Mutual Funds Basics

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A mutual fund pools the money of many investors to purchase securities. The fund’s manager buys securities to pursue a stated investment strategy. By investing in the fund, you’ll own a piece of the total portfolio of securities, which could be anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of stocks. This provides you with a convenient way to obtain instant diversification that would be harder to achieve on your own.

There are many mutual funds to choose from. The two most common types are stock mutual funds and bond mutual funds. A stock fund invests in common stocks issued by U.S. and/or international companies. Funds are often named and classified according to investment style or objective, which can be stated in various ways. For example, some stock mutual funds buy stocks in companies believed to have potential for long-term growth in share price. Other stock mutual funds look for current income by focusing on companies that pay dividends. Sector funds buy stocks in a particular sector, such as technology or health care. Still other mutual funds may purchase stocks based on the size of the company (e.g., stocks of large, midsize, or small companies).

Although the name of a stock mutual fund generally offers insight into its investment style and objective, it is important not to rely on the name alone in determining whether a particular fund is what you want. The fund prospectus is like an owner’s manual and contains information about the kind of investment style that the manager(s) employ, and the kinds of stocks that the fund will buy.

A bond fund is made up of debt instruments that governments or corporations issue to raise capital. They are designed to provide investors with interest income in the form of regularly scheduled dividends. If you bought individual bonds, you would need to concern yourself with their maturity dates and the reinvestment of your funds. Buying shares of a bond fund relieves you of these concerns; the fund manager handles them for you.

Bond funds are primarily classified according to the issuers of the bonds in the fund’s portfolio and/or to the term of the bonds. For example, municipal bond funds buy bonds issued by municipalities. The income from these is free from federal tax (however, a portion of the income may be subject to the federal alternative minimum tax) and may be free from state and local taxes. Similarly, some funds invest only in U.S. Treasury debt instruments (e.g., bonds, bills, and notes) or high-grade (or low-grade) corporate bonds. Some bond funds, from all types of issuers, limit themselves to bonds maturing in the short, intermediate, or long term.

There are other types of mutual funds that you will encounter. Funds that invest in both stocks and bonds (or stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives) are often known as balanced funds. A money market fund buys extremely short-term debt instruments and is often used as a place to put cash, short term, until it is needed elsewhere. (Though a money market fund attempts to maintain a $1 per share value, there is no guarantee it will always do so, and it is possible to lose money investing in a money market fund.) Index funds attempt to duplicate a standardized, broad-based index such as the Standard & Poor’s 500 (S&P 500) stock index or Moody’s bond index by holding a portfolio of the same securities used by the index in an attempt to match the index’s performance as closely as possible.

Choosing a mutual fund to invest in requires more than picking a fund from the Top 10 list of the best past performers. Choosing a mutual fund requires careful thinking about numerous factors. The most important of these to consider include your investment objectives, risk tolerance, and time horizon.

Spend some time considering these factors, then do as much research as you can. Many financial magazines and websites are good sources of information to use in an initial screen for suitable mutual funds. Review the fund prospectus. It provides a great deal of information that you’ll want to know about the fund, such as the fund’s investment objective and style, and the fund’s expenses. To get a prospectus, contact the mutual fund company directly, or go on-line to the company’s website to download one.

All mutual funds have expenses that investors must pay for, but the sales charge, or load, is probably the most significant and varied among funds. These sales charges are generally paid as commissions to stockbrokers, financial advisors, and insurance agents. The sales charge may be deducted at the time you purchase shares of the mutual fund (front-end load), leaving less to work for you, or it may be charged at the point of redemption (back-end load). Some mutual funds, known as no-load funds, have no sales charges.

Pay attention to a mutual fund’s other fees and expenses, as well. Look at a fund’s expense ratio, which is calculated by dividing the fund’s annual expenses by the fund’s average net assets. Expenses affect a fund’s net return. The higher the expense ratio, the less money is being put to work for you.