Most people have heard the term ‘mutual funds’ but few have actually used this as an investment medium. Most small investors however have a very limited understanding of mutual funds that goes something like this a mutual fund is a “pool of money invested in stocks or interest bearing instruments” by those who are experts in the field. I don’t know about you but I would need a little more than this definition in order to invest my hard earned money or stake my retirement on the word of one other person. The truth is that many of those who invest in mutual funds experience very real gains as the result of their venture.
What Exactly is a Mutual Fund?
On a broad scope, mutual funds are an avenue in which you can invest a small amount of money with the potential of owning higher priced stocks and bonds that would under other circumstances only be available in large lots that you couldn’t afford on your own. The way in which this happens is through many people pooling the money to buy larger chunks of stock at lower prices. An example would be that the XYZ Widget Company has stocks trading at $10 per share and you would like to invest $100 in this company. The problem is that XYZ Company has a lot size of 1000 shares, which would cost $10,000. Mutual funds can pool together the $100 of 100 people in order to meet the minimum requirement.
Types of Mutual Funds
We have seen many evolutions in the stock market since its inception. Mutual funds have lasted through many of the changes we have seen over time and show no real sign of faltering. Below you will find a brief description of the various types of mutual funds currently on the market.
Equity Funds. These funds deal with equity shares of corporations. They carry not only high risks but also the opportunity for high rewards. Depending on the industry involved, these funds may be sector oriented (technology funds will invest in emerging technologies for example) or diversified meaning they consist of many funds from different sectors.
Debt Funds. As their name applies these funds deal primarily with debt-oriented mediums (those that carry interest). These funds invest in Treasury Bills, bonds, and other government papers. These investments are relatively low risk since there is a guaranteed return in the form of interest however the rewards are somewhat limited as they are not based on market movement. They are not ‘fool proof’ or risk free but they are a very safe investment for the tortoise type of investor beginning early or those with a sizable nest egg not worth putting in too much risk.
Balance Funds. These funds are perhaps the most interesting as they offer security along with a balanced diet of risk. With this type of investing you would set a predetermined ratio of investing (60% debt funds and 40% equity funds is a good safe ratio but it is up to the investor) and invest according to your comfort zone of risk and security. This type of investing offsets the risk of equity investing while living a little on the edge in hopes of great payoffs down the road while enjoying the security of debt funds-literally offering the best of both worlds to investors.
Each of the types of investing mentioned above has pros and cons and the answer of which is the best is a question that only you can answer. This is your retirement, future, nest egg, or kid’s college fund so only you can decide what an acceptable risk is. If you are willing to gamble equity funds might be best, if you’d prefer a surer bet, then debt funds might be best. If you have a little bit of adventure but don’t want to ‘risk it all’ then perhaps the balance fund is your best destination.
Once you have a basic understanding of the available options, the next step lies in understanding the price and how it is determined. The income of mutual funds is generally acquired in the form of interest, dividends, and trading. In debt securities however interest income is all but assured. This is not the case when dealing with equity stocks and the dividend in these situations depends on the profits earned by the company among other factors.
When investing in debt funds it may be that your best interest would not be a mutual fund. If you can afford the investment without the mutual fund you should determine which would be best for your situation. You want to choose the route that will offer you the higher reward. Keep in mind that market trends do not carry quite the weight when dealing with debt funds, as they will with equity funds.
Equity funds offer trading that is based on the perception of the fund manager as to what the market is preparing to do and the current risks vs. the potential reward. There are many things that will affect a stocks future from legislation to competition and millions of things in between that aren’t limited to technological advances and scientific breakthroughs. Thus the higher risk nature of this particular type of investment.
The first thing I should do here is explain what NAV stands for: the Net Asset Value of mutual funds. This value is declared on a daily basis and is the simple difference between assets and liabilities of the fund at the end of each day. The value is explained per unit and this is how the purchase price of the units are determined.
The Investment Decision
With so many mutual funds on the market you really need to study the funds you are considering before you take the plunge so to speak (as this is definitely the opposite of your goal)? Seriously, what parameters should you base your decision on? While there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to investing, the following advice might point you in the right direction.
The investors approach. It really helps when investing if you are a very self-aware type of person. Knowing yourself helps you understand your intentions and establish proper goals for your investment strategy. Knowing yourself also helps you identify how much of a risk you are actually willing to take. If you are an aggressive investor and are comfortable with the risks involved but hoping for short run profits, you may wish to take things one step further and go with sector specific funds. Just remember these are highly speculative and can bring big profits quickly but when the numbers begin to fall, they tend to fall equally fast, which can result in heavy losses.
The Pedigree. As you study mutual funds you will learn that the past can often forecast the future. For example, the dot com crash wasn’t a one size fits all fiasco. There were some stocks that seemed slow and steady throughout who weathered the financial fallout of the overall industry. Your fund manager will have a lot to do with the profits and risks that you will accrue with your mutual fond. Conservative fund managers tend to invest slow and steady with minimal risks, they will not make aggressive trades even in sector specific funds.
The age and size of the fund are other mitigating factors when it comes to the decision making process. New funds may post heavy gains in the beginning but are often unable to stay the course once the test of time steps in. It is best, particularly for conservative investors to adopt a more cautious approach when dealing with new funds unless those managing the funds have a sterling reputation from previous work.
The Financials. The most important factor when making decisions regarding whether or not to invest in a Mutual Fund is the financial situation and forecast. Many things should go into your decision making process not the least of which are the past performance of a fund, the current trend of earning, operating expenses, and entry or exit loads. Each one of these factors is very important and none of them should be overlooked during the decision making process.
Diversification. We have all been warned of the dangers that go along with putting all of your eggs into one basket and many learned this lesson the hard way during the dot com crash of the nineties. Before investing in a fund you should take a moment to see exactly how diverse the fund really is. You could always elect to invest some of your money in one fund and other amounts of money elsewhere. I always recommend keeping some money invested in debt oriented funds rather than all monies invested in equity funds. This allows some degree of security so that all is not lost over a deal gone wrong. The benefit of a diverse portfolio that invests in multiple sectors is that if one industry takes a huge hit you may be able to cover your losses with the other items in your portfolio.
Monitoring. Contrary to popular belief, mutual fund investing isn’t about making an investment and leaving the rest to the experts. You must continuously and constantly keep an eye towards the bottom line in order to insure that your best interests are being served. No one is infallible, experts included. Follow the NAV reports on a daily basis in order to protect your interests. Remember that no one is going to care for your interests quite the way you will.
While the pointers mentioned above are on the mark they are by no means all inclusive. Investing in mutual funds is a gamble like any other kind of investing. Be certain that you aren’t risking more than you are willing to loose but diligently guard what you do invest in hopes of avoiding loss. Ultimately, experience is the greatest teacher when it comes to investing and some mistakes will simply need to be made in order to learn and grow. We all make them and some are painful. Hopefully the information above will help you minimize your losses while maximizing your gains.