If you've read more than two or three articles on Fool.com, you probably know how we feel about mutual funds that charge sales fees, or loads. Such fees typically run between 3% to 5.75% of the investment and -- often unbeknownst to the buyer -- go directly to the broker or advisor who sells the fund.
The costs don't end there, either. Annual expenses of load funds are almost always higher than those that no-load funds charge. It's hardly surprising, then, that long-term returns show that no-load funds hold a clear advantage over their load-bearing peers in terms of profits for shareholders. That's why our favorite funds come from no-load shops such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and Dodge & Cox. (For more on which funds we love and which we run from, check out our fact-filled Champion Funds newsletter service.)
The good news for savvy investors is that regulatory scrutiny over how funds are sold, as well as broader investor awareness regarding expenses, has some fund companies taking a harder look at the cost structure of their offerings. Earlier this month, for example, Franklin Templeton ceased sales of its B-share classes across all of its funds. B shares carry a deferred load, incurring a charge when a shareholder sells; A shares, conversely, require that the load be paid upon purchase. More popular than A shares until just a few years ago, B shares are almost always a raw deal because of their heavy back-end fees and high annual expenses.
Case in point: Annual fees on the B shares of Templeton Foreign, one of the shop's more popular funds, stand at a wallet-womping 1.98%. In comparison, no-load Vanguard International Value, which like Templeton Growth Foreign holds stakes in GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK ) and Sony (NYSE: SNE ) , charges a scanty 56 basis points. Fidelity International Discovery, another no-load option, also fishes in foreign waters, with a portfolio that recently included the likes of BP (NYSE: BP ) , Allianz (NYSE: AZ ) , Deutsche Telekom (NYSE: DT ) , Novartis (NYSE: NVS ) , and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) .
Historically, the popularity of no-load funds has waxed and waned in tandem with the market's health. During the raging bull market of the late 1990s, when even Great-Grandpa George was buying his funds directly from fund companies, many shops threw out their sales fees to attract business from the swelling ranks of gung-ho direct investors. When the market hit the skids in 2000, many of those same investors turned back to brokers and advisors or shunned the market entirely. Following suit, a slew of fund companies, including Invesco, Liberty, and Credit Suisse Asset Management, turned load, hiring advisors to woo back investors.
Other load-fund shops may follow Franklin's lead in coming months by jettisoning their B shares, but loads, like bad politicians, will surely continue to come and go. In the meantime, we can hope for the day all financial advisors are paid for their time and advice, not what and how much their clients decide to buy.
Until then, if it's hands-on money management you want, consider switching from your full-service broker or in-house advisor to a fee-based planner. And either way, make sure you understand the vagaries of fund-related fees before you sign on the dotted line.
Fool contributor Josie Raney owns no shares of companies mentioned in this article.