Mutual funds

A mutual fund is a type of professionally managed collective investment scheme that pools money from many investors to purchase securities. While there is no legal definition of the term “mutual fund”, it is most commonly applied only to those collective investment vehicles that are regulated and sold to the general public. They are sometimes referred to as “investment companies” or “registered investment companies.” Most mutual funds are “open-ended,” meaning stockholders can buy or sell shares of the fund at any time by redeeming them from the fund itself, rather than on an exchange. Hedge funds are not considered a type of mutual fund, primarily because they are not sold publicly.

In the United States, mutual funds must be registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, overseen by a board of directors (or board of trustees if organized as a trust rather than a corporation or partnership) and managed by a registered investment adviser. Mutual funds, like other registered investment companies, are also subject to an extensive and detailed regulatory regime set forth in the Investment Company Act of 1940. Mutual funds are not taxed on their income and profits if they comply with certain requirements under the U.S. Internal Revenue Code.

Mutual funds have both advantages and disadvantages compared to direct investing in individual securities. They have a long history in the United States. Today they play an important role in household finances, most notably in retirement planning.

There are 3 types of U.S. mutual funds: open-end, unit investment trust, and closed-end. The most common type, the open-end fund, must be willing to buy back shares from investors every business day. Exchange-traded funds (or “ETFs” for short) are open-end funds or unit investment trusts that trade on an exchange. Open-end funds are most common, but exchange-traded funds have been gaining in popularity.

Mutual funds are generally classified by their principal investments. The four main categories of funds are money market funds, bond or fixed income funds, stock or equity funds and hybrid funds. Funds may also be categorized as index or actively managed.

Investors in a mutual fund pay the fund’s expenses, which reduce the fund’s returns/performance. There is controversy about the level of these expenses. A single mutual fund may give investors a choice of different combinations of expenses (which may include sales commissions or loads) by offering several different types of share classes.

Advantages  of Mutual funds

  • Increased diversification: A fund must hold many securities. Diversifying reduces risks compared to holding a single stock, bond, other available instruments.
  • Daily liquidity: This concept applies only to open-end funds. Shareholders may trade their holdings with the fund manager at the close of a trading day based on the closing net asset value of the fund’s holdings. However, there may be fees and restrictions as stated in the fund prospectus. For holders of individual stocks, bonds, closed-end funds, ETFs, and other available instruments, there may not be a buyer/seller for that instrument everyday. Such instruments are termed, illiquid.
  • Professional investment management: A highly variable aspect of a fund discussed in the prospectus. Actively managed funds may have large staffs of analysts who actively trade the fund holdings. Management of an index fund may just passively re-balance holdings to match a market index like the Standard and Poors 500 Index.
  • Ability to participate in investments that may be available only to larger investors: Foreign markets, in particular, are rarely open and affordable for individual investors. More over the research required to make sensible foreign investments may require knowledge of another language, and the rules of regulations of other markets.
  • Service and convenience: This is not a feature of a mutual fund, but rather a feature of the fund management company. Increasingly in recent years, there are funds, notably Exchange Traded Funds(ETFs) that are purely investment instruments without any additional services from the fund management company.
  • Government oversight: Largely, the US government’s role with mutual funds is to require the publication of a prospectus describing the fund. No such document is required for stock, bonds, currencies, and other investment instruments. There is no governmental oversight of a fund’s investment success/failure.
  • Ease of comparison: Since mutual funds are available from many providers, it is generally easy to find similar funds and compare features such as expenses.