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.
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).
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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.
How Do I Buy a Mutual Fund? Mutual funds are primarily bought in dollar amounts unlike stocks, which are bought in shares. Mutual funds can be purchased directly from a mutual fund company, a bank, or a brokerage firm. Before you can start investing, you’ll need to have an account with one of these institutions prior to placing an order. A mutual fund will be either a “load” or “no-load” fund, which is financial lingo for either paying a commission or not paying a commission. If you are using an investment professional to assist you, you will likely need to pay a load.
Mutual fund research can be made easier with a good online research tool. Whether you are a beginner or a pro; if you are looking to buy the best mutual funds, review an existing fund, compare and screen different funds or you are just trying to learn something new, mutual fund research sites go a long way in helping streamline and clarify investment research objectives. Past performance of a mutual fund may not be a guarantee of future results but knowing how to analyze performance–what to look for and what to avoid–will help better-inform your investment decisions. To say that the best S&P 500 Index funds are those having the lowest Expense Ratios is mostly correct. However, in addition to low costs, a delicate balance of science and art to indexing exists, allowing only a few mutual fund companies to offer the best index funds.