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ICI Fund-Fee Study Sparks Debate

Updated from 1:26 p.m. EST

The lobbying arm of the mutual fund industry has fired another salvo in the fight over how retail mutual fund fees compare with fees assessed by funds in pension plans. The battle, though, is far from over.

The Investment Company Institute released Tuesday a study it says refutes a case made in a law-journal article that has been cited by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer in his probe of the fund industry.

The study published by the ICI posits that portfolio management fee levels at mutual funds and pensions are actually quite similar -- findings that are in direct contrast to an article first published in an Iowa law journal, which states that the fees mutual fund companies charge retail fund investors are far higher than those for individuals investing through pension plans. The ICI's analysis -- designed to revive the debate -- essentially repackages the results of a study it did a few months ago.

Spitzer, though, quickly issued a statement indicating he was unimpressed with the ICI's report. "The report released today by the Investment Company Institute is fundamentally flawed," he said. "A fair reading of the ICI report ... supports my office's conclusion that the advisory fees charged to mutual fund investors are too high. It also supports the conclusion that we need to fix the governance and structural imbalances that favor management at the expense of investors and that lead to the fee overcharges."

At issue is the nature of the fees being compared. ICI argues that because mutual funds have costs that far exceed the costs associated with pension funds, management fees are higher -- and it's therefore specious to compare a mutual fund's expense ratio with the expenses attached to a pension fund.

"Mutual fund fees are for a whole package of services," said ICI President Matthew Fink on a conference call for reporters Tuesday morning. Aside from the basic asset allocation and portfolio management costs, Fink says, mutual fund fees also cover the record-keeping costs associated with tracking capital-gains distributions, preparing account statements for individual shareholders, issuing proxy statements and shareholder reports, as well as the various compliance costs that "go well beyond the costs associated with pension funds."

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