Are you thinking about investing in a mutual fund, but aren't sure how to go about it or which one is the most appropriate based on your needs? You're not alone. However, what you may not know is that the selection process is much easier than you think.

SEE: Mutual Funds Tutorial

Identifying Goals and Risk Tolerance
Before acquiring shares in any fund, an investor must first identify his or her goals and desires for the money being invested. Are long-term capital gains desired, or is a current income preferred? Will the money be used to pay for college expenses, or to supplement a retirement that is decades away? Identifying a goal is important because it will enable you to dramatically whittle down the list of the more than 8,000 mutual funds in the public domain.

In addition, investors must also consider the issue of risk tolerance. Is the investor able to afford and mentally accept dramatic swings in portfolio value? Or, is a more conservative investment warranted? Identifying risk tolerance is as important as identifying a goal. After all, what good is an investment if the investor has trouble sleeping at night?

Finally, the issue of time horizon must be addressed. Investors must think about how long they can afford to tie up their money, or if they anticipate any liquidity concerns in the near future. This is because mutual funds have sales charges and that can take a big bite out of an investor's return over short periods of time. Ideally, mutual fund holders should have an investment horizon with at least five years or more.

Style and Fund Type
If the investor intends to use the money in the fund for a longer-term need and is willing to assume a fair amount of risk and volatility, then the style or objective he or she may be suited for is a long-term capital appreciation fund. These types of funds typically hold a high percentage of their assets in common stocks and are, therefore, considered to be volatile in nature. They also carry the potential for a large reward over time.

Conversely, if the investor is in need of current income, he or she should acquire shares in an income fund. Government and corporate debt are the two of the more common holdings in an income fund.

Of course, there are times when an investor has a longer-term need, but is unwilling or unable to assume substantial risk. In this case, a balanced fund, which invests in both stocks and bonds, may be the best alternative.

Charges and Fees
Mutual funds make their money by charging fees to the investor. It is important to gain an understanding of the different types of fees that you may face when purchasing an investment.

Some funds charge a sales fee known as a load fee, which will either be charged upon the initial investment or upon the sale of the investment. A front-end load fee is paid out of the initial investment made by the investor, while a back-end load fee is charged when an investor sells his or her investment, usually prior to a set time period, such as seven years from purchase.

Both front- and back-end loaded funds typically charge 3 to 6% of the total amount invested or distributed, but this number can be as much as 8.5% by law. Its purpose is to discourage turnover and to cover any administrative charges associated with the investment. Depending on the mutual fund, the fees may go to a broker for selling the mutual fund or to the fund itself, which may result in lower administration fees later on.

To avoid these sales fees, look for no-load funds, which don't charge a front- or back-end load fee. However, be aware of the other fees in a no-load fund, such as the management expense ratio and other administration fees, as they may be very high.

Other funds charge 12b-1 fees, which are baked into the share price and are used by the fund for promotions, sales and other activities related to the distribution of fund shares. These fees come right off of the reported share price at a predetermined point in time. As a result, investors may not be aware of the fee at all. The 12b-1 fees can, by law, be as much as 0.75% of a fund's average assets per year.

One final tip when perusing mutual fund sales literature: The investor should look for the management expense ratio. In fact, that one number can help clear up any and all confusion as it relates to sales charges. The ratio is simply the total percentage of fund assets that are being charged to cover fund expenses. The higher the ratio, the lower the investor's return will be at the end of the year.

Evaluating Managers and Past Results
As with all investments, investors should research a fund's past results. To that end, the following is a list of questions that perspective investors should ask themselves when reviewing the historical record:

  • Did the fund manager deliver results that were consistent with general market returns?
  • Was the fund more volatile than the big indexes (meaning did its returns vary dramatically throughout the year)?
  • Was there an unusually high turnover (which can result in larger tax liabilities for the investor)?

This information is important because it will give the investor insight into how the portfolio manager performs under certain conditions, as well as what historically has been the trend in terms of turnover and return.

With that in mind, past performance is no guarantee of future results. For this reason, prior to buying into a fund, it makes sense to review the investment company's literature to look for information about anticipated trends in the market in the years ahead. In most cases, a candid fund manager will give the investor some sense of the prospects for the fund and/or its holdings in the year(s) ahead as well as discuss general industry trends that may be helpful.

Size of the Fund
Typically, the size of a fund does not hinder its ability to meet its investment objectives. However, there are times when a fund can get too big. A perfect example is Fidelity's Magellan Fund. Back in 1999 the fund topped $100 billion in assets and it was forced to change its investment process to accommodate the large daily (money) inflows. Instead of being nimble and buying small- and mid-cap stocks, it shifted its focus primarily towards larger capitalization growth stocks. As a result, its performance suffered.

So how big is too big? There are no benchmarks that are set in stone, but that $100 billion mark certainly makes it difficult for a fund manager to acquire a position in a stock and dispose of it without dramatically running up the stock on the way up and depressing it on the way down. It also makes the process of buying and selling stocks with any kind of anonymity almost impossible.

The Bottom Line
Selecting a mutual fund may seem like a daunting task, but knowing your objectives and risk tolerance is half of the battle. If you follow this bit of due diligence before selecting a fund, you will increase your chances of success.

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