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Mutual Funds

A mutual fund is a form of collective investment that pools money from many investors and invests the money in stocks, bonds, short-term money market instruments, and/or other securities. Legally known (in the U.S.) as an "open-end company", a mutual fund is one of three basic types of investment companies available in the US.

The portfolio manager trades the fund's underlying securities, realizing a gain or loss, and collects the dividend or interest income. The investment proceeds are then passed along to the individual investors. The securities held by a fund may gain or lose value. There are more mutual funds than there are individual stocks.

How Mutual Funds Work

Mutual funds can invest in many different kinds of securities. The most common are cash, stock, and bonds, but there are hundreds of sub-categories. Stock funds, for instance, can invest primarily in the shares of a particular industry, such as technology or utilities. These are known as sector funds. Bond funds can vary according to risk (high yield or junk bonds, investment-grade corporate bonds), type of issuers (government agencies, corporations, or municipalities), or maturity of the bonds (short or long term). Both stock and bond funds can invest in primarily US securities (domestic funds), both US and foreign securities (global funds), or primarily foreign securities (international funds).

By law, mutual funds cannot invest in commodities and their derivatives or in real estate. However, there do exist real estate investment trusts, or REITs, which invest solely in real estate or mortgages, and mutual funds are allowed to hold shares in REITs. A mutual fund may restrict itself in other ways. These restrictions, permissions, and policies are found in the prospectus, which every open-end mutual fund must make available to a potential investor before accepting his or her money.

Most mutual funds' investment portfolios are continually adjusted under the supervision of a professional manager, who forecasts the future performance of investments appropriate for the fund and chooses the ones which he or she believes will most closely match the fund's stated investment objective. A mutual fund is administered through a parent management company, which may hire or fire fund managers.

Mutual funds are subject to a special set of regulatory, accounting, and tax rules. Unlike most other types of business entities, they are not taxed on their income as long as they distribute substantially all of it to their shareholders. Also, the type of income they earn is often unchanged as it passes through to the shareholders. Mutual fund distributions of tax-free municipal bond income are also tax-free to the shareholder. Taxable distributions can either be ordinary income or capital gains, depending on how the fund earned it.

Picking a Mutual Fund

Picking a mutual fund from among the thousands offered is not easy. The following is just a rough guide, with some common pitfalls.

  1. Check with your tax advisor prior to investing in a tax-exempt or tax-managed fund.

  2. Match the term of the investment to the time you expect to keep it invested. Money you may need right away (for example, if your car breaks down) should be in a money market account. Money you will not need until you retire in decades (or for a newborn's college education) should be in longer-term investments, such as stock or bond funds. Putting money you will need soon in stocks risks having to sell them when the market is low and missing out on the rebound.

  3. Expenses matter over the long term, and of course, cheaper is usually better. You can find the expense ratio in the prospectus. Expense ratios are critical in index funds, which seek to match the market. Actively managed funds need to pay the manager, so they usually have a higher expense ratio.

  4. Sector funds often make the "best fund" lists you see every year. The problem is that it is usually a different sector each year (internet funds, anyone?). Also some sectors are vulnerable to industry-wide events (airlines do come to mind). Avoid making these a large part of your portfolio.

  5. Closed-end funds often sell at a discount to the value of their holdings. You can sometimes get extra return by buying these in the market. Hedge fund managers love this trick. This also implies that buying them at the original issue is usually a bad idea, since the price will often drop immediately.

  6. Mutual funds often make taxable distributions near the end of the year. If you plan to invest money in the fund in a taxable account, check the fund company's website to see when they plan to pay the dividend; you may prefer to wait until afterwards if it is coming up soon.

  7. Research. Read the prospectus, or as much of it as you can stand. It should tell you what these strangers can do with your money, among other vital topics. Check the return and risk of a fund against its peers with similar investment objectives, and against the index most closely associated with it. Be sure to pay attention to performance over both the long-term and the short-term. A fund that gained 53% over a 1-yr. period (which is impressive), but only 11% over a 5-yr. period should raise some suspicion, as that would imply that the returns on four out of those five years were actually very low (if not straight losses) as 11% compounded over 5 years is only 68%.

  8. Diversification can reduce risk. Most people should own some stocks, some bonds, and some cash. Some of the stocks, at least, should be foreign. You might not get as much diversification as you think if all your funds are with the same management company, since there is often a common source of research and recommendations. Too many funds, on the other hand, will give you about the same effect as an index fund, except your expenses will be higher. Buying individual stocks exposes you to company-specific risks, and if you buy a large number of stocks the commissions may cost more than a fund will.

  9. The compounding effect is your best friend. A little money invested for a long time equals a lot of money later.

Criticism of Mutual Funds

The primary criticism of actively managed mutual funds comes from the historical fact that, over long periods of time, most have not returned as much as an index fund would.

There are also other criticisms levied against mutual funds as a consequence of the first criticism. One critique covers the concept of the sales load, an upfront or deferred fee as high as 8.5 percent of the amount invested in a fund. Firstly, some critics do not believe that this should be charged on a percentage basis instead of a flat fee basis. A so-called flat fee, annual fee or wrap fee does very little for an investor other than insure that they will pay an advisor a commission for as many years as their relationship exists. It helps an advisor create predictable (and since most investmests trend upwards) increasing income flow. Secondly this payment for advice and other services seems dubious to these critics because with so many mutual funds underperforming, but yet visibly attracting money, the advice given seemingly would be bad advice.

Mutual funds are also seen by some to have a systemic conflict of interest with regards to their size. Fund companies typically make money by charging a management fee of anywhere between 0.5-2.5 percent of the funds total assets. Although theoretically this could motivate them to cause the fund to perform well, since a well performing fund would cause the amount invested in the fund to rise and thus increasing the fee earned, it also could motivate the fund to focus on attracting more and more new investors, as the new investors adding money to the fund would also cause the assets of the fund to increase. Many investors believe however that the larger the pool of money one works with, the harder it is to invest. Thus the harder it becomes for the mutual fund to perform well. Thus a fund company can be focused on attracting new customers, hurting its existing investors' performance. A great deal of the funds costs are flat and fixed costs, such as the salary for the manager. Thus it can be more profitable to the fund to try and allow it to grow as large as possible, instead of limiting its assets.

Other practices of mutual funds have been criticized from time to time, such as funds allowing market timing. More recent criticisms have focused on the fund managers accepting extravagant gifts in exchange for trading stocks through certain investment banks, who presumably overcharge the fund compared to what another, non-gifting investment bank would charge.

Mutual Fund Information Courtesy of Wikipedia