investing

Best Online Brokers for Fund Investors

Siebert and Fidelity stand out from the crowd.

Rankings of online brokers typically focus on how well the brokers serve stock investors. But what about those of us who are interested only in mutual funds? That's a reasonable question. Consolidating your fund holdings with a single broker makes it a snap to trade funds from a variety of families, monitor your portfolio and report your annual gains and losses to the IRS.

So we've geared this analysis of online brokers toward investors in regular, open-end funds. We scrutinized a dozen brokerages on a broad array of issues important to do-it-yourself fund investors -- from the commissions charged for buying and selling funds to the usefulness of each firm's Web site.

Two online brokers stand out: Muriel Siebert & Co., the firm founded 32 years ago by the first woman to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and Fidelity Brokerage, a unit of the fund giant. Both firms offer a wide selection of no-load funds, run well-organized Web sites that feature top-notch research and screening tools, and charge few nuisance fees.

In judging the brokers, we gave the most weight to the number of no-load, no-transaction-fee (NTF) funds that the brokers offer and the fees they charge for buying and selling funds that are not part of their NTF programs. We placed a significant amount of emphasis on the total number of no-load funds the brokers offered and the features and friendliness of their Web sites. We also considered -- but placed less emphasis on -- how the brokers invest your uninvested cash, the fees they charge if you sell your funds too quickly and other miscellaneous charges, and any perks the brokers give to high rollers. Here is how Siebert and Fidelity stack up:

Fund availability. With 3,263 funds, Fidelity came in second in the number of no-loads, behind optionsXpress. Siebert, with 2,982 funds, came in fourth (third was Firstrade, with 3,098). Siebert reigned with NTF funds, offering 1,806 no-loads at no charge, followed by Fidelity, with 1,597.

Fees for non-NTF funds. Fidelity and Siebert are in the middle here. At Siebert, you'll pay $35 to buy or to sell. Fidelity charges $75 to buy but nothing to sell. That's a better deal than to buy or sell at Schwab and TD Ameritrade, which charge $50 either way.

Other fees. Most brokers charge if you sell too quickly. Siebert is about average, charging $35 if you sell within 90 days. But Fidelity falls into the investor-unfriendly group, charging $75 if you sell within 180 days (this fee doesn't apply to Fidelity's own funds). As for other fees, Fidelity and Siebert rock: Neither levies annual fees, inactivity fees or fees for transferring your account to another broker. Except for Scottrade, all the brokers in our survey charge at least one such pesky fee.

Investing your cash. The better brokers -- Siebert among them -- automatically sweep your cash into a decent-yielding money-market fund. Fidelity gets a middling score because it requires investors to opt for a money-market fund; otherwise, cash goes into an interest-bearing account. We gave the least credit to firms that don't offer a money-market fund at all (Scottrade), or impose restrictions (Schwab and Wells Fargo).

Web sites. Because you interact with your online broker mostly online, we put considerable emphasis on each Web site's presentation and its tools for researching and screening funds. Both Fidelity and Siebert rank in the top tier. We were impressed with Fidelity's fund screener, which allows you to screen by performance and Morningstar ratings, among other criteria. The well-organized site also makes it easy to compare funds (as many as five at a time). Siebert offers Morningstar profiles and countless ways to compare funds based on factors such as volatility and performance relative to an index.

Perks for big customers. Again, both Fidelity and Siebert are at the top. Siebert is willing to negotiate lower charges, including fees for non-NTF funds, for clients with large accounts or who trade frequently. At Fidelity, customers with more than $100,000 get priority call routing and free consultations. Those with household balances of more than $1 million get their own account executive.

How other brokers stack up

E*TRADE
Strength: Web site features easy-to-read charts for comparing funds' fees and results.
Weakness: Pesky fees for switching brokers, infrequent trading and holding less than $10,000.

FIRSTRADE
Strength: Charges only $9.95 per transaction for funds not in its no-transaction-fee program.
Weakness: Offers only 607 NTF funds.

OPTIONSXPRESS
Strength: Offers the largest number of no-load funds (3,607).
Weakness: No NTF funds. Instead, you'll pay $14.95 to buy or sell any fund.

T. ROWE PRICE
Strengths: Automatically sweeps idle cash into a money-market fund; offers fine Price funds without transaction fees.
Weakness: Offers only 1,500 no-load funds and 700 NTF funds.

CHARLES SCHWAB
Strength: Solid Web site with plenty of screening tools.
Weakness: $50 fee for non-NTF funds.

SCOTTRADE
Strength: Levies no nuisance fees.
Weakness: Offers no money-market fund; sweeps cash into an interest-bearing cash account instead.

TD AMERITRADE
Strength: More than half of its no-load funds have no transaction fees.
Weakness: $50 fee to buy or sell non-NTF funds.

TRADEKING
Strength: Charges no early-redemption fees beyond those imposed by the funds themselves.
Weakness: Although the $14.95 fee is modest, TradeKing charges to buy or sell any fund.

VANGUARD
Strengths: Sweeps cash into a money-market fund automatically; only broker that sells Vanguard funds without transaction fees.
Weakness: Charges $30 a year for clients with holdings of less than $250,000 (this fee does not apply to those who own only Vanguard funds).

WELLS FARGO
Strength: You get 100 free trades a year (on funds or stocks) if you hold $25,000 in a Wells account.
Weakness: Clients can sweep cash into a money-market fund only if their household balance (total combined balances of all brokerage accounts) is $250,000 or they are a Wells Private Bank client.

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