In a mutual fund, the value of your shares goes up and down as the value of the stocks and bonds in the fund rise and fall. For the average investor to have the same exposure to those investment options and potential profits on their own would be extremely costly both in terms of the actual investment dollars and in terms of time. Additionally, investing in a mutual fund is generally a cost-effective way to gain access to professional money management. Were you to try and invest in individual securities and actively manage them the way a mutual fund’s manager does, it could very easily become a full-time job. In order to make wise investment decisions when you buy individual stocks and bonds yourself, at the very least you’d have to have the knowledge to do extensive research on various types of businesses in general (automobile, construction, medical) and on specific companies (GE, IBM, Microsoft).
The reason why diversification is important is that investing in just one or two securities can be too risky. For example, if an investor buys just a few stocks and those stocks see significant declines in price over a short period of time, the investor’s portfolio can drop dramatically in value. But if the investor buys a mutual fund that holds 100 stocks, and a few of those stocks see price declines, the impact on the investor’s account value is less.
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Mutual funds can be structured in several different ways, including open-ended mutual funds vs. closed mutual funds being one particularly important distinction. To learn more about the way mutual funds are organized, you’ll want to read How a Mutual Fund Is Structured. You may also want to delve into Making Money from Mutual Funds, which explains how investors actually profit (or experience losses) from owning a stake in a mutual fund.
Investors Can Buy Many Different Types of Mutual Funds. Investment objectives are unique to every investor, which means that there are many different reasons to buy mutual funds. Fortunately, there are several categories of funds that can suit any investment need. Some of the most common investment objectives include retirement and education, each of which may require different funds to suit the needs of the investor. Target retirement funds are good examples of low-cost, diversified funds tailored to meet a variety of time horizons. This category of funds will invest in other mutual funds that combine to be suitable for a certain age range of investor. Target retirement funds are categorized by decade. For example, a 25-year old investor may expect to retire in 35 to 45 years. Therefore a fund like Vanguard Target Retirement 2050 (VFIFX) can work well in a 401(k) or IRA for this investor.
Each investor is charged a percentage of his or her investment to help cover all the costs of running the mutual fund, including having a professional fund manager as well as researching, buying, and selling stocks. But again, investors can benefit from their collective investments. Mutual fund fees are spread out over all of the investors, so the costs to each individual investor is still much less than it would have been if he or she had purchased the stocks directly and paid a broker or financial advisor to manage the investments. Though many mutual fund options are indeed cost-effective, there are many types of mutual fund fees, from front-load fees to constant-load fees, so it is always best to be aware of the type of fee and how it is calculated before investing in a mutual fund.