No matter what type of investor you are, there is bound to be a mutual fund that fits your style. According to the last count there are more than 10,000 mutual funds in North America! That means there are more mutual funds than stocks. (For more reading see Which Mutual Fund Style Index Is For You?)
It's important to understand that each mutual fund has different risks and rewards. In general, the higher the potential return, the higher the risk of loss. Although some funds are less risky than others, all funds have some level of risk - it's never possible to diversify away all risk. This is a fact for all investments.
Each fund has a predetermined investment objective that tailors the fund's assets, regions of investments and investment strategies. At the fundamental level, there are three varieties of mutual funds:
1) Equity funds (stocks)
2) Fixed-income funds (bonds)
3) Money market funds
All mutual funds are variations of these three asset classes. For example, while equity funds that invest in fast-growing companies are known as growth funds, equity funds that invest only in companies of the same sector or region are known as specialty funds.
Let's go over the many different flavors of funds. We'll start with the safest and then work through to the more risky.
Money Market Funds
The money market consists of short-term debt instruments, mostly Treasury bills. This is a safe place to park your money. You won't get great returns, but you won't have to worry about losing your principal. A typical return is twice the amount you would earn in a regular checking/savings account and a little less than the average certificate of deposit (CD).
Income funds are named appropriately: their purpose is to provide current income on a steady basis. When referring to mutual funds, the terms "fixed-income," "bond," and "income" are synonymous. These terms denote funds that invest primarily in government and corporate debt. While fund holdings may appreciate in value, the primary objective of these funds is to provide a steady cashflow to investors. As such, the audience for these funds consists of conservative investors and retirees. (Learn more inIncome Funds 101.)
Bond funds are likely to pay higher returns than certificates of deposit and money market investments, but bond funds aren't without risk. Because there are many different types of bonds, bond funds can vary dramatically depending on where they invest. For example, a fund specializing in high-yield junk bonds is much more risky than a fund that invests in government securities. Furthermore, nearly all bond funds are subject to interest rate risk, which means that if rates go up the value of the fund goes down.
The objective of these funds is to provide a balanced mixture of safety, income and capital appreciation. The strategy of balanced funds is to invest in a combination of fixed income and equities. A typical balanced fund might have a weighting of 60% equity and 40% fixed income. The weighting might also be restricted to a specified maximum or minimum for each asset class.
A similar type of fund is known as an asset allocation fund. Objectives are similar to those of a balanced fund, but these kinds of funds typically do not have to hold a specified percentage of any asset class. The portfolio manager is therefore given freedom to switch the ratio of asset classes as the economy moves through the business cycle.
Funds that invest in stocks represent the largest category of mutual funds. Generally, the investment objective of this class of funds is long-term capital growth with some income. There are, however, many different types of equity funds because there are many different types of equities. A great way to understand the universe of equity funds is to use a style box, an example of which is below.
The idea is to classify funds based on both the size of the companies invested in and the investment style of the manager. The term value refers to a style of investing that looks for high quality companies that are out of favor with the market. These companies are characterized by low P/E and price-to-book ratios and high dividend yields. The opposite of value is growth, which refers to companies that have had (and are expected to continue to have) strong growth in earnings, sales and cash flow. A compromise between value and growth is blend, which simply refers to companies that are neither value nor growth stocks and are classified as being somewhere in the middle.
For example, a mutual fund that invests in large-cap companies that are in strong financial shape but have recently seen their share prices fall would be placed in the upper left quadrant of the style box (large and value). The opposite of this would be a fund that invests in startup technology companies with excellent growth prospects. Such a mutual fund would reside in the bottom right quadrant (small and growth). (For further reading, check out Understanding The Mutual Fund Style Box.)
An international fund (or foreign fund) invests only outside your home country. Global funds invest anywhere around the world, including your home country.
It's tough to classify these funds as either riskier or safer than domestic investments. They do tend to be more volatile and have unique country and/or political risks. But, on the flip side, they can, as part of a well-balanced portfolio, actually reduce risk by increasing diversification. Although the world's economies are becoming more inter-related, it is likely that another economy somewhere is outperforming the economy of your home country.
This classification of mutual funds is more of an all-encompassing category that consists of funds that have proved to be popular but don't necessarily belong to the categories we've described so far. This type of mutual fund forgoes broad diversification to concentrate on a certain segment of the economy.
Sector funds are targeted at specific sectors of the economy such as financial, technology, health, etc. Sector funds are extremely volatile. There is a greater possibility of big gains, but you have to accept that your sector may tank.
Regional funds make it easier to focus on a specific area of the world. This may mean focusing on a region (say Latin America) or an individual country (for example, only Brazil). An advantage of these funds is that they make it easier to buy stock in foreign countries, which is otherwise difficult and expensive. Just like for sector funds, you have to accept the high risk of loss, which occurs if the region goes into a bad recession.
Socially-responsible funds (or ethical funds) invest only in companies that meet the criteria of certain guidelines or beliefs. Most socially responsible funds don't invest in industries such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages, weapons or nuclear power. The idea is to get a competitive performance while still maintaining a healthy conscience.
The last but certainly not the least important are index funds. This type of mutual fund replicates the performance of a broad market index such as the S&P 500 or Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). An investor in an index fund figures that most managers can't beat the market. An index fund merely replicates the market return and benefits investors in the form of low fees. (For more on index funds, check out our Index Investing Tutorial.)
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