Mutual funds are a popular way to invest in securities. Because mutual funds can offer built-in diversification and professional management, they offer certain advantages over purchasing individual stocks and bonds. But, like investing in any security, investing in a mutual fund involves certain risks, including the possibility that you may lose money.
Technically known as an "open-end company," a mutual fund is an investment company that pools money from many investors and invests it based on specific investment goals. The mutual fund raises money by selling its own shares to investors. The money is used to purchase a portfolio of stocks, bonds, short-term money-market instruments, other securities or assets, or some combination of these investments. Each share represents an ownership slice of the fund and gives the investor a proportional right, based on the number of shares he or she owns, to income and capital gains that the fund generates from its investments.
The particular investments a fund makes are determined by its objectives and, in the case of an actively managed fund, by the investment style and skill of the fund's professional manager or managers. The holdings of the mutual fund are known as its underlying investments, and the performance of those investments, minus fund fees, determine the fund's investment return.
You can find all of the details about a mutual fund — including its investment strategy, risk profile, performance history, management, and fees — in a document called the prospectus. You should always read the prospectus before investing in a fund.
How They Work
Mutual funds are equity investments, as individual stocks are. When you buy shares of a fund you become a part owner of the fund. This is true of bond funds as well as stock funds, which means there is an important distinction between owning an individual bond and owning a fund that owns the bond. When you buy a bond, you are promised a specific rate of interest and return of your principal. That's not the case with a bond fund, which owns a number of bonds with different rates and maturities. What your equity ownership of the fund provides is the right to a share of what the fund collects in interest, realizes in capital gains, and receives back if it holds a bond to maturity.
If you own shares in a mutual fund you share in its profits. For example, when the fund's underlying stocks or bonds pay income from dividends or interest, the fund pays those profits, after expenses, to its shareholders in payments known as income distributions. Also, when the fund has capital gains from selling investments in its portfolio at a profit, it passes on those after-expense profits to shareholders as capital gains distributions. You generally have the option of receiving these distributions in cash or having them automatically reinvested in the fund to increase the number of shares you own.
Of course, you have to pay taxes on the fund's income distributions, and usually on its capital gains, if you own the fund in a taxable account. When you invest in a mutual fund you may have short-term capital gains, which are taxed at the same rate as your ordinary income — something you may try to avoid when you sell your individual securities. You may also owe capital gains taxes if the fund sells some investments for more than it paid to buy them, even if the overall return on the fund is down for the year or if you became an investor of the fund after the fund bought those investments in question.
However, if you own the mutual fund in a tax-deferred or tax-free account, such as an individual retirement account, no tax is due on any of these distributions when you receive them. But you will owe tax at your regular rate on all withdrawals from a tax-deferred account.
You may also make money from your fund shares by selling them back to the fund, or redeeming them, if the underlying investments in the fund have increased in value since the time you purchased shares in the funds. In that case, your profit will be the increase in the fund's per-share value, also known as its net asset value or NAV. Here, too, taxes are due the year you realize gains in a taxable account, but not in a tax-deferred or tax-free account. Capital gains for mutual funds are calculated somewhat differently than gains for individual investments, and the fund will let you know each year your taxable share of the fund's gains.
Open-End vs. Closed-End Funds
One of key distinguishing features of a mutual fund, or open-end fund, is that investors can buy and sell shares at any time. Funds create new shares to meet demand for increased sales and buy back shares from investors who want to sell. Sometimes, open-end funds get so large that they are closed to new investors. Even if an open-end fund is closed, however, it still remains an open-end fund since existing shareholders can continue to buy and sell fund shares.
Open-end funds calculate the value of one share, known as the net asset value (NAV), only once a day, when the investment markets close. All purchase and sales for the day are recorded at that NAV. To figure its NAV, a fund adds up the total value of its investment holdings, subtracts the fund's fees and expenses, and divides that amount by the number of fund shares that investors are currently holding.
NAV isn't necessarily a measure of a fund's success, as stock prices are, however. Since open-end funds can issue new shares and buy back old ones all the time, the number of shares and the dollars invested in the fund are constantly changing. That's why in comparing two funds it makes more sense to look at their total return over time rather than to compare their NAVs.
Closed-end funds differ from open-end funds because they raise money only once in a single offering, much the way a stock issue raises money for the company only once, at its initial public offering, or IPO. After the shares are sold, the closed-end fund uses the money to buy a portfolio of underlying investments, and any further growth in the size of the fund depends on the return on its investments, not new investment dollars. The fund is then listed on an exchange, the way an individual stock is, and shares trade throughout the day.
You buy or sell shares of a closed-end fund by placing the order with your stockbroker. The price for closed-end funds rises and falls in response to investor demand, and may be higher or lower than its NAV, or the actual per-share value of the fund's underlying investments.