No matter how sophisticated they get in their approach to mutual funds, millions of investors still face an age-old question: Load or no-load?
The choices are much more complicated than they were a generation ago, when funds came in two basic chocolate-or-vanilla formats. There were funds that charged a load, or front-end sales commission at the time you bought, and no-load funds that were sold without a sales fee.Today you can opt for low-load funds (charging a commission of, say, 1 percent or 2 percent instead of 4 percent or more).
And within the category of load funds, you can often choose among several classes of shares that impose the fee when you sell instead of when you buy, or spread it out over a period of years rather than collecting it all at once.
Those are the A, B, C and other letter-designated shares that show slightly varying results in the fund tables for what otherwise is the same fund.
Sometimes, load funds can be bought without any sales charge in employer-sponsored retirement plans. Conversely, many investors who work with professional planners pay annual fees that may eventually cost them as much as or more than a brokerage commission.
But beneath all this still lies a simple, and important, decision: Do you want to make your own choices about where and when to invest in funds, or do you want to pay someone else to advise you?
Witness a recent exchange that took place on the Internet, in the give-and-take of a news group on mutual funds at the Deja News discussion network (www.dejanews.com).
``Loads or no-loads?' asked Fred. ``I will be starting a retirement plan. I'm 34 years old, starting kinda late, I'm thinking about going aggressive with Spectra and Janus 20 (two stock funds), and will start with $500 a month.
``My friend, a broker, told me that the funds mentioned above are no-loads and that I would be on my own. He recommends someone that's been around like Investment Co. of America and Washington Mutual, which are not no-loads. Would this be a smart buy? ... Any info would be highly appreciated.'
Since Internet habitues tend to be an independent-minded bunch, you'd expect a no-load bias in the responses Fred drew. That's what he got.
``No-loads are the only way to go,' offered Marcus. ``Why pay a commission when there is no need? Loads drag down the rate of return. No one has ever offered one good reason for buying a loaded fund.'
From Ron in California: ``Fred, the load is a sales commission that you will be paying to your 'friend' each and every time you invest. You are much further ahead to do your own homework and research and go with no-load funds.'
And from Greg: ``Your friend, from what I can tell, recommended that you buy a fund that pays him a sales charge, rather than you buying a fund that doesn't pay him a sales charge. Is your friend trying to maximize the money he has, or the money you have?'