10 Key Mutual Fund Terms Defined

A Primer on Basic Mutual Fund Definitions

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If you were studying for a test on mutual funds, or if you were handed the task of giving a presentation on the basics of investing mutual funds, here are key 10 definitions that you would need to know.

Key Takeaways

  • You can go beyond the simple definitions and learn the key terms and concepts of investing in mutual funds.
  • Some of the most important terms to understand are: mutual fund, mutual fund loans, mutual fund share class, expense ratio, and index funds.
  • Other important terms are: market capitalization, mutual fund style, balanced funds, target date retirement funds, and sector funds.

1. Mutual Fund

A mutual fund is a type of security that enables investors to pool their money together into one professionally managed investment. Mutual funds can invest in stocks, bonds, cash, and/or other assets. These underlying security types, called "holdings," combine to form one mutual fund, also called a "portfolio."

Now for the simple explanation: Mutual funds can be considered baskets of investments. Each basket holds dozens or hundreds of security types, such as stocks or bonds. Therefore, when an investor buys a mutual fund, they are buying a basket of investment securities. However, it is also important to understand that the investors do not actually own the underlying securities, but rather a representation of those securities; they own shares of the mutual fund itself, not shares of the holdings.

2. Mutual Fund Loads 

Loads are fees charged to the investor when buying or selling certain types of mutual funds. There are four types of loads: Front-end loads are charged up front (at the time of purchase) and average around 5% but can be as high as 8.5%. For example, if you invest $1,000 with a 5% front load, the load amount will be $50.00, and therefore your initial investment will actually be $950. Back-end loads, also called "contingent deferred sales charges," are charged only when you sell a back-loaded fund. These charges can also be 5% or more, but the load amount typically declines over time and can be reduced to zero after a certain number of years. Load-waived funds are funds that normally charge a load but waive it if there is some qualifying circumstance, such as purchases made within a 401(k) plan. No-load funds do not charge any loads. These are the best type of fund to use, because minimizing fees helps to maximize returns. When researching mutual funds, you can identify the load types by the letter A or B at the end of the fund name. Share class A funds are front-loaded funds, and share class B are back-loaded funds. Sometimes, the load-waived funds have the letters LW at the end of the fund name. Once again, be sure to look for no-load funds. A few good no-load mutual fund companies include Vanguard, Fidelity, and T. Rowe Price.

3. Mutual Fund Share Class:

Each mutual fund has a share class, which is basically a classification of how the fund charges fees. There are several different types of mutual fund share classes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages, most of which center upon expenses.

  • Class A share funds are also called "front load" funds because their fees are charged on "the front" when the investor first buys shares of the fund. The loads typically range from 3.00% to 5.00%. A shares are best for investors who are using a broker and who plan to invest larger dollar amounts and will buy shares infrequently. If the purchase amount is high enough, investors may qualify for "breakpoint discounts." 
  • Class B share funds are a share class of mutual funds that do not carry front-end sales charges, but instead, charge a contingent deferred sales charge (CDSC) or "back-end load." Class B shares also tend to have higher 12b-1 fees than other mutual fund share classes. For example, if an investor purchases mutual fund Class B shares, they will not be charged a front-end load but will instead pay a back-end load if the investor sells shares prior to a stated period, such as 7 years, and they may be charged up to 6% to redeem their shares. Class B shares can eventually exchange into Class A shares after seven or eight years. Therefore they may be best for investors who do not have enough to invest to qualify for a break level on the A share but intend to hold the B shares for several years or more.
  • Class C share funds charge a "level load" annually, which is usually 1.00%. This expense never goes away, making C share mutual funds the most expensive for investors who are investing for long periods of time. The load is usually 1.00%. In general, investors should use C shares for the short term (less than three years).
  • Class D share funds are often similar to no-load funds in that they are a mutual fund share class that was created as an alternative to the traditional and more common A share, B share, and C share funds that are either front-loaded, back-loaded, or level-loaded, respectively.
  • Class Adv share funds are only available through an investment advisor, hence the abbreviation "Adv." These funds are typically no-load (or what is called "load-waived") but can have 12b-1 fees up to 0.50%. If you are working with an investment advisor or another financial professional, the Adv shares can be your best option, because the expenses are often lower.
  • Class Inst share funds (aka Class I, Class X, or Class Y) are generally only available to institutional investors with minimum investment amounts of $25,000 or more.
  • Load-Waived Funds are mutual fund share class alternatives to loaded funds, such as A share class funds. As the name suggests, the mutual fund load is waived (not charged). Typically, these funds are offered in 401(k) plans where loaded funds are not an option. Load-waived mutual funds are identified by an "LW" at the end of the fund name and at the end of the ticker symbol. For example, American Funds Growth Fund of America A (AGTHX), which is an A share fund, has a load-waived option, American Funds Growth Fund of America A LW (AGTHX.LW).
  • Class R share funds do not have a load (i.e., a front-end load, back-end load, or level load), but they do have 12b-1 fees that typically range from 0.25% to 0.50%. If your 401(k) only provides R share class funds, your expenses may be higher than if the investment choices included the no-load (or load-waived) version of the same fund.

4. Expense Ratio

Even if the investor uses a no-load fund, there are underlying expenses that are indirect charges for use in the fund's operation. The expense ratio is the percentage of fees paid to the mutual fund company to manage and operate the fund, including all administrative expenses and 12b-1 fees. The mutual fund company would take those expenses out of the fund prior to the investor seeing the return. For example, if the expense ratio of a mutual fund were 1.00%, and you were to invest $10,000, the expense for a given year would be $100. However, the expense is not taken directly out of your pocket. The expense effectively reduces the gross return of the fund. Put differently, if the fund earns 10%, before expenses, in a given year, the investor would see a net return of 9.00% (10.00% - 1.00%).

5. Index Funds

An index, with regard to investing, is a statistical sampling of securities that represent a defined segment of the market. For example, the S&P 500 Index is a sampling of approximately 500 large-capitalization stocks. Index funds are simply mutual funds that invest in the same securities as its benchmark index. The logic in using index funds is that, over time, the majority of active fund managers are not able to outperform the broad market indexes. Therefore, rather than trying to "beat the market," it is wise to simply invest in it. This reasoning is a kind of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" strategy. The best index funds have a few primary things in common. They keep costs low, they do a good job of matching the index securities (called tracking error), and they use proper weighting methods. For example, one reason Vanguard has some of the lowest expense ratios for their index funds is that they do very little advertising and they are owned by their shareholders. If an index fund has an expense ratio of 0.12, but a comparable fund has an expense ratio of 0.22, the lower cost index fund has an immediate advantage of 0.10. This only amounts to only 10 cents savings for every $100 invested, but every penny counts, especially in the long run, for indexing.

6. Market Capitalization 

With investment securities, market capitalization (or "market cap"), refers to the price of a share of stock multiplied by the number of shares outstanding. Many equity mutual funds are categorized based on the average market capitalization of the stocks that the mutual funds own. This is important because investors need to be sure of what they are buying. Large-cap stock funds invest in stocks of corporations with large market capitalizations, typically higher than $10 billion. These companies are so large that you have probably heard of them, or you may even purchase goods or services from them on a regular basis. Some large-cap stock names include Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, GE, Pfizer, Bank of America, Apple, and Microsoft.

Mid-cap stock funds invest in stocks of corporations of mid-size capitalizations, typically between $2 billion and $10 billion. Many of the names of the corporations you may recognize, such as Harley-Davidson and Papa John's, but others you may not know, such as Aecom or LendingTree.

Small-cap stock funds invest in stocks of corporations of small-size capitalizations, typically between $500 million and $2 billion. While a billion-dollar corporation may seem large to you, it's relatively small compared to the Wal-Marts and Exxons Mobils of the world. One subset of small-cap stocks is "Micro-cap," which represents mutual funds investing in corporations with average market capitalizations, usually less than $750 million.

7. Mutual Fund Style

In addition to capitalization, stocks, and stock funds are categorized by style, divided into growth, value, or blend objectives. Growth stock funds invest in growth stocks, which are stocks of companies that are expected to grow at a rate faster than the market average. Value stock funds invest in value stocks, which are stocks of companies that an investor or mutual fund manager believes to be selling at a price lower than the market value. Value stock funds are often called "dividend mutual funds," because value stocks commonly pay dividends to investors, whereas the typical growth stock does not pay dividends to the investor, because the corporation reinvests its profits to further grow the corporation. Blend stock funds invest in a blend of growth and value stocks. Bond funds also have style classifications, which have two primary divisions: 1) Maturity/duration, which is expressed as long-term, intermediate-term; and short-term, 2) Credit quality, which is divided into high, investment grade, and low (or junk).

8. Balanced Funds

Balanced funds are mutual funds that provide a combination (or balance) of underlying investment assets, such as stocks, bonds, and cash. Also called "hybrid funds" or "asset allocation funds," the asset allocation remains relatively fixed and serves a stated purpose or investment style. For example, a conservative balanced fund might invest in a conservative mix of underlying investment assets, such as 40% stocks, 50% bonds, and 10% money market.

9. Target Date Retirement Funds

This fund type works like its name suggests. Each fund has a year in the name of the fund, such as Vanguard Target Retirement 2055 (VFFVX), which would be a fund best suited for someone who expects to retire in or around the year 2055. Several other fund families, such as Fidelity and T. Rowe Price, offer target date retirement funds. The fund manager assigns a suitable asset allocation (mix of stocks, bonds, and cash) and then slowly shifts the holdings to a more conservative allocation (fewer stocks, more bonds, and more cash) as the target date draws closer.

10. Sector Funds 

These funds focus on a specific industry, social objective, or sector such as healthcare, real estate, or technology. Their investment objective is to provide concentrated exposure to specific industry groups, called "sectors." Mutual fund investors use sector funds to increase exposure to certain industry sectors that they believe will perform better than other sectors. By comparison, diversified mutual funds (those that do not focus on one sector) will already have exposure to most industry sectors. For example, an S&P 500 Index Fund provides exposure to sectors, such as healthcare, energy, technology, utilities, and financial companies. Investors should be careful with sector funds, because there is increased market risk due to volatility if the sector suffers a downturn. Over-exposure to one sector, for example, is a form of market timing that can prove harmful to an investor's portfolio if the sector performs poorly.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is provided for discussion purposes only and should not be misconstrued as investment advice. Under no circumstances does this information represent a recommendation to buy or sell securities.