent and sent to my bank, paying me for my services.  The investor is going to see all cash flows and knows exactly what is going on with his or her account.  It's a win-win for everybody involved.  It allows all parties to sleep better at night.  It is not a fee anyone should consider burdensome.