A mutual fund will classify expenses into either annual operating fees or shareholder fees. Annual fund operating fees are an annual percentage of the funds under management, usually ranging from 1–3%. Annual operating fees are collectively known as the expense ratio. A fund’s expense ratio is the summation of the advisory or management fee and its administrative costs.
Shareholder fees, which come in the form of sales charges, commissions, and redemption fees, are paid directly by investors when purchasing or selling the funds. Sales charges or commissions are known as “the load” of a mutual fund. When a mutual fund has a front-end load, fees are assessed when shares are purchased. For a back-end load, mutual fund fees are assessed when an investor sells his shares.
Sometimes, however, an investment company offers a no-load mutual fund, which doesn’t carry any commission or sales charge. These funds are distributed directly by an investment company, rather than through a secondary party.
Some funds also charge fees and penalties for early withdrawals or selling the holding before a specific time has elapsed. Also, the rise of exchange-traded funds, which have much lower fees thanks to their passive management structure, have been giving mutual funds considerable competition for investors’ dollars. Articles from financial media outlets regarding how fund expense ratios and loads can eat into rates of return have also stirred negative feelings about mutual funds.
Classes of Mutual Fund Shares
Mutual fund shares come in several classes. Their differences reflect the number and size of fees associated with them.
Currently, most individual investors purchase mutual funds with A shares through a broker. This purchase includes a front-end load of up to 5% or more, plus management fees and ongoing fees for distributions, also known as 12b-1 fees. To top it off, loads on A shares vary quite a bit, which can create a conflict of interest. Financial advisors selling these products may encourage clients to buy higher-load offerings to bring in bigger commissions for themselves. With front-end funds, the investor pays these expenses as they buy into the fund.
To remedy these problems and meet fiduciary-rule standards, investment companies have started designating new share classes, including “level load” C shares, which generally don’t have a front-end load but carry a 1% 12b-1 annual distribution fee.
Funds that charge management and other fees when an investor sell their holdings are classified as Class B shares.
A New Class of Fund Shares
The newest share class, developed in 2016, consists of clean shares. Clean shares do not have front-end sales loads or annual 12b-1 fees for fund services. American Funds, Janus, and MFS are all fund companies currently offering clean shares.
By standardizing fees and loads, the new classes enhance transparency for mutual fund investors and, of course, save them money. For example, an investor who rolls $10,000 into an individual retirement account (IRA) with a clean-share fund could earn nearly $1,800 more over a 30-year period as compared to an average A-share fund, according to an April 2017 Morningstar report co-written by Aron Szapiro, Morningstar director of policy research, and Paul Ellenbogen, head of global regulatory solutions.
Advantages of Mutual Funds
There are a variety of reasons that mutual funds have been the retail investor’s vehicle of choice for decades. The overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds. Multiple mergers have equated to mutual funds over time.
Diversification, or the mixing of investments and assets within a portfolio to reduce risk, is one of the advantages of investing in mutual funds. Experts advocate diversification as a way of enhancing a portfolio’s returns, while reducing its risk. Buying individual company stocks and offsetting them with industrial sector stocks, for example, offers some diversification. However, a truly diversified portfolio has securities with different capitalizations and industries and bonds with varying maturities and issuers. Buying a mutual fund can achieve diversification cheaper and faster than by buying individual securities. Large mutual funds typically own hundreds of different stocks in many different industries. It wouldn’t be practical for an investor to build this kind of a portfolio with a small amount of money.
Trading on the major stock exchanges, mutual funds can be bought and sold with relative ease, making them highly liquid investments. Also, when it comes to certain types of assets, like foreign equities or exotic commodities, mutual funds are often the most feasible way—in fact, sometimes the only way—for individual investors to participate.
Economies of Scale
Mutual funds also provide economies of scale. Buying one spares the investor of the numerous commission charges needed to create a diversified portfolio. Buying only one security at a time leads to large transaction fees, which will eat up a good chunk of the investment. Also, the $100 to $200 an individual investor might be able to afford is usually not enough to buy a round lot of the stock, but it will purchase many mutual fund shares. The smaller denominations of mutual funds allow investors to take advantage of dollar cost averaging.
A primary advantage of mutual funds is not having to pick stocks and manage investments. Instead, a professional investment manager takes care of all of this using careful research and skillful trading. Investors purchase funds because they often do not have the time or the expertise to manage their own portfolios, or they don’t have access to the same kind of information that a professional fund has. A mutual fund is a relatively inexpensive way for a small investor to get a full-time manager to make and monitor investments. Most private, non-institutional money managers deal only with high-net-worth individuals—people with at least six figures to invest. However, mutual funds, as noted above, require much lower investment minimums. So, these funds provide a low-cost way for individual investors to experience and hopefully benefit from professional money management.
Economies of Scale
Because a mutual fund buys and sells large amounts of securities at a time, its transaction costs are lower than what an individual would pay for securities transactions. Moreover, a mutual fund, since it pools money from many smaller investors, can invest in certain assets or take larger positions than a smaller investor could. For example, the fund may have access to IPO placements or certain structured products only available to institutional investors.
Variety and Freedom of Choice
Investors have the freedom to research and select from managers with a variety of styles and management goals. For instance, a fund manager may focus on value investing, growth investing, developed markets, emerging markets, income or macroeconomic investing, among many other styles. One manager may also oversee funds that employ several different styles. This variety allows investors to gain exposure to not only stocks and bonds but also commodities, foreign assets, and real estate through specialized mutual funds. Some mutual funds are even structured to profit from a falling market (known as bear funds). Mutual funds provide opportunities for foreign and domestic investment that may not otherwise be directly accessible to ordinary investors.