Mutual funds are considered relatively safe investments. However, mutual funds are considered a bad investment when investors consider certain negative factors to be important, such as high expense ratios charged by the fund, various hidden front-end and back-end load charges, lack of control over investment decisions, and diluted returns.

High Annual Expense Ratios

Mutual funds are required to disclose how much they charge their investors annually in percentage terms to compensate for the costs of running investment businesses. A mutual fund's gross return is reduced by the expense ratio percentage, which could be very high in the range of 2% to 3%. Historically, the majority of mutual funds generate market returns if they follow a relatively stable fund such as the S&P 500 benchmark. However, excessive annual fees can make mutual funds an unattractive investment, as investors can generate better returns by simply investing in broad market securities or exchange traded funds.

Load Charges

Many mutual funds have different classes of shares that come along with front- or back-end loads, which represent charges imposed on investors at the time of buying or selling shares of a fund. Certain back-end loads represent contingent deferred sales charges that can decline over several years. Also, many classes of shares of funds charge 12b-1 fees at the time of sale or purchase. Load fees can range from 2% to 4%, and they can also eat into returns generated by mutual funds, making them unattractive for investors who wish to trade their shares often.

Lack of Control

Because mutual funds do all the picking and investing work, they may be inappropriate for investors who want to have complete control over their portfolios and be able to rebalance their holdings on a regular basis. Because many mutual funds' prospectuses contain caveats that allow them to deviate from their stated investment objectives, mutual funds can be unsuitable for investors who wish to have consistent portfolios. When picking a mutual fund, it's important to research the fund's investment strategy and see which index fund it may be tracking to see if it's safe.

Returns Dilution

Not all mutual funds are bad, but they can be heavily regulated and are not allowed to hold concentrated holdings exceeding 25% of their overall portfolio. Because of this, mutual funds may tend to generate diluted returns, as they cannot concentrate their portfolios on one best-performing holding as an individual stock would. That being said, it can obviously be hard to predict which stock will do well, meaning most investors who want to diversify their portfolios are partial to mutual funds.

Advisor Insight

Patrick Strubbe, ChFC, CLU, RFC
Preservation Specialists, LLC, Columbia, SC

Generally speaking, most mutual funds are invested in securities such as stocks and bonds where, no matter how conservative the investment style, there will be some risk of losing your principal. In many instances, this is not risk you should be taking on, especially if you have been saving up for a specific purchase or life goal. Mutual funds may also not be the best option for more sophisticated investors with solid financial knowledge and a substantial amount of capital to invest. In such cases, the portfolio may benefit from greater diversification, such as alternative investments or more active management. Broadening your horizon beyond mutual funds may yield lower fees, greater control, and/or more comprehensive diversification.