EVERYONE WANTS TO SELL YOU A FUND Here's how to determine which of the pitchpeople are talking through their hats.
(MONEY Magazine) – You no doubt have found a lot of folks eager for your business these days. There's that persistent broker who keeps calling, for instance, and that smiling sales rep in your bank lobby. You may even encounter pitches for funds in such unlikely places as your airline seat or your utility bill or in a newsletter from your professional organization. Warns Michael Hirsch, president of Hirsch Investment Management in New York City: ''To cope with the intense fund marketing these days, you need to know the right places to shop and the right questions to ask before investing.'' In the story that follows, we offer comparison-shopping tips on investing through the competing purveyors -- brokers, banks, discount brokers, no-load families and affinity groups. Where you choose to buy should depend on how much guidance you need as well as how much convenience you demand. Bear in mind that hand-holders also hold out their hands. Personal advice and one-on- one service will cost you more than doing the fund picking and paperwork on your own. The choices:
BROKERS AND FINANCIAL PLANNERS: For advice at a price. Traditionally, investors who want professional advice have turned to brokers and financial planners, who still account for roughly 60% of mutual fund sales. But you have to pay for that service in the form of loads, or sales charges, usually 4% to 6% of your investment up front or an annually declining take of as much as 5% of your withdrawals (the only exception: fee-only financial planners who bill you a flat rate for their assistance). Of course, there's nothing wrong with paying a load -- as long as the guidance and the returns justify the cost. But be aware that not all brokers and planners are truly qualified and that some have steered clients into excessively risky investments or churned their fund accounts to build commissions. For example, Dean Witter customers were encouraged to pile more than $2 billion into the firm's junk bond fund, only to see the portfolio plunge more than 60% during 1989 and 1990. The fund did rebound resoundingly during the next two years, but by then most of the original pigeons had flown the coop. As a rule of thumb, avoid any broker or planner who pushes a fund without first learning about your financial situation, investment goals and tolerance for risk. Whenever any fund is recommended, ask for specific reasons -- how does the fund's long-term performance compare with the average for its category, for example, and what are the risks of losing your principal? In any case, be sure to read the prospectus. Finally, ask what the adviser receives in compensation for selling the fund. This is essential if it is sponsored by a broker's own firm, since some brokerages offer incentives for pushing the house brand.
BANKS: For an investor's convenience store. Banks have become the most aggressive new player in the field, having added more than 600 funds during the past five years. The banks' target market tends to be beginning investors disappointed with returns on CDs or savings accounts and tempted to roll them over into a higher-yielding or more venturesome fund now pushed by their bank. But think twice before you settle for the seeming convenience. You are most likely to be offered a nonbank load fund from a limited range of sponsors or a bank-run fund that may be no bargain. Further, none of these bank-sold investment products are insured by the FDIC. Remember too that the convenience of buying at a bank can be oversold. For one thing, many bank-based brokers work for outside firms and may often move between different branches, precluding the possibility of long-term stewardship of your money. Moreover, these sales staffs tend to be ! inexperienced and may not understand the products they sell -- a situation that worries Rep. John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who recently announced that the committee is considering legislation to ensure that banks fully inform customers about the risks of bond funds.
NO-LOAD FUNDS: For independence and maximum economy. If you are willing to research funds on your own, it's clearly a waste of money to pay a load and to miss out on the 1,700 no-load choices marketed directly by fund families. Note that in historical studies no-loads have performed just as well as load offerings. The first step is to write or call a fund group (most have toll- free 800 numbers) and ask for a prospectus and application. (Under a proposed SEC rule change that could go into effect this summer, investors would be able to buy a fund without a prospectus, as brokerage customers do now; key data on performance, risks and expenses would be summarized in type- heavy ads and direct mailings.) Ideally, investors should also request the fund's most recent annual report to eyeball an X-ray of the manager's portfolio approach. The application form gives you the opportunity to arrange for telephone switching between funds, redemption by wire, check writing or other services of the group. Of course, if you buy a fund on your own, there is no one to stop you from making a mistake or to help you decide when to cut your losses (or take a profit). Some no-load groups -- including Fidelity, Dreyfus and T. Rowe Price -- now offer free retirement planning workbooks and asset-allocation assistance. But their counsel usually amounts to a grand plan to buy combinations of the family's offerings, so don't rely on their recommendations alone when building your portfolio.
DISCOUNT BROKERS: For quick, cut-rate, one-stop shopping. Active investors who like to buy into a fund during a particular trading day without the cumbersome procedure of a bank wire or who trade frequently may prefer to work with a discount broker. The key advantage of discounters is that they will allow you to buy and sell funds between different fund groups with a single phone call, thereby sparing you the hassle of filling out multiple applications and other paperwork. They will also provide you with a consolidated statement of your accounts. The cost: a transaction fee, starting at about $27 for a $5,000 investment. Discounters with fund programs include Charles Schwab (800-526-8600), Jack White & Co. (800-233-3411), Fidelity Brokerage Services (800-544-8666) and Waterhouse Securities (800-934-4410). Last year, Schwab and White introduced a breakthrough new service offering certain no-loads without transaction fees or any charges other than the funds' standard expenses. But since the brokerage costs are picked up by the fund companies, less than 14% of all no-load funds are now available through the no-fee programs. Schwab markets about 100 funds -- including such families as Invesco, Janus and Neuberger & Berman -- and Jack White lists more than 140. The discounters hope to expand the availabilities later this year, and other brokerages are considering similar deals. Unfortunately, some of the leading no-load groups -- including Vanguard and T. Rowe Price -- are not expected to participate.
AFFINITY GROUPS: For a seeming seal of approval. You may get a fund pitch from an organization you belong to or even a company you do business with. Some affinity groups -- such as the American Association of Retired Persons, the Lutheran Brotherhood, and USAA, which was originally set up for military families -- have sponsored funds for years. There are also socially conscious funds with ethical or environmental buying criteria -- with performance records not always as lofty. Only one, Pax World, makes the recommended list of this MONEY Guide. It qualified in the equity income category (see page 101), which also includes two funds from USAA. Corporations are also muscling into the fund market. Last year, for example, a subsidiary of Dominion Resources, the holding company for a Virginia-based utility, founded the America's Utility Fund by stuffing fliers in its customers' bills. Dominion plans to start selling the no-load nationwide through other utilities. And American Airlines pushes its no-load American AAdvantage money fund to its passengers through its in-flight magazines and promotional cards on food trays. Five new American AAdvantage funds will take off later this year. Some affinity funds have performed well over time, but don't rush to buy a fund simply because it is offered by a group that you know. AARP, for example, merely puts its name on a group of funds managed by Scudder, and they are just as good as, but no better than, others in that Boston family. Some corporations started funds that foundered and were subsumed by established fund companies -- Bell Atlantic, for example, merged its funds with T. Rowe ) Price. The message is obvious: Judge a fund not by its name or by who is peddling it but by its long-term track record.