What is a Mutual Fund

A mutual fund is an investment vehicle made up of a pool of money collected from many investors for the purpose of investing in securities such as stocks, bonds, money market instruments and other assets. Mutual funds are operated by professional money managers, who allocate the fund’s investments and attempt to produce capital gains and/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.

BREAKING DOWN Mutual Fund

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 wide amount of securities, and performance is usually tracked as the change in the total market cap of the fund, derived by aggregating performance of the underlying investments.

Mutual fund units, or shares, can typically be purchased or redeemed as needed at the fund’s current net asset value (NAV) per share, which is 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.

How Mutual Fund Companies Work

Mutual funds are virtual companies that buy pools of stocks and/or bonds as recommended by an investment advisor and fund manager. 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, though some are not.

There are very few other employees in a mutual fund company. The investment advisor 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 net asset value (NAV), or the daily value of the mutual fund 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.

Kinds of Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are divided into several kinds of categories, representing the kinds of securities the mutual fund manager invests in.

One of the largest is the fixed income category. A fixed income mutual fund focuses on investments that pay a fixed rate of return, such as government bonds, corporate bonds or other debt instruments. The idea is the fund portfolio generates a lot of interest income, which can then be passed on to shareholders.

Another group falls under the moniker “index funds.”  The investment strategy is based on the belief that it is very hard, and often expensive, to try to consistently beat the market. So the index fund manager simply buys stocks that correspond with a major market index such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This strategy requires less research from analysts and advisors, so there are fewer expenses to eat up returns before they are passed on to shareholders. These funds are often designed with cost-sensitive investors in mind.

Advantages of Mutual Funds

Diversification: Diversification, or the mixing of investments and assets within a portfolio to reduce risk, is one of the advantages to investing in mutual funds. Buying individual company stocks in retail and offsetting them with industrial sector stocks, for example, offers some diversification. But 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 through buying individual securities.

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 lotof a stock, but it will buy many mutual fund shares. The smaller denominations of mutual funds allow investors to take advantage of dollar cost averaging.

Easy Access: Trading on the major stock exchanges, mutual funds can be bought and sold with relative ease, making them highly liquid investments. And, 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.

Professional Management: Most private, non-institutional money managers deal only with high net worth individuals – people with six figures (at least) to invest. But mutual funds are run by managers, who spend their days researching securities and devising investment strategies. So these funds provide a low-cost way for individual investors to experience (and hopefully benefit from) professional money management.

Individual-Oriented: All these factors make mutual funds an attractive options for younger, novice and other individual investors who don’t want to actively manage their money: They offer high liquidity; they are relatively easy to understand; good diversification even if you do not have a lot of money to spread around; and the potential for good growth. In fact, many Americans already invest in mutual funds through their 401(k) or 403(b) plans. In fact, the overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds.