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Mutual Funds: The Case of Merrill Lynch

While Merrill Lynch's (MER) days as an independent business may be over now that it's merging into Bank of America (BAC), the company's brokerage division remains an important force in mutual funds.

In recent years, Merrill has made sweeping changes that are resulting in stronger fund sales and reduced costs for fund shareholders. After the financial crisis ends, Merrill and other brokers should continue leading the move toward lower fund expense ratios.

For years, Merrill Lynch managed and sold its own proprietary funds. In 1986, the Merrill Lynch funds ranked as the largest fund family, well ahead of No. 2 Fidelity Investments. At the time, the list of top fund groups was dominated by now-defunct brokerage names, including Paine Webber, E.F. Hutton and Dean Witter. To market funds, brokers sold aggressively, promoting shares that came with upfront commissions -- or loads -- of up to 8.5%.

By the 1990s, the broker-sold funds faced stronger challenges from no-load fund companies, such as Vanguard and T. Rowe Price, which impose no sales charges. Many of the no-load funds outperformed the proprietary brokerage offerings.

Profiting From Flexibility and Change

As investors became more savvy about costs and performance, the brokerage funds faced slowing sales. But Merrill Lynch brokers adjusted, shifting from load investments to funds sold without upfront sales commissions.

This change produced huge savings for investors. To appreciate how wide the cost cuts have been, consider that each time the load customer makes a purchase, he may have to pay a sales charge. The upfront sales loads are taken off the top. Say an investor wants to deposit $10,000 into a fund and pays a sales load of 5%. The broker pockets the $500 sales load immediately. The remaining $9,500 is invested in the fund and begins producing earnings for the shareholder.

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