IF YOU'RE LIKE ME, you detest paying what we in our household call "weasel fees." They come in various and often legitimate-sounding guises: processing fees, commissions, sales charges. In the mutual-fund world, the worst of the weasel fees are known as loads.
When you buy a load fund you pay a hefty price just for giving a fund family your business. You might pay it when you buy the fund before it's even made you a dime or when you sell the fund, even if it lost you money. As weasel fees go this is pretty squirrely because a broker gets paid to sell you a fund that charges a nice commission. Some fund families also charge loads even if you buy direct from them, not via a broker, ostensibly because they're giving you great investment advice along with the purchase. But this advice may or may not yield impressive returns.
Loads also come on top of all the other fees you pay each year for being in the fund: manager, operating, administrative, marketing, distribution. The sum of these is known as the expense ratio. It's akin to the weasel fees banks charge for selling you a mortgage (think: closing costs) even though they make plenty off of you in interest.
The good news is you can be as sneaky with your money as the pros are. As more Americans become self-directed investors, the financial industry is responding to demand for low-cost funds by giving us more buying options. That includes the option of purchasing a load fund without actually paying the load.
The catch is you must be willing to do your own research and make your own investment decisions, without an advisor's hand to hold. Discount brokers like Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade have deals with various mutual-fund companies to sell some load funds without charging the loads. This won't work for every fund, but it's worth investigating if there's a particular fund or manager you're interested in. For instance, Diamond Hill Large Cap, which has a strong five-year performance record, charges a maximum 5% front-end load. But Charles Schwab offers it without the load and no transaction fee. (See lists below for others that waive weasel fees.)
You can also avoid loads by buying a fund through a "wrap account" set up for you by a financial planner, in which you pay a flat quarterly or annual fee. Of course, this isn't the choice for do-it-yourselfers. The other option is to be a millionaire; funds typically waive loads if you cough up seven figures.
It's OK to bash load funds it's a free country after all. But, to be fair and balanced, some load funds actually do sport an enviable enough track record. If you can get them without the weasel fees, then all the better.
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Fund families offering some load-waived funds to retail clients at:
AFBA Five Star
Chase Investment Counsel
Cohen & Steers
Legg Mason Wood Walker
Waddell & Reed
Wells Real Estate