What Is a Mutual Fund?



A mutual fund is a type of financial vehicle made up of a pool of money collected from many investors to invest in securities like stocks, bonds, money market instruments, and other assets. Mutual funds are operated by professional money managers, who allocate the fund's assets and attempt to produce capital gains or income for the fund's investors. A mutual fund's portfolio is structured and maintained to match the investment objectives stated in its prospectus.


Mutual funds give small or individual investors access to professionally managed portfolios of equities, bonds, and other securities. Each shareholder, therefore, participates proportionally in the gains or losses of the fund. Mutual funds invest in a vast number of securities, and performance is usually tracked as the change in the total market cap of the fund—derived by the aggregating performance of the underlying investments.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • A mutual fund is a type of investment vehicle consisting of a portfolio of stocks, bonds, or other securities. 
  • Mutual funds give small or individual investors access to diversified, professionally managed portfolios at a low price.
  • Mutual funds are divided into several kinds of categories, representing the kinds of securities they invest in, their investment objectives, and the type of returns they seek.
  • Mutual funds charge annual fees (called expense ratios) and, in some cases, commissions, which can affect their overall returns.
  • The overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds.

Understanding Mutual Funds


Mutual funds pool money from the investing public and use that money to buy other securities, usually stocks and bonds. The value of the mutual fund company depends on the performance of the securities it decides to buy. So, when you buy a unit or share of a mutual fund, you are buying the performance of its portfolio or, more precisely, a part of the portfolio's value. Investing in a share of a mutual fund is different from investing in shares of stock. Unlike stock, mutual fund shares do not give its holders any voting rights. A share of a mutual fund represents investments in many different stocks (or other securities) instead of just one holding.


That's why the price of a mutual fund share is referred to as the net asset value (NAV) per share, sometimes expressed as NAVPS. A fund's NAV is derived by dividing the total value of the securities in the portfolio by the total amount of shares outstanding. Outstanding shares are those held by all shareholders, institutional investors, and company officers or insiders. Mutual fund shares can typically be purchased or redeemed as needed at the fund's current NAV, which—unlike a stock price—doesn't fluctuate during market hours, but it is settled at the end of each trading day.

The average mutual fund holds hundreds of different securities, which means mutual fund shareholders gain important diversification at a low price. Consider an investor who buys only Google stock before the company has a bad quarter. He stands to lose a great deal of value because all of his dollars are tied to one company. On the other hand, a different investor may buy shares of a mutual fund that happens to own some Google stock. When Google has a bad quarter, she loses significantly less because Google is just a small part of the fund's portfolio.


How Mutual Funds Work

A mutual fund is both an investment and an actual company. This dual nature may seem strange, but it is no different from how a share of AAPL is a representation of Apple Inc. When an investor buys Apple stock, he is buying partial ownership of the company and its assets. Similarly, a mutual fund investor is buying partial ownership of the mutual fund company and its assets. The difference is that Apple is in the business of making smartphones and tablets, while a mutual fund company is in the business of making investments.


Investors typically earn a return from a mutual fund in three ways:

Income is earned from dividends on stocks and interest on bonds held in the fund's portfolio. A fund pays out nearly all of the income it receives over the year to fund owners in the form of a distribution. Funds often give investors a choice either to receive a check for distributions or to reinvest the earnings and get more shares.
If the fund sells securities that have increased in price, the fund has a capital gain. Most funds also pass on these gains to investors in a distribution.
If fund holdings increase in price but are not sold by the fund manager, the fund's shares increase in price. You can then sell your mutual fund shares for a profit in the market.
If a mutual fund is construed as a virtual company, its CEO is the fund manager, sometimes called its investment adviser. The fund manager is hired by a board of directors and is legally obligated to work in the best interest of mutual fund shareholders. Most fund managers are also owners of the fund. There are very few other employees in a mutual fund company. The investment adviser or fund manager may employ some analysts to help pick investments or perform market research. A fund accountant is kept on staff to calculate the fund's NAV, the daily value of the portfolio that determines if share prices go up or down. Mutual funds need to have a compliance officer or two, and probably an attorney, to keep up with government regulations.

Most mutual funds are part of a much larger investment company; the biggest have hundreds of separate mutual funds. Some of these fund companies are names familiar to the general public, such as Fidelity Investments, The Vanguard Group, T. Rowe Price, and Oppenheimer Funds.

Mutual Fund Fees

A mutual fund will classify expenses into either annual operating fees or shareholder fees. Annual fund operating fees are an annual percentage of the funds under management, usually ranging from 1–3%. Annual operating fees are collectively known as the expense ratio. A fund's expense ratio is the summation of the advisory or management fee and its administrative costs.

Shareholder fees, which come in the form of sales charges, commissions, and redemption fees, are paid directly by investors when purchasing or selling the funds. Sales charges or commissions are known as "the load" of a mutual fund. When a mutual fund has a front-end load, fees are assessed when shares are purchased. For a back-end load, mutual fund fees are assessed when an investor sells his shares.

Sometimes, however, an investment company offers a no-load mutual fund, which doesn't carry any commission or sales charge. These funds are distributed directly by an investment company, rather than through a secondary party.

Some funds also charge fees and penalties for early withdrawals or selling the holding before a specific time has elapsed. Also, the rise of exchange-traded funds, which have much lower fees thanks to their passive management structure, have been giving mutual funds considerable competition for investors' dollars. Articles from financial media outlets regarding how fund expense ratios and loads can eat into rates of return have also stirred negative feelings about mutual funds.

Advantages of Mutual Funds

There are a variety of reasons that mutual funds have been the retail investor's vehicle of choice for decades. The overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds. Multiple mergers have equated to mutual funds over time.

Diversification
Diversification, or the mixing of investments and assets within a portfolio to reduce risk, is one of the advantages of investing in mutual funds. Experts advocate diversification as a way of enhancing a portfolio's returns, while reducing its risk. Buying individual company stocks and offsetting them with industrial sector stocks, for example, offers some diversification. However, a truly diversified portfolio has securities with different capitalizations and industries and bonds with varying maturities and issuers. Buying a mutual fund can achieve diversification cheaper and faster than by buying individual securities. Large mutual funds typically own hundreds of different stocks in many different industries. It wouldn't be practical for an investor to build this kind of a portfolio with a small amount of money.

Easy Access
Trading on the major stock exchanges, mutual funds can be bought and sold with relative ease, making them highly liquid investments. Also, when it comes to certain types of assets, like foreign equities or exotic commodities, mutual funds are often the most feasible way—in fact, sometimes the only way—for individual investors to participate.

Economies of Scale
Mutual funds also provide economies of scale. Buying one spares the investor of the numerous commission charges needed to create a diversified portfolio. Buying only one security at a time leads to large transaction fees, which will eat up a good chunk of the investment. Also, the $100 to $200 an individual investor might be able to afford is usually not enough to buy a round lot of the stock, but it will purchase many mutual fund shares. The smaller denominations of mutual funds allow investors to take advantage of dollar-cost averaging.

Because a mutual fund buys and sells large amounts of securities at a time, its transaction costs are lower than what an individual would pay for securities transactions. Moreover, a mutual fund, since it pools money from many smaller investors, can invest in certain assets or take larger positions than a smaller investor could. For example, the fund may have access to IPO placements or certain structured products only available to institutional investors.

Professional Management
A primary advantage of mutual funds is not having to pick stocks and manage investments. Instead, a professional investment manager takes care of all of this using careful research and skillful trading. Investors purchase funds because they often do not have the time or the expertise to manage their own portfolios, or they don't have access to the same kind of information that a professional fund has. A mutual fund is a relatively inexpensive way for a small investor to get a full-time manager to make and monitor investments. Most private, non-institutional money managers deal only with high-net-worth individuals—people with at least six figures to invest. However, mutual funds, as noted above, require much lower investment minimums. So, these funds provide a low-cost way for individual investors to experience and hopefully benefit from professional money management.

Variety and Freedom of Choice
Investors have the freedom to research and select from managers with a variety of styles and management goals. For instance, a fund manager may focus on value investing, growth investing, developed markets, emerging markets, income, or macroeconomic investing, among many other styles. One manager may also oversee funds that employ several different styles. This variety allows investors to gain exposure to not only stocks and bonds but also commodities, foreign assets, and real estate through specialized mutual funds. Some mutual funds are even structured to profit from a falling market (known as bear funds). Mutual funds provide opportunities for foreign and domestic investment that may not otherwise be directly accessible to ordinary investors.


Disadvantages of Mutual Funds

Liquidity, diversification, and professional management all make mutual funds attractive options for younger, novice, and other individual investors who don't want to actively manage their money. However, no asset is perfect, and mutual funds have drawbacks too.

Fluctuating Returns
Like many other investments without a guaranteed return, there is always the possibility that the value of your mutual fund will depreciate. Equity mutual funds experience price fluctuations, along with the stocks that make up the fund. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) does not back up mutual fund investments, and there is no guarantee of performance with any fund. Of course, almost every investment carries risk. It is especially important for investors in money market funds to know that, unlike their bank counterparts, these will not be insured by the FDIC.

Cash Drag
Mutual funds pool money from thousands of investors, so every day people are putting money into the fund as well as withdrawing it. To maintain the capacity to accommodate withdrawals, funds typically have to keep a large portion of their portfolios in cash. Having ample cash is excellent for liquidity, but money that is sitting around as cash and not working for you is not very advantageous. Mutual funds require a significant amount of their portfolios to be held in cash in order to satisfy share redemptions each day. To maintain liquidity and the capacity to accommodate withdrawals, funds typically have to keep a larger portion of their portfolio as cash than a typical investor might. Because cash earns no return, it is often referred to as a "cash drag."

High Costs
Mutual funds provide investors with professional management, but it comes at a cost—those expense ratios mentioned earlier. These fees reduce the fund's overall payout, and they're assessed to mutual fund investors regardless of the performance of the fund. As you can imagine, in years when the fund doesn't make money, these fees only magnify losses. Creating, distributing, and running a mutual fund is an expensive undertaking. Everything from the portfolio manager's salary to the investors' quarterly statements cost money. Those expenses are passed on to the investors. Since fees vary widely from fund to fund, failing to pay attention to the fees can have negative long-term consequences. Actively managed funds incur transaction costs that accumulate over each year. Remember, every dollar spent on fees is a dollar that is not invested to grow over time.

"Diversification" and Dilution
"Diversification"—a play on words—is an investment or portfolio strategy that implies too much complexity can lead to worse results. Many mutual fund investors tend to overcomplicate matters. That is, they acquire too many funds that are highly related and, as a result, don't get the risk-reducing benefits of diversification. These investors may have made their portfolio more exposed. At the other extreme, just because you own mutual funds doesn't mean you are automatically diversified. For example, a fund that invests only in a particular industry sector or region is still relatively risky.

In other words, it's possible to have poor returns due to too much diversification. Because mutual funds can have small holdings in many different companies, high returns from a few investments often don't make much difference in the overall return. Dilution is also the result of a successful fund growing too big. When new money pours into funds that have had strong track records, the manager often has trouble finding suitable investments for all the new capital to be put to good use.

One thing that can lead to diversification is the fact that a fund's purpose or makeup isn't always clear. Fund advertisements can guide investors down the wrong path. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires that funds have at least 80% of assets in the particular type of investment implied in their names. How the remaining assets are invested is up to the fund manager.3 However, the different categories that qualify for the required 80% of the assets may be vague and wide-ranging. A fund can, therefore, manipulate prospective investors via its title. A fund that focuses narrowly on Congolese stocks, for example, could be sold with a far-ranging title like "International High-Tech Fund."

Active Fund Management
Many investors debate whether or not the professionals are any better than you or I at picking stocks. Management is by no means infallible, and even if the fund loses money, the manager still gets paid. Actively managed funds incur higher fees, but increasingly passive index funds have gained popularity. These funds track an index such as the S&P 500 and are much less costly to hold. Actively managed funds over several time periods have failed to outperform their benchmark indices, especially after accounting for taxes and fees.

Lack of Liquidity
A mutual fund allows you to request that your shares be converted into cash at any time, however, unlike stock that trades throughout the day, many mutual fund redemptions​ take place only at the end of each trading day.

Taxes
When a fund manager sells a security, a capital-gains tax is triggered. Investors who are concerned about the impact of taxes need to keep those concerns in mind when investing in mutual funds. Taxes can be mitigated by investing in tax-sensitive funds or by holding non-tax sensitive mutual funds in a tax-deferred account, such as a 401(k) or IRA.

Evaluating Funds
Researching and comparing funds can be difficult. Unlike stocks, mutual funds do not offer investors the opportunity to juxtapose the price to earnings (P/E) ratio, sales growth, earnings per share (EPS), or other important data. A mutual fund's net asset value can offer some basis for comparison, but given the diversity of portfolios, comparing the proverbial apples to apples can be difficult, even among funds with similar names or stated objectives. Only index funds tracking the same markets tend to be genuinely comparable.

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