Mutual Funds: What Investors Need To Know

If you have a workplace retirement account, you are likely investing in mutual funds. While other investment vehicles like exchange traded funds (ETFs) have grown in popularity, mutual funds haven't been replaced. At least not yet. So as an investor, here's what you need to know.

Active or Passive Funds

Active or passive refers to the investment approach used within the fund. Active management utilizes managers to identify investments that are likely to perform better than others. This is based on the idea that through research and models, a good manager can identify investment opportunities that lead to above-average returns. Passive investing simply tries replicate the returns of an index like the S&P 500.

Investment Style or Category

When people hear the term mutual fund, the first thing that comes to mind is stocks and the stock market in general. The reality is that mutual funds can invest in a variety of different investments. There are bond mutual funds, stock mutual funds, and even funds that invest solely in real estate investment trusts (REITs).

When you are considering making an investment into a mutual fund, you must know what you are investing in. There is a big difference between a short-term bond fund and a high-yield bond fund, for example. Both are mutual funds that invest in bonds, but their risk and return characteristics couldn't be more different. A large cap value stock mutual fund is very different from a small cap stock fund. Both are mutual funds that invest in stocks, but they vary significantly in terms of risk and return. (For related reading, see: Mutual Funds: Different Types of Funds.)

Asset Allocation and Mutual Funds

Even when you compare two mutual funds in the same category there can be significant differences. Consider an actively-managed U.S. large cap value fund. Despite what the name suggests, it can have exposure to securities that vary significantly. Below is a table of three funds in that category that shows just how different they are despite being in the same category. All three funds are from well-known mutual fund companies and each carries a four-star rating out of five from Morningstar.

Taxation of Mutual Funds

There are special rules which govern how mutual fund companies are taxed. So long as mutual fund companies distribute at least 90% of their income and capital gains to shareholders, it won't be taxed itself. That means the mutual fund company must pass through the capital gains and income to you. The result? You get to pay the tax. This isn't really a big deal if you are investing in mutual funds through a tax-deferred or tax-free retirement account because you don't have to report it on your taxes. However, if you're investing in a non-retirement account that is subject to taxation you need to be prepared for the arrival of a Form-1099. This will be used to report dividends and capital gains on your taxes whether they were reinvested or not.

Expense Ratios

Mutual funds are for-profit businesses. How much you pay to invest in a fund is known as an expense ratio. This is simply the cost of the fund expressed as an annual percentage. Not all funds are created equal and some are more expensive than others. Index funds tend to have much lower expense ratios than actively managed funds. In general, the lower the expense ratio, the better. If two funds have a similar rating, investment objective and portfolio you should consider the fund with a lower expense ratio. (For related reading, see: Why Expense Ratios Are Important to Investors.)

Share Classes

Before you invest in a mutual fund, it is critical that you understand the cost structure of the fund. Mutual funds are offered in a variety of share classes. The share class determines how and when the investor is charged for investing in the fund. It is important to note that it is not a grading scale, so A does not mean better than C.

You don’t need to become an expert on mutual funds, but you need to know the basics. Whether you’re investing in a retirement plan at work or starting a 529 plan for your kids, odds are that mutual funds will be involved.