If you have ever surfed the internet for information on mutual funds, you've undoubtedly come across articles espousing the benefits of no-load mutual funds. These funds allow investors to limit the fees they pay by cutting out the investment advisors and brokers—the middlemen. Most authors writing about the merits of no-load funds base their arguments primarily on fees and sometimes performance, but they rarely delve into the more personal reasons for selecting any investment.

In this article, we'll explain the difference between load and no-load mutual funds. We'll then explore the reasons investors might prefer a load fund despite its apparent economic disadvantages.

Load Mutual Funds

Load funds are mutual funds you purchase from your advisor or broker that have a sales charge or commission attached. The charge goes to pay the intermediary for his or her time and expertise in selecting the appropriate mutual fund. These funds normally have a front-end, back-end or level sales charge, depending on the particular class of share purchased. For example, A-shares normally have front-end sales charges paid at the time of the initial purchase, while class B shares have back-end sales charges paid when selling the shares within a specified number of years. (See also: The ABCs of Mutual Funds Classes.)

In addition, a load fund can also have a 12b-1 fee that can be as high as 1% of a fund's net asset value, or NAV. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) limits 12b-1 fees used for marketing and distribution expenses to 0.75% and also limits 12b-1 fees used for shareholder services to 0.25%. (See also: Stop Paying High Fees.)

No-Load Mutual Funds

Investors obtain no-load mutual funds at NAV without any of the front-end, back-end or level sales charges. People purchase shares either directly from a mutual fund company or indirectly through a mutual fund supermarket. No-load funds may have a small 12b-1 fee, also known as the cost of distribution, which is incorporated into the fund's expense ratio. A shareholder pays for the expense ratio on a daily basis through an automatic reduction in the price of a fund. FINRA allows a mutual fund without any sales charges to have 12b-1 fees up to 0.25% of its average annual assets and still call itself a no-load fund.

There are also plenty of no-load funds available that don't charge 12b-1 fees when purchased directly from a mutual fund company. These funds are often referred to as true no-load mutual funds. These differ from the supermarket funds that often have the 12b-1 fee.

Fee-conscious investors seek out mutual funds with lower expenses, which they believe will outperform higher priced mutual funds over time because the fees won't eat away at the overall net return.

The No-Load Performance Advantage

Studies generally show that no-load funds will outperform load funds over a given period. For example, a study by Craig Israelsen in the May 2003 edition of the Financial Planning Journal, said there is a price to pay for the extra services received in a load fund. Israelsen compared the load-adjusted performance of load mutual funds to that of no-load mutual funds. He used Morningstar data that covered the very difficult financial period between 2000 and 2002, in which the S&P 500 fell 35%.

The study showed that no-load mutual funds significantly outperformed load funds during the period. The margin of no-load mutual fund superiority ranged from 10 to 430 basis points, with the most notable superiority occurring in the small-cap category. Furthermore, the study showed that no-load mutual funds outperformed load mutual funds in each of the nine Morningstar style categories by an average of about 200 basis points during this turbulent period. This is just simple math: if you pay less for a fund and it performs similarly to a fund with a load, your return will be better. In other words, if you pay for a load fund, it must provide additional value to compensate you for its increased cost. Some load funds do this, but many do not.

It is important to remember that the statistics included above are averages and do not reflect the performance of any individual mutual fund or mutual fund family.

Why Would Anyone Buy a Load Mutual Fund?

On the surface, it seems that all investors would be better off buying no-load mutual funds, period. After all, who wants to pay a sales charge if you really don't have to? However, there are a variety of reasons why a person would be better suited to the load mutual fund group.

  • Many people do not feel comfortable making investment decisions and will not invest without the help of a financial advisor. Financial advisors often persuade people to follow through on investment programs that are in their best interests.
  • Thoughtful investment decisions require research, and many people lack the time needed to do their own research. Finding the time to manage investments can be extremely challenging.
  • Some investors have an existing relationship with a broker or a financial advisor and do not want to damage the relationship by pursuing investments on their own. They may also prefer the "one-stop shopping" that a financial advisor can provide.
  • Many people want someone to blame when a problem occurs with one of their investments.
  • Finally, some investment professionals argue that brokers and financial advisors have the ability to keep their clients from making rash decisions during turbulent market periods. The argument is that no-load mutual fund investors are far more likely to sell their investments at exactly the wrong time. (See also: When to Sell a Mutual Fund.)

The Bottom Line

Despite the fees and, by extension, the inferior returns, load funds can still be a good investment for inexperienced or very busy investors. Ultimately, it will be for you to decide whether the services you receive are valuable enough to justify giving up the higher returns of a no-load mutual fund. (See also: Picking the Right Mutual Fund.)