The holidays are a time of traditions.
That brings to mind some of the rituals that the mutual fund industry insists on practicing year after year. Unfortunately, some are as indigestible as mincemeat pie.
But just like a bad dish on the buffet table, you can always take a pass if you see something unappetizing. And you don't have to worry about offending relatives.
Here's a list of new and old fund practices to be on the lookout for.
Lots of Loads
You spend time trying to find a solid, cheap, no-load fund with low volatility and a longtime manager. You finally choose one and call up the fund company -- only to hear: "I'm sorry. If you're a new shareholder, you're going to have to pay a sales commission to buy this fund."
That's the message you'll hear if you dial up the Columbia funds today. As of Nov. 1, the company's once very attractive funds now carry sales charges.
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You can herd them into the barn with all the other load funds, which multiply every year. Invesco added commissions to its funds in April. And these are just two firms in a long line that are now carrying these extra charges.
Obviously, it's getting harder and harder to avoid paying a sales load. But that's still the goal if you're a do-it-yourself investor. Maybe, just maybe, paying a commission to buy a fund is worth it if you're getting spectacular advice from a broker or an adviser. But if paying that fee pains you, then don't. You can still shop at Fidelity, Vanguard or T. Rowe Price -- to name a few firms.
When A Portfolio Goes Poof!
Maybe you've gotten your money into the perfect fund without paying a load -- only to find out that the fund is merging with another.
A fund merger is a way for a money-management firm to reduce redundancy and improve the appearance of its overall performance. The record of the fund that's been merged into another disappears. And for prospective investors, a company's fund lineup will look a lot better without those dogs sitting there.
Over the last year, Columbia, FleetBoston Financial's mutual fund unit, has been busy digesting the Liberty Funds, which were bought about a year ago. And that integration has included merging various funds with one another. For instance, the Liberty Contrarian and Contrarian Equity funds were merged with the Columbia Strategic Value fund on Nov. 1.
Now if you own a fund that's being merged into another portfolio, you'll probably wind up with the better of the two managers. You also could end up with lower expenses if the fund that's disappearing was small and struggling.
But if you happen to own the surviving fund, which is probably better than the one being merged out of existence, then the benefits are few. And if you were a shareholder in the disappearing fund, you still have to decide: How is the fund going to change? Does the new fund fit into your investment plan? Does the manager have enough experience? Maybe you stick around. Or maybe it's time to move on.
Not only are more loads popping up everywhere. But when times get tight, mutual-fund companies love to slap on extra fees. And this maneuver is particularly insulting and infuriating if those funds have lost tons of money.
The Van Wagoner funds used to require a minimum investment of $1,000 to open a regular account. The firm, known for its aggressive (read: treacherous) investing style, recently jacked that minimum up to $5,000. That's fine. It's trying to reduce the number of small accounts that are opened.
What's shocking: In late December the fund company is going to start charging a quarterly "account servicing fee" of $6 to investors whose investment in a fund dips below $2,500 -- for any reason. Van Wagoner has graciously decided to waive that fee if you have a combined balance of at least $15,000 in all Van Wagoner funds.
For one, this portfolio minimum of $2,500 is well above the old requirement of one grand to open an account. And if you invested $1,000 in one of the funds before the minimum investment was raised to $5,000 a few months ago, you're still going to get slapped with that low-account fee.
But the biggest insult is to investors who have account balances below $2,500 because the Van Wagoner funds have lost so much money over the last few years. The
Van Wagoner Emerging Growth fund has lost an average of 47% each year over the past three years, which makes it one of the worst small-cap growth funds, along with two other Van Wagoner portfolios.
The fund company is essentially telling shareholders: We're going to charge you extra for losing your money.
So $24 a year doesn't sound like a lot of money. But if your account balance is $1,000, that's an extra 2.4% annual fee on top of the fat expense ratio you're already paying.
But does anyone need another excuse to avoid these funds?