What Is a Mutual Fund?

A mutual fund is a type of financial vehicle made up of a pool of money collected from many investors to invest in securities such as stocks, bonds, money market instruments, and other assets. Mutual funds are operated by professional money managers, who allocate the fund's assets and attempt to produce capital gains or income for the fund's investors. A mutual fund's portfolio is structured and maintained to match the investment objectives stated in its prospectus.

Mutual funds give small or individual investors access to professionally managed portfolios of equities, bonds and other securities. Each shareholder, therefore, participates proportionally in the gains or losses of the fund. Mutual funds invest in a vast number of securities, and performance is usually tracked as the change in the total market cap of the fund—derived by the aggregating performance of the underlying investments.

The Basics of a Mutual Fund

Mutual funds pool money from the investing public and use that money to buy other securities, usually stocks and bonds. The value of the mutual fund company depends on the performance of the securities it decides to buy. So, when you buy a unit or share of a mutual fund, you are buying the performance of its portfolio or more precisely, a part of the portfolio's value. Investing in a share of a mutual fund is different from investing in shares of stock. Unlike stock, mutual fund shares do not give its holders any voting rights. A share of a mutual fund represents investments in many different stocks (or other securities) instead of just one holding.

That's why the price of a mutual fund share is referred to as the net asset value (NAV) per share, sometimes expressed as NAVPS. A fund's NAV is derived by dividing the total value of the securities in the portfolio by the total amount of shares outstanding. Outstanding shares are those held by all shareholders, institutional investors, and company officers or insiders. Mutual fund shares can typically be purchased or redeemed as needed at the fund's current NAV, which—unlike a stock price—doesn't fluctuate during market hours, but is settled at the end of each trading day.

The average mutual fund holds hundreds of different securities, which means mutual fund shareholders gain important diversification at a low price. Consider an investor who buys only Google stock before the company has a bad quarter. He stands to lose a great deal of value because all of his dollars are tied to one company. On the other hand, a different investor may buy shares of a mutual fund that happens to own some Google stock. When Google has a bad quarter, she only loses a fraction as much because Google is just a small part of the fund's portfolio.

Key Takeaways

  • A mutual fund is a type of investment vehicle consisting of a portfolio of stocks, bonds or other securities. 
  • Mutual funds give small or individual investors access to diversified, professionally managed portfolios at a low price.
  • Mutual funds are divided into several kinds of categories, representing the kinds of securities they invest in, their investment objectives, and the type of returns they seek.
  • Mutual funds charge annual fees (called expense ratios) and, in some cases, commissions, which can affect their overall returns.
  • The overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds.

How Mutual Funds Work

A mutual fund is both an investment and an actual company. This dual nature may seem strange, but it is no different from how a share of AAPL is a representation of Apple, Inc. When an investor buys Apple stock, he is buying part ownership of the company and its assets. Similarly, a mutual fund investor is buying part ownership of the mutual fund company and its assets. The difference is that Apple is in the business of making smartphones and tablets, while a mutual fund company is in the business of making investments.

Investors typically earn a return from a mutual fund in three ways:

  1. Income is earned from dividends on stocks and interest on bonds held in the fund’s portfolio. A fund pays out nearly all of the income it receives over the year to fund owners in the form of a distribution. Funds often give investors a choice either to receive a check for distributions or to reinvest the earnings and get more shares
  2. If the fund sells securities that have increased in price, the fund has a capital gain. Most funds also pass on these gains to investors in a distribution.
  3. If fund holdings increase in price but are not sold by the fund manager, the fund's shares increase in price. You can then sell your mutual fund shares for a profit in the market.

If a mutual fund is construed as a virtual company, its CEO is the fund manager, sometimes called its investment adviser. The fund manager is hired by a board of directors and is legally obligated to work in the best interest of mutual fund shareholders. Most fund managers are also owners of the fund. There are very few other employees in a mutual fund company. The investment adviser or fund manager may employ some analysts to help pick investments or perform market research. A fund accountant is kept on staff to calculate the fund's NAV, the daily value of the portfolio that determines if share prices go up or down. Mutual funds need to have a compliance officer or two, and probably an attorney, to keep up with government regulations.

Most mutual funds are part of a much larger investment company; the biggest have hundreds of separate mutual funds. Some of these fund companies are names familiar to the general public, such as Fidelity Investments, the Vanguard Group, T. Rowe Price, and Oppenheimer Funds.

Types of Mutual Funds

Mutual funds are divided into several kinds of categories, representing the kinds of securities they have targeted for their portfolios and the type of returns they seek. There is a fund for nearly every type of investor or investment approach. Other common types of mutual funds include money market funds, sector funds, alternative funds, smart-beta funds, target-date funds, and even funds-of-funds, or mutual funds that buy shares of other mutual funds.

Equity Funds

The largest category is that of equity or stock funds. As the name implies, this sort of fund invests principally in stocks. Within this group is various sub-categories. Some equity funds are named for the size of the companies they invest in small-, mid- or large-cap. Others are named by their investment approach: aggressive growth, income-oriented, value, and others. Equity funds are also categorized by whether they invest in domestic (U.S.) stocks or foreign equities. There are so 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 here is to classify funds based on both the size of the companies invested in (their market caps) and the growth prospects of the invested stocks. The term value fund refers to a style of investing that looks for high quality, low growth companies that are out of favor with the market. These companies are characterized by low price-to-earning (P/E), low price-to-book (P/B) ratios, and high dividend yields. On the other side of the style spectrum are growth funds, which look to companies that have had (and are expected to have) strong growth in earnings, sales, and cash flows. These companies typically have high P/E ratios and do not pay dividends. A compromise between strict value and growth investment is a “blend,” which simply refers to companies that are neither value nor growth stocks and are classified as being somewhere in the middle.

morningstar style box
Learn how to use the Morningstar Style Box (TM). Morningstar

The other dimension of the style box has to do with the size of the companies that a mutual fund invests in. Large-cap companies have high market capitalizations, with values over $5 billion. Market cap is derived by multiplying the share price by the number of shares outstanding. Large-cap stocks are typically blue chip firms that are often recognizable by name. Small-cap stocks refer to those stocks with a market cap ranging from $200 million to $2 billion. These smaller companies tend to be newer, riskier investments. Mid-cap stocks fill in the gap between small- and large-cap.

A mutual fund may blend its strategy between investment style and company size. For example, a large-cap value fund would look to large-cap companies that are in strong financial shape but have recently seen their share prices fall, and 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: small-cap growth. Such a mutual fund would reside in the bottom right quadrant (small and growth).

Fixed-Income Funds

Another big group is the fixed income category. A fixed income mutual fund focuses on investments that pay a set rate of return, such as government bonds, corporate bonds, or other debt instruments. The idea is that the fund portfolio generates interest income, which then passes on to shareholders.

Sometimes referred to as bond funds, these funds are often actively managed and seek to buy relatively undervalued bonds in order to sell them at a profit. These mutual 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.

Index Funds

Another group, which has become extremely popular in the last few years, falls under the moniker "index funds." Their investment strategy is based on the belief that it is very hard, and often expensive, to try to beat the market consistently. So, the index fund manager buys stocks that correspond with a major market index such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). This strategy requires less research from analysts and advisors, so there are fewer expenses to eat up returns before they are passed on to shareholders. These funds are often designed with cost-sensitive investors in mind.

Balanced Funds

Balanced funds invest in both stocks and bonds to reduce the risk of exposure to one asset class or another. Another name for this type of mutual fund is "asset allocation fund." An investor may expect to find the allocation of these funds among asset classes relatively unchanging, though it will differ among funds. This fund's goal is asset appreciation with lower risk. However, these funds carry the same risk and can be as subject to fluctuation as other classifications of funds. 

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.

Money Market Funds

The money market consists of safe (risk-free) short-term debt instruments, mostly government Treasury bills. This is a safe place to park your money. You won't get substantial returns, but you won't have to worry about losing your principal. A typical return is a little more than the amount you would earn in a regular checking or savings account and a little less than the average certificate of deposit (CD). While money market funds invest in ultra-safe assets, during the 2008 financial crisis, some money market funds did experience losses after the share price of these funds, typically pegged at $1, fell below that level and broke the buck.

Income Funds

Income funds are named for their purpose: to provide current income on a steady basis. These funds invest primarily in government and high-quality corporate debt, holding these bonds until maturity in order to provide interest streams. While fund holdings may appreciate in value, the primary objective of these funds is to provide a steady cash flow​ to investors. As such, the audience for these funds consists of conservative investors and retirees. Because they produce regular income, tax conscious investors may want to avoid these funds.

Global/International Funds

An international fund (or foreign fund) invests only in assets located outside your home country. Global funds, meanwhile, can invest anywhere around the world, including within your home country. It's tough to classify these funds as either riskier or safer than domestic investments, but they have tended to be more volatile and have unique country and political risks. On the flip side, they can, as part of a well-balanced portfolio, actually reduce risk by increasing diversification since the returns in foreign countries may be uncorrelated with returns at home. Although the world's economies are becoming more interrelated, it is still likely that another economy somewhere is outperforming the economy of your home country.

Specialty Funds

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 more rigid categories we've described so far. These types of mutual funds forgo broad diversification to concentrate on a certain segment of the economy or a targeted strategy. Sector funds are targeted strategy funds aimed at specific sectors of the economy such as financial, technology, health, and so on. Sector funds can therefore be extremely volatile since the stocks in a given sector tend to be highly correlated with each other. There is a greater possibility for large gains, but also a sector may collapse (for example the financial sector in 2008 and 2009).

Regional funds make it easier to focus on a specific geographic area of the world. This can mean focusing on a broader 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 can otherwise be 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. For example, some socially responsible funds do not invest in “sin” industries such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages, weapons or nuclear power. The idea is to get competitive performance while still maintaining a healthy conscience. Other such funds invest primarily in green technology such as solar and wind power or recycling.

Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)

A twist on the mutual fund is the exchange traded fund, or ETF. These ever more popular investment vehicles pool investments and employ strategies consistent with mutual funds, but they are structured as investment trusts that are traded on stock exchanges, and have the added benefits of the features of stocks. For example, ETFs can be bought and sold at any point throughout the trading day. ETFs can also be sold short or purchased on margin. ETFs also typically carry lower fees than the equivalent mutual fund. Many ETFs also benefit from active options markets where investors can hedge or leverage their positions. ETFs also enjoy tax advantages from mutual funds. The popularity of ETFs speaks to their versatility and convenience.

Mutual Fund Fees

A mutual fund will classify expenses into either annual operating fees or shareholder fees. Annual fund operating fees are an annual percentage of the funds under management, usually ranging from 1-3%. Annual operating fees are collectively known as the expense ratio. A fund's expense ratio is the summation of the advisory or management fee and its administrative costs.

Shareholder fees, which come in the form of sales charges, commissions and redemption fees, are paid directly by investors when purchasing or selling the funds. Sales charges or commissions are known as "the load" of a mutual fund. When a mutual fund has a front-end load, fees are assessed when shares are purchased. For a back-end load, mutual fund fees are assessed when an investor sells his shares.

Sometimes, however, an investment company offers a no-load mutual fund, which doesn't carry any commission or sales charge. These funds are distributed directly by an investment company rather than through a secondary party.

Some funds also charge fees and penalties for early withdrawals or selling the holding before a specific time has elapsed. Also, the rise of exchange-traded funds, which have much lower fees thanks to their passive management structure, have been giving mutual funds considerable competition for investors' dollars. Articles in the financial media about how fund expense ratios and loads can eat into rates of return have also stirred negative feelings about mutual funds.

Classes of Mutual Fund Shares

Mutual fund shares come in several classes. Their differences reflect the number and size of fees associated with them.

Currently, most individual investors purchase mutual funds with A shares through a broker. This purchase includes a front-end load of up to 5% or more, plus management fees and ongoing fees for distributions, also known as 12b-1 fees. To top it off, loads on A shares vary quite a bit, which can create a conflict of interest. Financial advisors selling these products may encourage clients to buy higher-load offerings to bring in bigger commissions for themselves. With front-end funds, the investor pays these expenses as they buy into the fund.

To remedy these problems and meet fiduciary-rule standards investment companies have started designating new share classes, including "level load” C shares, which generally don’t have a front-end load but carry a 1% 12b-1 annual distribution fee.

Funds that charge management and other fees when an investor sell their holdings are classified as Class B shares.

A New Class of Fund Shares

The newest share class, developed in 2016, consists of clean shares. Clean shares do not have front-end sales loads or annual 12b-1 fees for fund services. American Funds, Janus and MFS, are all fund companies currently offering clean shares.

By standardizing fees and loads, the new classes enhance transparency for mutual fund investors and, of course, save them money. For example, an investor who rolls $10,000 into an individual retirement account (IRA) with a clean-share fund could earn nearly $1,800 more over a 30-year period as compared to an average A-share fund, according to an April 2017 Morningstar report, co-written by Aron Szapiro, Morningstar director of policy research, and Paul Ellenbogen, head of global regulatory solutions.

Advantages of Mutual Funds

There are a variety of reasons that mutual funds have been the retail investor's vehicle of choice for decades. The overwhelming majority of money in employer-sponsored retirement plans goes into mutual funds.

Diversification

Diversification, or the mixing of investments and assets within a portfolio to reduce risk, is one of the advantages of investing in mutual funds. Experts advocate diversification as a way of enhancing portfolio return while reducing its risk. Buying individual company stocks and offsetting them with industrial sector stocks, for example, offers some diversification. However, a truly diversified portfolio has securities with different capitalizations and industries and bonds with varying maturities and issuers. Buying a mutual fund can achieve diversification cheaper and faster than by buying individual securities. Large mutual funds typically own hundreds of different stocks in many different industries. It wouldn't be practical for an investor to build this kind of a portfolio with a small amount of money.

Easy Access

Trading on the major stock exchanges, mutual funds can be bought and sold with relative ease, making them highly liquid investments. Also, when it comes to certain types of assets, like foreign equities or exotic commodities, mutual funds are often the most feasible way—in fact, sometimes the only way—for individual investors to participate.

Economies of Scale

Mutual funds also provide economies of scale. Buying one spares the investor of the numerous commission charges needed to create a diversified portfolio. Buying only one security at a time leads to large transaction fees, which will eat up a good chunk of the investment. Also, the $100 to $200 an individual investor might be able to afford is usually not enough to buy a round lot of the stock, but it will purchase many mutual fund shares. The smaller denominations of mutual funds allow investors to take advantage of dollar cost averaging.

Professional Management

A primary advantage of mutual funds is not having to pick stocks and manage investments. Instead, a professional investment manager takes care of all of this using careful research and skillful trading. Investors purchase funds because they often do not have the time or the expertise to manage their own portfolios, or they don’t have access to the same kind of information that a professional fund has. A mutual fund is a relatively inexpensive way for a small investor to get a full-time manager to make and monitor investments. Most private, non-institutional money managers deal only with high-net-worth individuals—people with at least six figures to invest. However, mutual funds, as noted above, require much lower investment minimums. So, these funds provide a low-cost way for individual investors to experience and hopefully benefit from professional money management.

Economies of Scale

Because a mutual fund buys and sells large amounts of securities at a time, its transaction costs are lower than what an individual would pay for securities transactions. Moreover, a mutual fund, since it pools money from many smaller investors can invest in certain assets or take larger positions than a smaller investor could. For example, the fund may have access to IPO placements or certain structured products only available to institutional investors.

Variety and Freedom of Choice

Investors have the freedom to research and select from managers with a variety of styles and management goals. For instance, a fund manager may focus on value investing, growth investing, developed markets, emerging markets, income or macroeconomic investing, among many other styles. One manager may also oversee funds that employ several different styles. This variety allows investors to gain exposure to not only stocks and bonds but also commodities, foreign assets, and real estate through specialized mutual funds. Some mutual funds are even structured to profit from a falling market (known as bear funds). Mutual funds provide opportunities for foreign and domestic investment that may not otherwise be directly accessible to ordinary investors.

Transparency

Mutual funds are subject to industry regulation that ensures accountability and fairness to investors.

Pros

  • Liquidity

  • Diversification

  • Minimal investment requirements

  • Professional management

  • Variety of offerings

Cons

  • High fees, commissions, other expenses

  • Large cash presence in portfolios

  • No FDIC coverage

  • Difficulty in comparing funds

  • Lack of transparency in holdings

Disadvantages of Mutual Funds

Liquidity, diversification, and professional management, all these factors make mutual funds attractive options for a younger, novice, and other individual investors who don't want to actively manage their money. However, no asset is perfect, and mutual funds have drawbacks too.

Fluctuating Returns

Like many other investments without a guaranteed return, there is always the possibility that the value of your mutual fund will depreciate. Equity mutual funds experience price fluctuations, along with the stocks that make up the fund. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) does not back up mutual fund investments, and there is no guarantee of performance with any fund. Of course, almost every investment carries risk. It is especially important for investors in money market funds to know that, unlike their bank counterparts, these will not be insured by the FDIC.

Cash Drag

Mutual funds pool money from thousands of investors, so every day people are putting money into the fund as well as withdrawing it. To maintain the capacity to accommodate withdrawals funds typically have to keep a large portion of their portfolios in cash. Having ample cash is excellent for liquidity, but money is sitting around as cash and not working for you and thus is not very advantageous. Mutual funds require a significant amount of their portfolios to be held in cash in order to satisfy share redemptions each day. To maintain liquidity and the capacity to accommodate withdrawals, funds typically have to keep a larger portion of their portfolio as cash than a typical investor might. Because cash earns no return, it is often referred to as a “cash drag.”

High Costs

Mutual funds provide investors with professional management, but it comes at a cost—those expense ratios mentioned earlier. These fees reduce the fund's overall payout, and they're assessed to mutual fund investors regardless of the performance of the fund. As you can imagine, in years when the fund doesn't make money, these fees only magnify losses. Creating, distributing, and running a mutual fund is an expensive undertaking. Everything from the portfolio manager's salary to the investors' quarterly statements cost money. Those expenses are passed on to the investors. Since fees vary widely from fund to fund, failing to pay attention to the fees can have negative long-term consequences. Actively managed funds incur transaction costs that accumulate over each year. Remember, every dollar spent on fees is a dollar that is not invested to grow over time.

'Diworsification' and Dilution

'Diworsification'—a play on words—is an investment or portfolio strategy that implies too much complexity can lead to worse results. Many mutual fund investors tend to overcomplicate matters. That is, they acquire too many funds that are highly related and, as a result, don't get the risk-reducing benefits of diversification. These investors may have made their portfolio more exposed; a syndrome called diworsification. At the other extreme, just because you own mutual funds doesn't mean you are automatically diversified. For example, a fund that invests only in a particular industry sector or region is still relatively risky.

In other words, it's possible to have poor returns due to too much diversification. Because mutual funds can have small holdings in many different companies, high returns from a few investments often don't make much difference on the overall return. Dilution is also the result of a successful fund growing too big. When new money pours into funds that have had strong track records, the manager often has trouble finding suitable investments for all the new capital to be put to good use.

One thing that can lead to diworsification is the fact that a fund's purpose or makeup isn't always clear. Fund advertisements can guide investors down the wrong path. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires that funds have at least 80% of assets in the particular type of investment implied in their names. How the remaining assets are invested is up to the fund manager. However, the different categories that qualify for the required 80% of the assets may be vague and wide-ranging. A fund can, therefore, manipulate prospective investors via its title. A fund that focuses narrowly on Congolese stocks, for example, could be sold with a far-ranging title "International High-Tech Fund."

Active Fund Management

Many investors debate whether or not the professionals are any better than you or I at picking stocks. Management is by no means infallible, and, even if the fund loses money, the manager still gets paid. Actively managed funds incur higher fees, but increasingly passive index funds have gained popularity. These funds track an index such as the S&P 500 and are much less costly to hold. Actively managed funds over several time periods have failed to outperform their benchmark indices, especially after accounting for taxes and fees.

Lack of Liquidity

A mutual fund allows you to request that your shares be converted into cash at any time, however, unlike stock that trades throughout the day, many mutual fund redemptions​ take place only at the end of each trading day.

Taxes

When a fund manager sells a security, a capital-gains tax is triggered. Investors who are concerned about the impact of taxes need to keep those concerns in mind when investing in mutual funds. Taxes can be mitigated by investing in tax-sensitive funds or by holding non-tax sensitive mutual fund in a tax-deferred account, such as a 401(k) or IRA.

Evaluating Funds

Researching and comparing funds can be difficult. Unlike stocks, mutual funds do not offer investors the opportunity to juxtapose the price to earnings (P/E) ratio, sales growth, earnings per share (EPS), or other important data. A mutual fund's net asset value can offer some basis for comparison, but given the diversity of portfolios, comparing the proverbial apples to apples can be difficult, even among funds with similar names or stated objectives. Only index funds tracking the same markets tend to be genuinely comparable.

Example of a Mutual Fund

One of the most famous mutual funds in the investment universe is Fidelity Investments' Magellan Fund (FMAGX). Established in 1963 the fund had an investment objective of capital appreciation via investment in common stocks. Fidelity founder Edward Johnson originally managed it. The fund's glory days were between 1977 and 1990 when Peter Lynch served as its portfolio manager. Under Lynch's tenure, Magellan regularly posted 29% annual returns, almost double that of the S&P 500. Both the fund and Lynch became household words.

Even after Lynch left, Fidelity's performance continued strong, and assets under management (AUM) grew to nearly $110 billion in 2000, making it the largest fund in the world. By 1997, the fund had become so large that Fidelity closed it to new investors, and would not reopen it until 2008. 

As of April 2019, Fidelity Magellan has over US$16 billion in assets and is managed by Jeffrey Feingold since 2011. The fund's performance has pretty much tracked or slightly surpassed that of the S&P 500.