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Mutual fund investors, like investors in all financial products, pay for services they receive. This chapter provides an overview of mutual fund expenses and fees.

Mutual funds provide investors with a variety of investment-related services. For the benefit of receiving such services, mutual fund investors incur two primary types of expenses and fees: ongoing expenses and sales loads. Over the past two decades, average expenses paid by mutual fund investors have fallen significantly. For example, on an asset-weighted basis, average expense ratios for equity funds have fallen from 99 basis points in 1990 to 77 basis points in 2012, a decline of more than 20 percent.

Trends in Mutual Fund Expenses

Investors in mutual funds incur two primary types of expenses and fees: ongoing expenses and sales load fees. Ongoing fund expenses cover portfolio management, fund administration, daily fund accounting and pricing, shareholder services (such as call centers and websites), distribution charges known as 12b-1 fees, and other miscellaneous costs of operating the fund. These expenses are included in a fund’s expense ratio—the fund’s annual expenses expressed as a percentage of fund assets. Since expenses are paid from fund assets, investors pay these expenses indirectly. In contrast, sales loads are fees that investors pay directly either at the time of share purchase (front-end loads), when shares are redeemed (back-end loads), or over time (level loads).

Over the past two decades, on an asset-weighted basis, average expense ratios* incurred by mutual fund investors have fallen significantly (Figure 5.1). In 1990, equity fund investors on average incurred expenses of 99 basis points—or 99 cents for every $100 invested. By contrast, expense ratios averaged 77 basis points for equity fund investors in 2012, a decline of more than 20 percent from 1990. The average expense ratio of hybrid funds fell from 102 basis points to 79 basis points. Bond fund expense ratios declined from 88 basis points in 1990 to 61 basis points in 2012, a 31 percent drop.

* In this chapter, unless otherwise noted, average expenses are calculated on an asset-weighted basis.
Basis points are often used to simplify percentages written in decimal form. A basis point is a unit equal to one one-hundredth of 1 percent (0.01 percent). Thus 100 basis points equals 1 percentage point. When applied to $1.00, 1 basis point is $0.0001; 100 basis points equals one cent ($0.01).

Understanding the Decline in Fund Expense Ratios

Several factors account for the dramatic fall in expense ratios. First, expense ratios often vary inversely with fund assets. Certain fund costs—such as transfer agency fees, accounting and audit fees, and directors’ fees—are more or less fixed in dollar terms regardless of fund size. When fund assets rise, these fixed costs become smaller relative to a fund’s assets. On the other hand, when fund assets fall, fixed costs contribute relatively more (as a proportion of assets) to a fund’s expense ratio. Thus, given a consistent sample of funds over time, when assets rise the average expense ratio of the sample generally falls (Figure 5.2).

Figure 5.1

Expenses Incurred by Mutual Fund Investors Have Declined Substantially Since 1990

Basis points, selected years

Figure 5.1

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Note: Expense ratios are measured as asset-weighted averages. Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper


Figure 5.2

Fund Expense Ratios Tend to Fall as Fund Total Net Assets Rise

Share classes of domestic equity funds continuously in existence since 19931

Figure 5.2

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1Calculations are based on a fixed sample of share classes. Sample includes all domestic equity share classes continuously in existence since 1993, excluding mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
2Average expense ratio is an asset-weighted average.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

Another important driver of the decline in the average expenses of long-term funds is the shift by investors toward no-load share classes,* particularly institutional no-load share classes, which tend to have lower-than-average expense ratios. This is due in part to a change in the way investors pay for the services they receive from brokers and other financial professionals (see Mutual Fund Load Fees).

* See no-load share classes.

In addition, mutual fund expenses have been reduced by economies of scale and competition. Investor demand for mutual fund services has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. The number of households owning mutual funds has more than doubled since 1990, rising from 23.4 million in 1990 to 53.8 million in 2012. Over the same period, the number of shareholder accounts increased from 61.9 million to more than 264 million. By itself, such a sharp increase in demand would tend to boost fund expense ratios. Any such tendency, however, was mitigated by the downward pressure on fund expense ratios from competition among existing fund sponsors, the entry of new fund sponsors into the industry, and economies of scale resulting from the growth in fund assets.

Finally, shareholders invest predominantly in funds with below-average expense ratios (Figure 5.3). The simple average expense ratio of equity funds (the average expense ratio of all equity funds offered for sale) was 140 basis points in 2012. The asset-weighted average expense ratio for equity funds (which measures the average expense ratio that equity fund shareholders actually paid) was considerably lower: just 77 basis points.

Figure 5.3

Fund Shareholders Paid Lower-Than-Average Expenses in Equity Funds

Basis points, 1998–2012

Figure 5.3

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Note: Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

Another way to illustrate this tendency is to examine how investors allocate their assets across funds. As of year-end 2012, equity funds with expense ratios in the lowest quartile managed 72 percent of equity funds’ total net assets, while the remaining 75 percent of equity funds held only 28 percent of total net assets (Figure 5.4). This pattern holds for actively managed equity funds, equity index funds, and target date funds (funds that adjust their portfolios, typically more toward fixed income, as the fund approaches and passes the fund’s “target date”). Equity index funds with expense ratios in the lowest quartile held 80 percent of equity index fund assets at the end of 2012. Similarly, target date funds with expense ratios in the lowest quartile held 79 percent of target date fund assets.

Figure 5.4

Assets Are Concentrated in the Least Costly Funds

Percent, year-end 2012

Figure 5.4

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1Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
2Data include the full universe of target date funds, 96 percent of which invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

A Look at the Expenses of Index Mutual Funds

Growth in index funds has contributed to the decline in equity and bond fund expense ratios.* Index fund assets have grown substantially in the past 15 years, from $265 billion in assets in 1998 to $1.3 trillion in 2012 (Figure 5.5). Investor demand for indexed bond funds has grown in the past few years, but 80 percent of index fund assets are invested in equity and hybrid index funds, the vast majority of which are in equity index funds.

* The discussion and figures in this section exclude exchange-traded funds (ETFs) unless specifically noted. ETFs are considered separately in chapter 3.

Index funds tend to have lower-than-average expense ratios for several reasons. The first is their approach to portfolio management. An index fund generally seeks to mimic the returns on a given index. Under this approach, often referred to as passive management, portfolio managers buy and hold all, or a representative sample of, the securities in their target indexes.

Figure 5.5

Total Net Assets and Number of Index Mutual Funds Have Increased

Billions of dollars, year-end, 1998–2012

Figure 5.5

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Note: Index fund data exclude funds that invest primarily in other funds. Components may not add to the total because of rounding.

By contrast, under an active management approach, managers have more discretion to increase or reduce their exposure to sectors or securities within their investment mandate. This approach offers investors the chance to enjoy superior returns. However, it also entails more-intensive analysis of securities or sectors, which can be costly.

A second reason index funds tend to have lower average expense ratios is their investment focus. Historically, the assets of equity index funds have been concentrated most heavily in “large-cap blend” funds that target U.S. large-cap indexes, notably the S&P 500 index. Assets of actively managed funds, on the other hand, have been more spread out among stocks of varying capitalization, international regions, or specialized business sectors. Managing portfolios of mid- or small-cap, international, or sector stocks is generally acknowledged to be more expensive than managing portfolios of U.S. large-cap stocks.

Third, index funds are larger on average than actively managed funds, which helps reduce fund expense ratios through economies of scale. In 2012, the average equity index fund had assets of more than $1.7 billion, compared with $393 million for the average actively managed equity fund.

Finally, index fund investors who seek the assistance of financial professionals may pay for that service out-of-pocket, rather than through the fund’s expense ratio. Actively managed funds more commonly bundle those costs in the fund’s expense ratio.

These reasons, among others, help explain why index funds generally have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds (Figure 5.6). Note, however, that both index and actively managed funds have contributed to the decline in the overall average expense ratios of mutual funds shown in Figure 5.1. The average expense ratios incurred by investors in both index and actively managed funds have fallen, and by roughly the same amount. For example, from 1998 to 2012 the average expense ratio of index equity funds fell 12 basis points, compared with a reduction of 10 basis points for actively managed equity funds (Figure 5.6). Similarly, the average expense ratios of index and actively managed bond funds have fallen 9 and 15 basis points, respectively.

Figure 5.6

Expense Ratios of Actively Managed and Index Funds

Basis points, 1998–2012

Figure 5.6

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Note: Expense ratios are measured as an asset-weighted average; figure excludes mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

In part, the downward trend in the average expense ratios of both index and actively managed funds reflects the tendency of all investors to purchase lower-cost funds. Investor demand for index funds is disproportionately concentrated in the very lowest cost funds. For example, in 2012, 61 percent of the assets of index equity funds were held in funds with expense ratios that were among the lowest 10 percent of all equity index funds. This phenomenon is not unique to index funds, however. Since 2002 the proportion of assets in the lowest-cost actively managed funds also has risen.

Understanding Differences in the Expense Ratios of Mutual Funds

Like the prices of most goods and services, the expenses of individual mutual funds differ considerably across the array of available products. The expense ratios of individual funds depend on many factors, including investment objective, fund assets, balances in shareholder accounts, and payments to intermediaries.

Fund Investment Objective

Fund expenses vary by investment objective (Figure 5.7); for example, bond and money market funds tend to have lower expense ratios than equity funds. Among equity funds, expense ratios tend to be higher for funds that specialize in particular sectors—such as healthcare or real estate—or those that invest in international stocks, because such funds tend to be more costly to manage.

Even within a particular investment objective, fund expense ratios can vary considerably. For example, 10 percent of aggressive growth equity funds have expense ratios of 85 basis points or less, while 10 percent have expense ratios of 219 basis points or more. Among other things, such variation reflects the fact that some aggressive growth funds focus more on small- or mid-cap stocks while others focus more on large-cap stocks. This can be significant because, as noted earlier, portfolios of small- and mid-cap stocks tend to be more costly to manage.

Figure 5.7

Expense Ratios for Selected Investment Objectives

Basis points, 2012

Investment objective 10th percentile Median 90th percentile Asset-weighted average Simple average
Equity funds1 77 133 216 77 141
   Aggressive growth 85 137 219 89 147
   Growth 72 124 206 83 131
   Sector 84 146 235 83 153
   Growth and income 52 112 191 47 118
   Income 68 112 187 82 120
   International 93 147 230 93 155
Hybrid funds1 65 120 199 79 127
Bond funds1 49 89 167 61 101
   Taxable 49 92 175 62 103
   Municipal 50 82 159 60 97
Money market funds1 8 17 30 17 18
Target date funds2 49 104 172 58 107

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1Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds. Data include index mutual funds but exclude ETFs.
2Data include the full universe of target date funds, 96 percent of which invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

Fund Size and Fund Average Account Size

Fund size and fund average account size also help explain differences in fund expense ratios. These two factors vary widely across the industry. In 2012, the median long-term mutual fund had assets of $398 million (Figure 5.8). Twenty-five percent of all long-term funds had assets of $104 million or less, while another 25 percent of long-term funds had assets of about $1.4 billion or more. Average account balances show similar variation. In 2012, 50 percent of long-term funds had average account balances of $71,720 or less. Twenty-five percent of long-term funds had average account balances of $23,508 or less. At the other extreme, 25 percent of long-term funds had average account balances of more than $278,800.

Figure 5.8

Fund Sizes and Average Account Balances Varied Widely

Long-term funds,1, 2 year-end 2012

  Fund assets
Millions of dollars
Average account balance3
Dollars
10th percentile $26 $11,192
25th percentile 104 23,508
Median 398 71,720
75th percentile 1,376 278,800
90th percentile 4,328 1,916,255

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1Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
2Long-term funds include equity, hybrid, and bond funds.
3Average account balance is calculated at the fund level as total fund assets divided by the total number of shareholder accounts, which includes a mix of individual and omnibus accounts.

Larger mutual funds tend to have lower-than-average expense ratios because of economies of scale. Funds with higher average account balances also tend to have lower expense ratios than other funds. This reflects the fact that each account, regardless of its size, requires certain services (such as mailing periodic account statements to account holders). Funds that cater primarily to institutional investors—who typically invest large amounts of money—tend to have higher average account balances. Funds that primarily serve retail investors typically have lower average account balances.

Mutual Fund Fee Structures

Mutual funds are often classified according to the class of shares that fund sponsors offer to investors, primarily load or no-load classes. Load classes generally serve investors who own fund shares purchased through financial professionals; no-load fund classes usually serve investors who purchase shares without the assistance of a financial professional or who choose to compensate the financial professional separately. Funds sold through financial professionals typically offer more than one share class in order to provide investors with alternative ways to pay for the financial services.

12b-1 Fees

Since 1980, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted Rule 12b-1 under the Investment Company Act of 1940, funds and their shareholders have had flexibility to compensate financial professionals and other financial intermediaries through asset-based fees. These distribution fees, known as 12b-1 fees, provide a way for investors to pay indirectly for some or all of the services they receive from financial professionals (such as their broker) and other financial intermediaries (such as retirement plan recordkeepers and discount brokerage firms). 12b-1 fees also can be used to pay for the fund’s advertising and marketing expenses but in practice such usage is minor.

Load Share Classes

Load share classes include a sales load or a 12b-1 fee or both. The sales load and 12b-1 fees are used to compensate brokers and other financial professionals for their services.

Front-end load shares, which are predominantly Class A shares, were the traditional way investors compensated financial professionals for assistance. These shares generally charge a sales load—a percentage of the sales price or offering price—at the time of purchase. They also often generally have a 12b-1 fee, often 0.25 percent (25 basis points). Front-end load shares are sometimes used in employer-sponsored retirement plans, but fund sponsors typically waive the sales load for purchases made through such retirement plans. Additionally, front-end load fees often decline as the size of an investor’s initial purchase rises (called “breakpoint discounts”), and many fund providers offer discounted load fees when an investor has total balances exceeding a given amount in that provider’s funds (called “rights of accumulation”).

Back-end load shares, which are primarily Class B shares, typically do not have a front-end load. Investors using back-end load shares pay for services provided by financial professionals through a combination of an annual 12b-1 fee and a contingent deferred sales load (CDSL). The CDSL is paid if fund shares are redeemed before a given period of ownership. Back-end load shares usually convert after a prespecified number of years to a share class (e.g., A shares) with a lower 12b-1 fee. In part because of this conversion feature, the assets in back-end load shares have declined substantially in recent years.

Level-load shares, which include Class C shares, generally do not have front-end loads. Investors in this kind of share class compensate financial advisers with a combination of an annual 12b-1 fee (typically 1 percent) and a small CDSL (also often 1 percent) that shareholders pay if they sell their shares within the first year after purchase.

No-Load Share Classes

No-load share classes have no front-end load or CDSL, and have a 12b-1 fee of 0.25 percent (25 basis points) or less. Originally, no-load share classes were sold directly by mutual fund sponsors to investors. Now, investors can purchase no-load funds through employer-sponsored retirement plans, mutual fund supermarkets, discount brokerage firms, and bank trust departments, as well as directly from mutual fund sponsors. Some financial professionals who charge investors separately for their services, rather than through a load or 12b-1 fee, use no-load share classes.

Mutual Fund Load Fees

Many mutual fund investors engage an investment professional, such as a broker, investment adviser, or financial planner. ICI research finds that among investors owning mutual fund shares outside of retirement plans at work, 82 percent own fund shares through financial professionals. These professionals can provide many benefits to investors, such as helping them identify financial goals, analyzing an existing financial portfolio, determining an appropriate asset allocation, and (depending on the type of financial professional) providing investment advice or recommendations to help achieve the investor’s goals. The investment professional may also provide ongoing services, such as responding to an investor’s inquiries or periodically reviewing and rebalancing the investor’s portfolio.

Thirty years ago, fund shareholders usually compensated financial advisers for their assistance through a front-end load—a one-time, up-front payment for current and future services. That structure has since changed significantly.

One important element in the changing distribution structure has been a marked decline in load fees paid by mutual fund investors. The maximum front-end load fee that shareholders might pay for investing in mutual funds has changed little since 1990 (Figure 5.9). However, front-end load fees that investors actually paid have declined markedly, from nearly 4 percent in 1990 to 1 percent or less in 2012. This in part reflects the increasing role of mutual funds in helping investors save for retirement. Funds that normally charge front-end load fees often waive load fees on purchases made through defined contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans. Also, front-end load funds offer volume discounts, waiving or reducing load fees for large initial or cumulative purchases (see Mutual Fund Fee Structures).

Figure 5.9

Front-End Sales Loads That Investors Paid Were Well Below Maximum Front-End Sales Loads That Funds Charged

Percentage of purchase amount, selected years

  Maximum front-end sales load*
Percent
Average front-end sales load
that investors actually paid*
Percent
  Equity Hybrid Bond Equity Hybrid Bond
1990 5.0 5.0 4.6 3.9 3.8 3.5
1995 4.8 4.7 4.1 2.5 2.4 2.1
2000 5.2 5.1 4.2 1.4 1.4 1.1
2001 5.2 5.2 4.2 1.2 1.2 1.0
2002 5.3 5.3 4.2 1.3 1.3 1.0
2003 5.3 5.1 4.1 1.3 1.3 1.0
2004 5.3 5.1 4.1 1.4 1.4 1.1
2005 5.3 5.3 4.0 1.3 1.3 1.0
2006 5.3 5.2 4.0 1.2 1.2 0.9
2007 5.4 5.2 4.0 1.2 1.1 0.9
2008 5.4 5.2 4.0 1.1 1.1 0.8
2009 5.4 5.2 3.9 1.0 1.0 0.8
2010 5.4 5.2 3.9 1.0 1.0 0.8
2011 5.3 5.2 3.9 1.0 1.0 0.7
2012 5.3 5.2 3.9 1.0 1.0 0.7

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* The maximum front-end sales load is a simple average of the highest front-end load that funds may charge as set forth in their prospectuses. The average actually paid is estimated by calculating the total front-end sales loads collected by funds divided by the total maximum loads that the funds could have collected based on their new sales that year. This ratio is then multiplied by each fund’s maximum sales load. The resulting value is then averaged across all funds.
Note: Data exclude mutual funds available as investment choices in variable annuities and mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute, Lipper, and Strategic Insight Simfund

Another important element in the changing distribution structure of mutual funds has been a shift toward “asset-based fees.” Over time, brokers and other financial professionals who sell mutual funds have increasingly been compensated through asset-based fees, which are assessed as a percentage of the assets that the financial professional manages for an investor. An investor may pay an asset-based fee indirectly through a fund’s 12b-1 fee, which is included in the fund’s expense ratio. Alternatively, an investor may pay an asset-based fee directly (out-of-pocket) to the financial professional.

In part because of this trend toward payment of asset-based fees (either through the fund or out-of-pocket), assets in front-end and back-end load share classes have declined in recent years while those in level load, other load, and no-load share classes have increased substantially. For example, in the past five years, front-end and back-end load share classes have experienced net outflows totaling $456 billion (Figure 5.10) and seen their assets fall from $2,377 billion in 2007 to $1,920 billion in 2012 (Figure 5.11).

Figure 5.10

Net New Cash Flow Was Greatest in No-Load Institutional Share Classes

Billions of dollars, 2003–2012

  2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
All long-term mutual funds $216 $210 $192 $227 $224 -$225 $389 $242 $26 $196
   Load 49 49 31 38 15 -145 30 -42 -121 -23
      Front-end load1 33 46 41 42 19 -104 2 -58 -101 -67
      Back-end load2 -20 -40 -47 -47 -42 -39 -24 -27 -23 -15
      Level load3 28 20 17 20 24 -12 30 20 -6 5
      Other load4 8 22 20 24 15 10 22 23 9 54
   No-load5 125 125 143 165 184 -54 330 276 169 247
      Retail or general
      purpose
81 90 66 71 60 -113 128 45 -47 -16
      Institutional 44 35 77 93 124 59 202 231 216 263
   Variable annuities 42 36 18 24 25 -26 29 8 -21 -28

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1Front-end load > 1 percent. Primarily includes A shares; includes sales where front-end loads are waived.
2Front-end load = 0 percent and CDSL > 2 percent. Primarily includes B shares.
3Front-end load ≤ 1 percent, CDSL ≤ 2 percent, and 12b-1 fee > 0.25 percent. Primarily includes C shares; excludes institutional share classes.
4All other load share classes not classified as front-end load, back-end load, or level load. Primarily includes retirement share classes known as R shares.
5Front-end load = 0 percent, CDSL = 0 percent, and 12b-1 fee ≤ 0.25 percent.
Note: Components may not add to the total because of rounding. Data exclude mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper

In contrast, level load, other load, and no-load share classes have seen net inflows and rising asset levels over the past ten years. Since 2007, level load and other load share classes—both of which have an (asset-based) 12b-1 fee of at least 0.25 percent—have experienced modest inflows and growth in assets. No-load share classes—those with neither a front-end nor a back-end load fee and a 12b-1 fee of less than 0.25 percent—have in the past 10 years accumulated the bulk of the inflows to long-term funds. In 2012, no-load share classes accounted for 61 percent of the assets of long-term funds compared to 49 percent in 2003.

Some of the shift toward no load share classes owes to “do-it-yourself” investors. However, much of the shift represents sales of no-load share classes through sales channels that compensate financial professionals with asset-based fees outside of funds (e.g., mutual fund supermarkets, discount brokers, fee-based advisers, full-service brokerage platforms), as well as sales of no-load funds through 401(k) plans.

Figure 5.11

Total Net Assets of Long-Term Mutual Funds Were Concentrated in No-Load Share Classes

Billions of dollars, 2003–2012

  2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
All long-term mutual funds $5,362 $6,194 $6,864 $8,059 $8,916 $5,771 $7,797 $9,028 $8,936 $10,352
   Load 1,956 2,222 2,409 2,783 2,977 1,844 2,334 2,573 2,344 2,630
      Front-end load1 1,360 1,567 1,720 2,014 2,173 1,373 1,745 1,873 1,741 1,881
      Back-end load2 356 334 271 241 204 102 98 78 50 39
      Level load3 214 252 284 334 373 235 326 378 364 424
      Other load4 26 68 133 194 228 134 165 243 189 286
   No-load5 2,604 3,031 3,416 4,052 4,591 3,073 4,332 5,164 5,341 6,324
      Retail or general
      purpose
1,853 2,159 2,390 2,785 3,060 1,915 2,641 3,007 2,969 3,385
      Institutional 752 873 1,026 1,267 1,532 1,157 1,691 2,157 2,373 2,933
   Variable annuities 802 941 1,039 1,225 1,347 855 1,131 1,292 1,250 1,397

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1Front-end load > 1 percent. Primarily includes A shares; includes sales where front-end loads are waived.
2Front-end load = 0 percent and CDSL > 2 percent. Primarily includes B shares.
3Front-end load ≤ 1 percent, CDSL ≤ 2 percent, and 12b-1 fee > 0.25 percent. Primarily includes C shares; excludes institutional share classes.
4All other load share classes not classified as front-end load, back-end load, or level load. Primarily includes retirement share classes known as R shares.
5Front-end load = 0 percent, CDSL = 0 percent, and 12b-1 fee ≤ 0.25 percent.
Note: Components may not add to the total because of rounding. Data exclude mutual funds that invest primarily in other mutual funds.
Sources: Investment Company Institute and Lipper


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