Mounting pressures on fees will change the way mutual funds are priced, according to one prominent fund executive.

"Over the next three to four years, I think the so-called load, as we know it, will disappear," said Barbara Hennigar, president and chief executive officer of OppenheimerFunds Services and Shareholders Services Inc.

Ms. Hennigar made her prediction last week during a wide-ranging roundtable discussion at the National Investment Company Service Association membership meeting in Boston.

In addition to pricing, the panelists touched on hot issues including the Internet, mergers and acquisitions, and employee turnover.

Ms. Hennigar said that as the media and investors pay more attention to expense ratios and management fees, the industry will move toward fee-based services. That means that loads-fund industry lingo for sales charges-will fall by the wayside.

But not everyone agreed with Ms. Hennigar's assessment.

"I'm not sure loads are going away," said Peter H. Gallary, managing director and head of mutual fund operations for Putnam Investments and another roundtable participant.

Mr. Gallary pointed out that "B shares" have been very popular among Putnam investors. B shares carry back-end loads, meaning sales charges are deferred until redemption.

Funds have grown more complex, Mr. Gallary said. In 1990, Putnam had all A shares, 50 mutual funds, and $45 billion under management. Now the Boston-based company has $276 billion in more than 100 funds-each with five classes of shares, he said.

That growing complexity makes it crucial to serve customers' information needs well, Mr. Gallary said. When customers seek information, they should be offered one knowledgeable person who can deal with a range of questions, he said. That person needs to be better informed than typical telephone representatives.

The Internet will play a vital role in delivering investor education, the panelists said.

"I think it's already changing the business," said C. Troy Shaver, executive vice president for State Street Research & Management Co.

State Street's international customers show considerable interest in the Internet, he said. The bank serves professional athletes from places such as Finland, Sweden, and Russia.

The average age of the clients is in the low 20s, but "you know they are computer-literate," he said, because they travel everywhere with a laptop.

Though the Internet is a growing force in the industry, consolidation is already here "in spades," Mr. Gallary said. In the past two and a half years there have been 70 merger and acquisition transactions in the fund business, he said.

Panelists said a market downturn would further heat up the pace of deals. "Should we see a major market deterioration, mergers and acquisitions will increase," Ms. Hennigar said.

For now, the fund industry continues to grow, as does the reputation of some fund managers. Panelists said that can be a problem when a portfolio manager with an established following decides to leave a firm.

"What you do is scramble," said William H. Smith Jr. president of Pioneering Services Corp., a sister company of the Pioneer Funds. "It's clearly an issue for all of us.

"It's a true dilemma, and these fund managers think there isn't anyone else like them, and they become gods in their own minds," Mr. Smith said.

The portfolio manager is a figurehead for the management of a fund, he said. When the manager leaves, the team largely responsible for a fund's performance may still be in place, he said.

"We're very much a proponent of the team approach of investing," Mr. Gallary said.

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