Pin Me

Understanding Mutual Fund Share Classes

written by: Brian Nelson•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 4/30/2009

You know about no load funds and load funds, but did you know that there are more differences than that? Some mutual funds have nearly a dozen share classes. What do they all mean?

  • slide 1 of 2

    What Is A Mutual Fund Share Class

    Mutual funds come in many different varieties, but one thing never changes. The company that runs the mutual fund has to cover its expenses for running the fund and make a profit. Mutual fund managers do this by charging fees and expenses to shareholders of the mutual fund. This is generally represented by the expense ratio of the mutual fund.

    Different share classes represent different expense structures, both for the owners of the mutual funds and for the mutual fund manager.

    For example, a mutual fund that is sold inside of a 401(k) plan at a large company might be able to charge less money because of various economies of scale. Whereas a mutual fund sold inside of a smaller 401(k) plan might need to charge higher expenses. This is represented at many fund companies by numbers in addition to the usual numbers such as R1, R2, R3, and so on. Although all of the mutual funds have the same investments with the same investment managers, their returns will be different because each share class has a different expense ratio.

  • slide 2 of 2

    A, B, and C Shares

    In addition, many load mutual funds provide a commission to the seller of the mutual funds. This commission can be paid in many ways and reflects how the customer is charged as well. If the commission is paid largely up-front, then that is a front-load mutual fund and the load is deducted “up-front”, or at the time of purchase. Typically, this is called an A share.

    With B shares, the commission is partly paid up front by the mutual fund company, but not by the purchaser. Instead, B shares are called back-load mutual funds and will charge the customer a fee if they sell the fund before a certain amount of time. In exchange for not paying the fee up front, the customer pays a higher expense ratio on an ongoing basis.

    C Shares are sometimes referred to as level-load mutual funds. No fee is charged at purchase and no fee is charged when the fund is sold, although many funds come with a minimum holding period of 1 year. However, the annual fund expenses for a C share are typically around 1% higher than those of an A share. So, while the customer does not pay up front, they still pay the same amount or more than those who buy A shares over a certain time period.

    FINRA (formerly the NASD) provides a share calculator that allows investors to calculate which share class is best for them based upon how long the fund is to be held. Investors would be wise to take a look before deciding which share class is right for them.