Mutual Funds:

Additional Disclosures Could Increase Transparency of Fees and Other Practices

GAO-04-317T: Published: Jan 27, 2004. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 2004.

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Concerns have been raised over whether the disclosures of mutual fund fees and other fund practices are sufficiently fair and transparent to investors. Our June 2003 report, Mutual Funds: Greater Transparency Needed in Disclosures to Investors, GAO-03- 763, reviewed (1) how mutual funds disclose their fees and related trading costs and options for improving these disclosures, (2) changes in how mutual funds pay for the sale of fund shares and how the changes in these practices are affecting investors, and (3) the benefits of and the concerns over mutual funds' use of soft dollars. This testimony summarizes the results of our report and discusses certain events that have occurred since it was issued.

Although mutual funds disclose considerable information about their costs to investors, the amount of fees and expenses that each investor specifically pays on their mutual fund shares are currently disclosed as percentages of fund assets, whereas most other financial services disclose the actual costs to the purchaser in dollar terms. SEC staff has proposed requiring funds to disclose additional information that could be used to compare fees across funds. However, SEC is not proposing that funds disclose the specific dollar amount of fees paid by each investor nor is it proposing to require that any fee disclosures be made in the account statements that investors receive. Although some of these additional disclosures could be costly and data on their benefits to investors was not generally available, less costly alternatives exist that could increase the transparency and investor awareness of mutual funds fees, making consideration of additional fee disclosures worthwhile. Changes in how mutual funds pay intermediaries to sell fund shares have benefited investors but have also raised concerns. Since 1980, mutual funds, under SEC Rule 12b-1, have been allowed to use fund assets to pay for certain marketing expenses. Over time the use of these fees has evolved to provide investors greater flexibility in choosing how to pay for the services of individual financial professionals that advise them on fund purchases. Another increasingly common marketing practice called revenue sharing involves fund investment advisers making additional payments to the broker-dealers that distribute their funds' shares. However, these payments may cause the broker-dealers receiving them to limit the fund choices they offer to investors and conflict with their obligation to recommend the most suitable funds. Regulators acknowledged that the current disclosure regulations might not always result in complete information about these payments being disclosed to investors. Under soft dollar arrangements, mutual fund investment advisers use part of the brokerage commissions they pay to broker-dealers for executing trades to obtain research and other services. Although industry participants said that soft dollars allow fund advisers access to a wider range of research than may otherwise be available and provide other benefits, these arrangements also can create incentives for investment advisers to trade excessively to obtain more soft dollar services, thereby increasing fund shareholders' costs. SEC staff has recommended various changes that would increase transparency by expanding advisers' disclosure of their use of soft dollars. By acting on the staff's recommendations SEC would provide fund investors and directors with needed information about how their funds' advisers are using soft dollars.

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