Sunday, October 31, 2010

The One Fee You don't need in your Mutual Fund

Mutual funds, as we all know, are a group effort. The thinking goes something like this: the more investors in the fund, the higher pool of available cash for investments. To attract this pool of investors, mutual funds advertise. A 12b-1 fee is essentially the cost of this advertisement. If you are buying a fund from a broker, chances are they were compensated by this fee. On the surface, this costs seems to be one of those cost-of-doing-business fees that for the greater good of the investor pool is levied on all the owners of the fund.

But what if the fund is charging you this fee inside your 401(k)? Should you pay for something that has already been marketed to your employer? This sort of fee was first introduced in the late seventies when investor distrust of the stock market was at an all-time high. Mutual fund companies argued that in order to keep their product viable, they needed to increase the number of investors and the only way to do this was to advertise their product.

Fast forward thirty some odd years later, past the greatest bull market, past the introduction of the 401(k), past the two big bubbles of the first decade of the 21st century, past the default investment in our retirement plans, and the fees still exist. According to SEC Chairman Mary L. Schapiro, the reasoning for these fees, which are paid by the investors in these funds has passed. In a press release detailing the SEC's examination of this fee, Ms. Schapiro writes: “Despite paying billions of dollars, many investors do not understand what 12b-1 fees are, and it's likely that some don't even know that these fees are being deducted from their funds or who they are ultimately compensating.” That lack of transparency at a time when we want to see what our fund dollars are doing when they are not generating returns is troubling.

So the SEC believes that the need for 12b-1 fees has passed. “Our [SEC] proposals would replace rule 12b-1 with new rules designed to enhance clarity, fairness and competition when investors buy mutual funds.” Yet, like all decisions of this nature, there are bound to be casualties. 12b-1 fees are still used by smaller fund families for the very reasons they were initially adopted: to grow the pool of investors. Larger funds families, who have household names and a firm foothold among investors still levy this cost on its shareholders.

Inside a 401(k), where you are essentially a captive audience, these fees offer no benefit. According to BIll Barker, writing for the Motley Fool "They are not used to improve the research of stocks bought for the fund, nor in any way to improve the performance of the money already invested in the fund." And because of that, he opposes them. So do I.

Without any identifiable benefit to existing and often long-term shareholder, the cost of this fee, often $2 on every $1,000 invested should go away. Inside a 401(k), this fee is something bordering on criminal. In a closed fund, one where the fund is no longer accepting new shareholder but still allows current shareholders to contribute to the fund, 12b-1 fees are an abomination, costing their fund participants millions of dollars. (A mutual fund can close for a variety of reasons, the most popular being that they simply have too many shareholders which makes investing according to the charter difficult.)

If you have funds in your 401(k), tell your plan sponsor to do something about it. This is fiduciary responsibility they may not have been aware they had. If your mutual funds still charge these fees and you agree with the investment community - the folks who put their hard-earned dollars in, not the people who sell these products, let the SEC know. You have until November 5th to voice your opinion. You can do so here.

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