While it can be confusing, the answers to the following three questions will help you navigate the mutual fund waters—from how they work to how to add them to your investment portfolio. What Is a Mutual Fund? For all intents and purposes, mutual funds serve as an alternative for investors who can’t afford an individually managed account. Mutual funds are formed when investors with smaller amounts of capital, pool their money together and then hire a portfolio manager to run the consolidated pool’s portfolio—subsequently buying different stocks, bonds, or other securities in a manner consistent with the fund’s prospectus. Each investor then receives their respective piece of the pie while sharing the expenses, which show up in something called the mutual fund expense ratio.
Mutual Funds Are Diversified Investments. The nature of mutual funds as pooled investments that are professionally managed means that investors generally can easily accomplish one of the most important standards of smart investing — diversification. To diversify means to spread market risk by holding a variety of several different securities, rather than just a few. Most mutual funds invest in dozens or hundreds of stocks or bonds within one portfolio. Depending upon the type of fund, this accomplishes the fundamentals of diversification with as little as one or two mutual funds. However, when building a portfolio of mutual funds, especially as investment assets and objectives grow more complex over time, investors are smart to diversify across several funds in different categories.
All Mutual Funds Have High Capital Gains Distributions. If all mutual funds sell holdings and pass the capital gains on to investors as a taxable event, then we have a found a winner for the list of disadvantages of the mutual funds list. Oh well, not all mutual funds make annual capital gains distributions. Index mutual funds and tax-efficient mutual funds do not make these distributions every year. Yes, if they have the gains, they must distribute the gains to shareholders. However, many mutual funds (including index mutual funds and tax-efficient mutual funds) are low-turnover funds and do not make capital gains distributions on an annual basis.
Balanced Funds: Also called hybrid funds or asset allocation funds, these are mutual funds that invest in a balanced asset allocation of stocks, bonds, and cash. The allocation usually remains fixed and invests according to a stated investment objective or style. For example, Fidelity Balanced Fund (FBALX) has an approximate asset allocation of 65% stocks and 35% bonds. It considered a medium risk or what industry experts might call a moderate portfolio. Vanguard also has an outstanding index balanced fund, Vanguard Balanced Index (VBINX), which is suitable for investors looking for moderate risk. Balanced funds can be ideal for beginning investors because they are well-diversified and can, therefore, be used as stand-alone investments or as core holdings to begin a larger portfolio.
Mutual funds are organized into categories by asset class (stocks, bonds, and cash) and then further categorized by style, objective or strategy. Knowing how mutual funds are categorized aids in choosing the best funds for asset allocation and diversification purposes. For example, there are stock mutual funds, bond mutual funds, and money market mutual funds. Stock and bond funds, as primary fund types, have dozens of sub-categories further describing the investment style of the fund.