Mutual funds and fees

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Flag of the United States.svg.png This article contains details specific to United States (US) investors.

Mutual funds and fees describe fees and sales charges imposed on an individual mutual fund investor.

The operation of a mutual fund involves many costs. All funds incur regular fund operating costs, which include investment advisory fees, marketing and distribution expenses, and custodial, transfer agency, legal, and accounting fees. These costs are consolidated and revealed in a fund's expense ratio.

If the fund is sold by a broker or commissioned agent, there will be a sales charge associated with each purchase (and sometimes redemption) transaction. These sales charges are known as loads, and funds sold with these sales charges are classified as load-funds; mutual funds that are directly sold to investors without sales charges are classified as no-load funds.

Mutual funds also incur costs buying and selling securities for the fund. Some funds cover the costs associated with an individual investor’s transactions by imposing transaction fees and redemption charges directly on the investor at the time of the transactions. Unlike sales charges, these fees are usually paid back into the fund.

Expense ratios

The annual expense ratio represents recurring management fees as a percentage of a mutual fund's assets. It shows what it costs the investment firm to operate the fund. The expense ratio represents the percentage of the fund's assets that go purely toward the expense of the daily operation of the fund. The fund's expense ratio is taken out of the fund's assets and lowers its return to investors.

The major parts of the expense ratio are the management fee and the administrative cost.

  • The investment advisory fee or management fee is the money used to pay the manager of the mutual fund.
  • Administrative costs are the costs of recordkeeping, mailings, maintaining a customer service line, etc. These are costs that all funds have, but they vary in size from fund to fund.

Sales fees

Sales fees include front-end loads and deferred sales charges on broker-sold products; and a 12b-1 marketing fee [note 1] that can be included in the expenses of both load funds and no-load funds.


Mutual funds that use brokers to sell their shares typically compensate the brokers. Funds may do this by imposing a fee on investors, known as a "sales load" (or "sales charge (load)"), which is paid to the selling brokers. In this respect, a sales load is like a commission investors pay when they purchase any type of security from a broker. Although sales loads most frequently are used to compensate outside brokers that distribute fund shares, some funds that do not use outside brokers still charge sales loads.The SEC does not limit the size of sales load a fund may charge, but the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority(FINRA) [1] does not permit mutual fund sales loads to exceed 8.5%. The percentage is lower if a fund imposes other types of charges. Most funds do not charge the maximum.

There are two general types of sales loads—a front-end sales load investors pay when they purchase fund shares and a back-end or deferred sales load investors pay when they redeem their shares.

Sales charge (load) on purchases

Front-end sales charges, also known as class A shares, include sales loads that investors pay when they purchase fund shares. The key point to keep in mind about a front-end sales load is it reduces the amount available to purchase fund shares. For example, if an investor writes a $10,000 check to a fund for the purchase of fund shares, and the fund has a 5% front-end sales load, the total amount of the sales load will be $500. The $500 sales load is first deducted from the $10,000 check (and typically paid to a selling broker), and assuming no other front-end fees, the remaining $9,500 is used to purchase fund shares for the investor. Since the sales commission is paid at purchase, A shares usually do not impose any additional ongoing commission fees, although some firms impose an additional 0.25% 12b-1 fee [see below] to the fund's expenses. Many load-funds provide for the payment of a reduced load charge for large purchases.

Representative break points for load charges [2]
Amount invested in a single transaction investor's sales charge as % of offering price investor's sales charge as % of investment
Less than $25,000 5.75 6.10
$25,000 but less than $50,000 5.00 5.26
$50,000 but less than$100,000 4.50 4.71
$100,000 but less than $250,000 3.50 3.63
$250,000 but less than $500,000 2.50 2.56
$500,000 but less than $750,000 2.00 2.04
$750,000 but less than $1,000,000 1.50 1.52
$1,000,000 or more none none
Deferred sales charge (load)

Deferred sales charge, sometimes referred to as a "deferred" or "back-end" sales load, refers to a sales load that investors pay when they redeem fund shares (that is, sell their shares back to the fund). When an investor purchases shares that are subject to a back-end sales load rather than a front-end sales load, no sales load is deducted at purchase, and all of the investors’ money is immediately used to purchase fund shares (assuming that no other fees or charges apply at the time of purchase). For example, if an investor invests $10,000 in a fund with a 5% back-end sales load, and if there are no other "purchase fees", the entire $10,000 will be used to purchase fund shares. The 5% sales load is not deducted until the investor redeems his or her shares, at which point the fee is deducted from the redemption proceeds. There are usually two types of back-end fee share classes: B shares, and C shares.

The most common type of back-end sales load is the "contingent deferred sales charge" (CDSC). The amount of this type of load will depend on how long the investor holds his or her shares and typically, for B shares, decreases to zero if the investor holds his or her shares long enough. These fees are combined with an ongoing 1% expense fee called a 12b-1 fee (see below). For example, a contingent deferred sales load might be 5% if an investor holds his or her shares for one year, 4% if the investor holds his or her shares for two years, and so on until the load goes away completely. The 12b-1 fee assures that, regardless of when an investor liquidates shares, the full commission is paid. Usually, once the CDSC is reduced to zero, B shares are exchanged into lower cost A shares (which pay a lower 12b-1 fee or none). C-shares are sold with a 1% CDSC for the first year, plus a 1% 12b-1 fee. The redemption fee is eliminated during year two. Unlike B shares, C shares never convert to A shares; the investor pays the added 1% asset charge for as long as the fund is held. The exact rate at which these fees will decline will be disclosed in the fund’s prospectus.

Typical CDSC Schedule*
Year since purchase made Class B Class C
First 5% 1%
Second 4% None
Third 4% None
Fourth 3% None
Fifth 2% None
Sixth 1% None
Seventh and following None None
*Each share class also imposes an annual 1% 12b-fee.[3]

12b-1 fees

The 12b-1 fee gets its name from the section in the Investment Company Act of 1940 [4] that allows a mutual fund to pay distribution and marketing expenses out of the fund's assets. These fees are included in fund operating expenses, which are deducted from a fund’s returns each year. Full 12b-1 fee information is disclosed in a fund's prospectus.

The original intent of a 12b-1 fee was to help market the mutual fund so that its assets would increase. An increase in assets should provide better economies of scale providing investors with lower annual operational expenses.

A 12b-1 fee has also been used as a hidden way to pay brokers for using the fund. The SEC has limited the 12b-1 fee to 1% annually with maximum of 0.25% going to brokers.

The 12b-1 fee (0.25%) is also often used by no-load fund families to purchase "shelf space" on a brokerage's mutual fund "supermarket" platform. These funds are then sold as "no transaction fee" funds; no-load funds not paying the fee are sold with a purchase fee.

One way to avoid paying unnecessary fees is to only purchase no-load funds. A genuine no-load fund does not have 12b-1 fees, although a fund is allowed to claim it is a "no-load fund" as long as its 12b-1 fee is 0.25% or less per year. No load funds that do not charge 12b-1 fees are often called 100% no-load or true no-load funds.

Purchase and redemption fees

As fund shareholders buy and sell fund shares, investment managers of a fund must buy and purchase securities for the fund. These purchases and sales engender transaction costs. Some funds impose a transaction fee on investors purchasing and redeeming shares. These fees are usually paid back into the fund to compensate existing shareholders for the transaction costs incurred by transacting shareholders. Typically, as fund assets grow and transaction costs shrink as a percentage of fund assets, these fees are reduced and eventually eliminated.

Redemption fees can also be used to influence shareholder behavior by imposing a cost for redemptions. International stock funds often impose a 2 month redemption fee on sales as a means of discouraging short term arbitrage trading between time zone differentials in opening and closing price levels. Tax-managed funds also may impose redemption fees as a means of discouraging shareholder turnover.

The effect of high costs

Figure 1 shows the investment growth of both a low-cost and a typical high-cost fund.

Figure 1: Investment growth of both a low-cost and high-cost fund[note 2]

Both funds assume an initial $10,000 investment and 8% annual growth. The time period is 30 years.

The low-cost fund is no-load and has expenses of 0.2% per year and has an initial value of $10,000. With annual expenses of 0.2% (growth of 7.8% = 8.0 % - 0.20%), the resulting fund value at year 30 is $95,184.

The high-cost fund has an initial 5.75% sales load, expenses of 2.0% per year, and a 0.25% 12b-1 fee. The initial value is $9,425.00 (10,000 - 5.75%). With annual expenses of 2.25% (growth of 5.75% = 8.00% - 2.0% - 0.25%), the resulting fund value at year 30 is $50,430.

The difference between these funds over 30 years is $44,753.

See also


  1. Marketing fees (also known as distribution fees) include fees paid for marketing and selling fund shares, such as compensating brokers and others who sell fund shares, and paying for advertising, the printing and mailing of prospectuses to new investors, and the printing and mailing of sales literature. See: Mutual Fund Fees and Expenses from the SEC.
  2. The LibreOffice Spreadsheet used to create this figure is available as a free download in Google Docs: Cost comparisons.ods


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