1. Mutual Funds: Introduction
  2. Mutual Funds: What Are They?
  3. Mutual Funds: Different Types Of Funds
  4. Mutual Funds: The Costs
  5. Mutual Funds: Picking A Mutual Fund
  6. Mutual Funds: How To Read A Mutual Fund Table
  7. Mutual Funds: Evaluating Performance
  8. Mutual Funds: Conclusion

Perhaps you've noticed all those mutual fund ads that quote their amazingly high one-year rates of return. Your first thought is "wow, that mutual fund did great!" Well, yes it did great last year, but then you look at the three-year performance, which is lower, and the five year, which is yet even lower. What's the underlying story here? Let's look at a real example from a large mutual fund's performance:

1 year 3 year 5 year
53% 20% 11%

L

ast year, the fund had excellent performance at 53%. But, in the past three years, the average annual return was 20%. What did it do in years 1 and 2 to bring the average return down to 20%? Some simple math shows us that the fund made an average return of 3.5% over those first two years: 20% = (53% + 3.5% + 3.5%)/3. Because that is only an average, it is very possible that the fund lost money in one of those years.

It gets worse when we look at the five-year performance. We know that in the last year the fund returned 53% and in years 2 and 3 we are guessing it returned around 3.5%. So what happened in years 4 and 5 to bring the average return down to 11%? Again, by doing some simple calculations we find that the fund must have lost money, an average of -2.5% each year of those two years: 11% = (53% + 3.5% + 3.5% - 2.5% - 2.5%)/5. Now the fund's performance doesn't look so good!

It should be mentioned that, for the sake of simplicity, this example, besides making some big assumptions, doesn't include calculating compound interest. Still, the point wasn't to be technically accurate but to demonstrate the importance of taking a closer look at performance numbers. A fund that loses money for a few years can bump the average up significantly with one or two strong years.

It's All Relative
Of course, knowing how a fund performed is only one third of the battle. Performance is a relative issue, literally. If the fund we looked at above is judged against its appropriate benchmark index, a whole new layer of information is added to the evaluation. If the index returned 75% for the 1 year time period, that 53% from the fund doesn't look quite so good. On the other hand, if the index delivered results of 25%, 5%, and -5% for the respective one, three, and five-year periods, then the fund's results look rather fine indeed.

To add another layer of information to the evaluation, one can consider a fund's performance against its peer group as well as against its index. If other funds that invest with a similar mandate had similar performance, this data point tells us that the fund is in line with its peers. If the fund bested its peers and its benchmark, its results would be quite impressive indeed.

Looking at any one piece of information in isolation only tells a small portion of the story. Consider the comparison of a fund against its peers. If the fund sits in the top slot over each of the comparison periods, it is likely to be a solid performer. If it sits at the bottom, it may be even worse than perceived, as peer group comparisons only capture the results from existing funds. Many fund companies are in the habit of closing their worst performers. When the "losers" are purged from their respective categories, their statistical records are no longer included in the category performance data. This makes the category averages creep higher than they would have if the losers were still in the mix. This is better known as survivorship bias. (Learn more about survivorship bias in The Truth Behind Mutual Fund Returns.)

To develop the best possible picture of fund's performance results, consider as many data points as you can. Long-term investors should focus on long-term results, keeping in mind that even the best performing funds have bad years from time to time. (Dig into the numbers in Mutual Fund Ratings: Are They Deceiving?)


Mutual Funds: Conclusion
Related Articles
  1. Financial Advisor

    How to Rate Your Mutual Fund Manager

    What to really look for when you're deciding on a mutual fund.
  2. Investing

    Published Mutual Fund Returns Not Always What They Appear

    Survivorship bias erases substandard performers, distorting overall mutual fund returns.
  3. Financial Advisor

    Advising FAs: Explaining Mutual Funds to a Client

    More than 80 million people, or half of the households in America, invest in mutual funds. No matter what type of investor you are, there is bound to be a mutual fund that fits your style.
  4. Investing

    Pick The Winners At The Mutual Fund Track!

    For both mutual funds and racehorses, there's no surefire way to pick a winner.
  5. Financial Advisor

    5 Characteristics of Strong Mutual Fund Shares

    Discover some of the basic characteristics shared by good mutual funds that investors can use to help them in selecting funds.
  6. Investing

    When To Buy A Mutual Fund

    There is money to be made in mutual funds, but investors fall into several pitfalls that keep them from maximizing their profits. Read these tips to take the uncertainty out of investing in mutual ...
  7. Investing

    What You Need to Know About Mutual Funds

    Mutual funds are a good investment opportunity, but investors should know how they operate.
  8. Investing

    Analyzing Mutual Funds For Maximum Return

    Using a few simple metrics will help you pick the right fund for your portfolio.
Frequently Asked Questions
  1. Where else can I save for retirement after I max out my Roth IRA?

    The first option to explore is to determine if you can contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), or 457 plan at work. If your employer ...
  2. How did George Soros "break the Bank of England"?

    In Britain, Black Wednesday (September 16, 1992) is known as the day that speculators broke the pound. They didn't actually ...
  3. What counts as "debts" and "income" when calculating my debt-to-income (DTI) ratio?

    It's important to know your debt-to-income ratio because it's the figure lenders use to measure your ability to repay the ...
  4. Who are Monsanto's main competitors?

    Learn about Monsanto Company's two main operating divisions and its main competitors within each sector, including The Mosaic ...
Trading Center