What Is a Mutual Fund? Pros, Cons, Types and How to Invest

To some investors (new and old), picking individual securities to invest in and manage can be risky. Enter mutual funds. With pros like additional security and lower risk, mutual funds are one of the hottest investment options out there. But before you jump in the collective pool, you need to know the cons. So, what actually is a mutual fund? How does it work? Is it right for you?

What Is a Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund is a collective pool of money provided by individuals for money managers to invest in various securities (like stocks and bonds). Because it's collective, every shareholder or investor benefits and loses in equal portion - and the expenses of the mutual fund are shared in the expense ratio. And, because the funds are diversified between stocks, bonds and other securities, they are usually lower risk than individual stocks or bonds.

Mutual funds are operated by money managers, who create portfolios for investment with the pool of money, and often have different kinds of investment goals. Some managers, like fixed-income managers, focus on generating low-risk, high pay-off investments for their funds, while long-term growth managers try to beat the Nasdaq or S&P 500 during the fiscal year.

Shares in a mutual fund (also called mutual fund units) are typically bought at the fund's current net asset value (NAV, or sometimes NAVPS) per share. This figure is determined by dividing the total value of all the securities in the fund by the number of outstanding shares.

Mutual funds are actually investments that kind of work like buying stock in companies. Investors buy shares into the mutual fund, which in turn gives them a claim to the fund's assets (the profits from the investments the mutual fund makes). So, the value of the mutual fund is contingent on the value of its portfolio (or collection of securities).

What Does a Mutual Fund Do?

When you invest in a mutual fund, a manager takes the public funds contributed into the fund pool and invests them in various securities, such as stocks and bonds.

The manager is typically hired by a board of directors and is often a part-owner in the fund itself. Fund managers will occasionally hire analysts to help them make investment decisions. Most funds will have an accountant who calculates the net asset value of the fund each day, which will determine the share price of the fund. Most funds also have compliance officers who keep up-to-date on regulations.

Once investors buy into a mutual fund, their money is used by the fund manager to invest in various securities with certain goals for risk and return in mind - like long-term growth or fixed-income. Some funds may be riskier than others, but in general, the structure of a mutual fund keeps risks relatively low.

Additionally, mutual funds only trade once daily and are often part of a 401(k) or an individual retirement account, IRA.

Pros and Cons of Mutual Funds

Perhaps the biggest pro of mutual funds is, they are managed by someone other than the individual investor - putting the tough decisions in a professional's hands. Because managing the fund is their only job, the fund manager is able to devote much more time and expertise into wisely allocating your funds than you could yourself.

Additionally, because mutual funds often offer diverse portfolios with a collective pool of money, the individual risk to each investor is reduced, making mutual funds fairly low-risk, (hopefully) high-reward.

However, mutual funds also come with fees - in the form of annual operating fees and shareholder fees. Annual operating fees generally are 1%-3% of the annual funds under management, while shareholder fees are like commissions paid by shareholders when they buy or sell funds.

Additionally, an obvious con to mutual funds is that you don't always have control of which stocks you're investing in - and, for the savvy or active trader, this may cause some frustration, especially if your fund starts losing. 

Different Types of Mutual Funds

As mentioned earlier, there are different kinds of funds with different goals. The four principle kinds of funds (in terms of structure) are open-end funds, close-end funds, load funds and no-load funds.

Open-End Funds

Most mutual funds are open-end funds, which means they can keep adding shares and don't have a fixed amount. So, they're bought and sold on demand. With open-end funds, the fund can continue issuing shares based on the NAV, or redeem shares when investors decide to sell.

Close-End Funds

A close-end fund has a set number of shares that are traded among investors, just like stocks.

And, like stocks, they are traded on an exchange and their prices change according to supply and demand. These mutual funds issue their shares through an initial public offering, or IPO, and trade on the open market, just like a company does.

Because their shares are subject to supply and demand, close-ended mutual funds are often at a discount to their NAV. So, the major upside to close-end funds is that they often offer phenomenal premiums (sometimes up to 50% premium).

Load Funds

Some mutual funds are considered load funds - meaning the investor has to pay a sales commission in addition to the NAV on the fund's shares when they invest.

No-Load Funds

If a mutual fund does not charge a load, it's (astoundingly) called a no-load fund. For this reason, no-load funds are often higher-return for investors because there aren't as many fees tied to investing.

Mutual Funds vs. ETFs

ETFs are hot on the market as an alternative to mutual funds - and have several pros compared to their counterpart.

While mutual funds are typically broken down into open- or close-end funds, exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, can come in three main structures: exchange-traded open-end index mutual funds, exchange-traded unit investment trust (UIT), or exchange-traded grantor trust.

Exchange-traded open-end index mutual funds reinvest dividends on the day of receipt and are also paid quarterly to shareholders as cash. Exchange-traded unit investment trusts, on the other hand, don't immediately reinvest dividends, but still pay quarterly cash dividends ( (QQQ) is one of these). And, an exchange-traded grantor trust operates more like a traditional stock in that the investor actually owns shares in the companies that the ETF invests in - with voting rights to boot.

Additionally, ETFs have several noticeable differences to mutual funds. For starters, ETFs are typically composed of a certain index or sector (like Nasdaq or S&P 500), whereas mutual funds are at the discretion of the manager.

ETFs also trade all day long, compared to the once-daily trade of mutual funds after the market closes around 4:00 p.m. each day. And, due to less overhead costs, ETFs typically don't have investment minimums (while mutual funds do), so that makes them cheaper for some investors.

Because ETFs are generally passive in nature, the internal expenses are greatly reduced. This may be a selling factor for investors who want to keep fees down.

ETFs are generally better for active investors (since you can trade them all day), but it is important to know the differences to determine which is best for you.

Check out the best ETFs here.

Indexed vs. Active Management Funds

The big difference between indexed and active management is that the latter, well, is actively managed by fund managers, whereas indexed funds track an index like S&P 500.

In active funds, the fund managers will actively make trades of stocks and bonds to try to maximize returns for their investors. But indexed funds (which many ETFs are) simply track an index.

Both ETFs and mutual funds can be actively managed - but it comes at a price tag for all that analysis and expertise. For this reason, indexed funds can have fees as low as 0.10%, but actively managed funds' fees can span much higher.

Still, it is important not to just jump at the lowest-cost option when it comes to funds. Weigh your options and ensure you are fully informed before opting for either active or indexed funds - because there definitely is a plus to having professionals analyzing the best investment options for you.

How to Invest in a Mutual Fund

The most important thing before you invest in a mutual fund is to know your personal goals. What level of risk are you comfortable with? Have you researched the past performance of the mutual fund? What kind of fees are you willing to pay?

Typically, funds are either equity funds (investment in stocks), fixed income funds (investment in bonds), or money markets (kind of like cash).

One of the main factors you will have to consider is the minimum threshold for investing in the mutual fund - different funds have different investment minimums.

To invest, you can typically buy into a mutual fund through a mutual fund company, bank, or brokerage firm (similar to stocks). Additionally, you will need to decide if you want to invest in a load or no-load fund (which means you will either be paying commission or not). But regardless of if you invest in a load or no-load fund, you'll still be paying some fees, so be sure to factor that in when deciding.

And, it is really simple to invest in a mutual fund - simply delineate the amount of money you'd like to invest over the phone, online, or in person (as there are so many options these days).

Online brokers generally have the largest selection of mutual funds, and often offer more diverse selections. However, you will have to open an individual retirement account (IRA) or brokerage account, or you can use your 401K account provided by your employer.

Still, there are several expenses to account for - namely, transaction fees accumulated when investing in a mutual fund, early redemption fees if you wish to sell a fund in the first 60 to 90 days, and expense ratios (from the fund) that are a percentage of your investment.

You can make money off of your mutual fund either by selling it for more than you paid for it (earning capital gains), or through a variety of distributions like dividends or interest that can be paid out throughout your investment. However, most mutual funds will reinvest dividends for you unless you specify otherwise.

Best Mutual Funds

There are now more than 10,000 mutual funds out there, according to Forbes. So, lots of options.

Some of the biggest mutual funds include Fidelity Investments (FIS) , Oppenheimer Funds (OPY)   and the Vanguard Group (VOO) . However, some of the best mutual fund brokers are E-Trade (ETFC) , TD Ameritrade (AMTD) , Ally Invest (ALLY)  and Charles Schwab (SCHW) .

Make sure to do your homework beforehand and see what is realistic for you.

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