Plans by two no-load mutual fund complexes, Scudder Investments and Invesco Funds Group Inc., to enter the load fund business highlight the increasing importance of advisers as sales intermediaries in banks and other financial services channels.
And the decision to charge the same loads on bank, registered rep, and insurance agent sales heralds a different sort of thinking about banks as fund distributors, observers say. "We are mainstreaming banks and treating them like any other channel," said William Glavin Jr., managing director at Chicago-based Scudder, a unit of Zurich Financial Services Group.
Scudder will shift entirely from no-load to load funds, though current fund holders and 401(k) investors will still be able to buy fund shares without sales fees. The shift will start Jan. 1 and be completed by midyear.
The company will create fund classes with front-end and back-end loads as well as trailer fees for the funds it currently sells directly. It refused to say how large the loads will be.
Invesco, part of London-based Amvescap PLC, did not announce a complete switch. It will launch its first load fund geared for the general market on Dec. 1, said Ray Cunningham, national sales manager.
Like Scudder's load funds, Invesco's will have A, B, and C shares. The A and B shares will carry the same 5.5% loads for every distribution channel. Invesco will waive the loads for purchases for investors in wrap and 401(k) programs.
Denver-based Invesco plans to push more load funds next year, because the direct market channel appears to have little growth left industrywide, Mr. Cunningham said.
Dennis Gallant, a consultant at Cerulli Associates Inc. in Boston, said virtually all fund companies that sell directly to investors are considering a no-load strategy or are actively planning one.
"The future is intermediary distribution," he said.
Scudder and Invesco executives said a growing body of evidence shows that Americans are increasingly seeking advice to make or validate investment decisions, and are willing to pay brokers or advisers to get it.
A Cerulli study found that 46.1% of mutual fund sales flows went through load channels in 1999, while 21% were direct sales. Though direct sales were up from the year before and load sales down, the long-term trend still leans toward load sales growth, Mr. Gallant said.
Customers who buy direct are also hard to woo and hard to keep, Mr. Glavin said. It takes expensive marketing, he said, since they must be taken from other companies and are among the most likely to switch again.
Converting to a load format requires careful deliberation and strategizing by a fund company, Mr. Gallant said. And it is difficult to get third-party marketers to sell a fund that a company plans to keep offering on a no-load basis, he added. "Brokers feel they cannot push a fund that customers can get without a load," he said.
Data on this topic are often hard to come by, as companies differ on whether sales through fund supermarkets and 401(k) plans qualify as direct or intermediary sales. Nonetheless, sales through intermediaries are definitely growing, said Steve Cummings, research chief at Financial Research Corp. in Boston, a mutual fund research firm.