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Originally published Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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Chuck Jaffe: Great funds drop loads; time to buy?

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The recent news that a top fund firm will soon make its funds available without sales charges came either 15-plus years too late or just in the nick of time.

But with a stellar reputation, news that the FPA Funds effectively are going on sale — dropping a 5.25 percent front-end sales charge on the four issues that currently carry loads — should have investors taking notice and trying to decide whether the decision should be treated as old news or a breaking story.

To see why, let’s delve into the FPA funds, the effect of sales charges on mutual funds and more.

Managed by First Pacific Advisors (hence the FPA), the FPA funds have a long record of investment success.

The lead manager since 1984 has been Robert Rodriguez, one of the most-respected managers in the business, albeit with little name recognition among average investors, largely because that fat sales charge discouraged do-it-yourself investors.

Front-end sales charges come right off the top, so that an investor putting $10,000 into a fund with a 5.25 percent load actually only puts $9,475 to work, with the difference going to the advisory firm and/or the broker-dealer selling the fund.

As no-load funds evolved in the 1990s, many firms gravitated to the structure, or made their funds available on a fee-waived basis; FPA was part of that trend, working through “fund supermarkets” where financial advisers could buy the funds for clients without the sales charge.

The big fee to get in the front door is now coming off FPA Capital (FPPTX), FPA New Income (FPNIX), FPA Paramount (FPRAX) and FPA Perennial (FPPFX).

FPA Crescent (FPACX) and FPA International Value (FPIVX) already were structured as no-load funds. And while Capital is part of the structure change, the fund is closed to new investors.

Had FPA made the move back when the industry was still waging the load-versus-no-load fight, investors would have been ecstatic.

Countless studies showed that the sales charges were a drag on performance, although waiving the load, but paying the freight in other ways — like heightened exit fees or asset-management fees charged by financial advisers — could mitigate the effect.

So could superior performance and low costs, and FPA pretty much always had that going for it. Load-fund investors were willing to overlook sales charges by pointing to results over all else. FPA delivered.

Of the five FPA funds with 15-year track records, four of them — Capital, Crescent, New Income and Perennial — are in the top 20 percent of their peer group over that time.

New Income, however, has been a laggard over the last decade — finishing near the bottom of its peer group — and Capital has suffered over the last year (Crescent, Paramount and Perennial have all been in the top quartile of their peer group over the last 12 months).

Even as Rodriguez has taken sabbatical time off and other managers have been added and given more responsibility, FPA’s reputation has remained steady.

With below-average costs and above-average shareholder communications, the firm is something of a role model for larger, better-known money managers.

The outstanding long-term record and mostly-good near-term results have to make investors wonder if FPA is worth a look now that the sales charge is gone.

Moreover, with a $1,500 account minimum, the firm is catering to small investors who would be hard-pressed to find something better available for so little cash.

For an investor who missed that long, strong performance run, this feels a bit like being let into the club after the headliner act has hit the showers. You have to wonder if the remaining show will be worth it.

While no-load status should open FPA up to more investors, there’s not necessarily a reason to rush the gate.

New investors aren’t getting the last 15 years, or Rodriquez’s last 30 years of results, they’re getting what happens next, and presumably are paying the costs of switching to ride along now.

FPA wiped out loads, but didn’t repeal taxes; an investor dumping something they’ve held for year to buy into FPA could be facing a big tax bill.

Moreover, FPA’s distinctive style isn’t right for everyone; management will stick to its guns even when its value style is out of favor and investors who look only at returns without recognizing how they were achieved could be buying into a bad fit.

“Waiving the load pretty much opens FPA up to everyone, but that doesn’t mean that investors should rush over,” said Matthew King, chief investment officer at Bell Investment Advisors in Oakland, Calif., which has used FPA funds for clients in the past.

“If you’re unhappy or unimpressed with a fund you own in the same category as one of the FPA funds — without a lot of tax exposure — take a look. But you shouldn’t blow up your portfolio or change your strategy just because one fund firm — even a very good firm — decided it was time to take the loads off.

“Stick the name in your database or your research file for the future,” he added, “but don’t change your strategy to fit the funds, even if it feels like they just went on sale.”

Chuck Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch. He can be reached at cjaffe@marketwatch.com or at P.O. Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.

Copyright, 2013, MarketWatch

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