Why You Should Avoid Load Mutual Funds

Paying a load is akin to throwing away most or all of the supposed advantage you get from having a salesman choose a fund for you. If it’s true that asset allocation accounts for 95 percent of investment results over long periods of time, then only 5 percent is left over as a reward for having the “right” fund and the “right” manager. But even if a salesman could help you pick that “right” fund, paying him a commission of 5 percent wipes out the benefit.

When you pay a 5 percent load you lose the opportunity to invest 5 percent of your money forever. When you buy a load fund, the money that goes to the salesman goes to work for him, not for you. When you invest in a no-load fund, all your money goes to work for you.

And load percentages are always higher than the quoted figures. For example, in a $10,000 investment if $500 goes to the sales organization then $9,500 is invested on your behalf. Funds are allowed to call this a 5 percent commission. In fact, you invested only $9,500, and the $500 load amounts to a commission not of 5 percent but of 5.26 percent on your real investment.

Load amounts are higher than they look. The effect of your commission grows over time. If you avoided a $1,000 commission by investing in a no-load fund, over 25 years you would wind up with nearly $11,000 more if your money compounded at 10 percent. In other words, the $1,000 load would, in effect, be an $11,000 load.

The broker who chooses a fund for you may have a reason to prefer that you buy a poorer-performing fund instead of a top-performing one. Studies show that funds operated by brokerage houses (naturally, they almost exclusively load funds) have poorer average performance than independent load funds. Yet a broker often earns exotic trips and other perks, in addition to a higher percentage of the commission, for selling house funds. So if you buy a load fund from a broker, at least insist on getting one that is not managed by that brokerage house. You’ll then get more objective guidance-and hopefully better performance.

On average, load funds charge higher expenses than no-load funds. These are the expenses that all funds take out of their assets, whether their investors payloads or not. In a study that covered thousands of funds, Morningstar found that the average load fund charges its investors significantly more than the average no-load fund. Expense ratios among equity funds averaged 1.1 percent for no-loads and 1.6 percent for load funds. Among bond funds, the average was 0.6 percent for no-load funds and 1.1 percent for load funds. Those differences may seem small. But unlike a load, a fund’s expense charge hits you year after year after year. The longer you own a high-expense fund, the deeper it reaches into your pockets.

What should you do if you already have a load fund?

You shouldn’t necessarily sell that fund. The reasons for avoiding load funds cease to apply once you already own one. The reason is simple: Once you pay the loan, your money is gone. Getting out of the fund won’t get it back. Therefore, if you are already in that position, there is no particular advantage to sell that fund just because of the load.

You shouldn’t necessarily keep the fund, either. If the fund has a back-end load, that provision may give you an incentive to leave your money in that fund. Sometimes, back-end loads are structured so that the longer you leave your money in the fund, the lower the load. You should study the prospectus to find this out, or have somebody help you with it. Or call the fund and ask about your options.

Don’t keep a fund just because of its back-end load. Even if you keep a back-end-load fund long enough to avoid most or all of the load, the salesperson still got paid the commission. The fund found some way to extract that money from you to cover its commission cost. This could account for some of the higher expenses that load funds levy on their shareholders. And, of course, you may be hit with annual 12b1 fees to cover marketing costs. If this is the case, then you may be paying those fees, again and again, every year you own the fund.

In summary, the presence of a load is not reason enough to sell or keep a fund. The decision depends on the details of the load, your own circumstances and needs, and the quality of the fund itself.