Learn About Mutual Funds Before You Invest

Newspaper turned to the Mutual Funds Section, with glasses, pen, and a cup of coffee

Jay Brousseau / Getty Images

As a popular investment option, you have probably already heard plenty about mutual funds. Chances are you own mutual funds in your retirement plan or brokerage account. But do you know what mutuals funds are and why so many people own them?

Mutual Funds Definition

Mutual funds are an investment that allows a group of investors to pool their money and hire a portfolio manager. According to the fund's stated goal or focus, the manager invests this money—the fund’s assets— in stocks, bonds, or other investment securities. The fund manager continues to buy and sell stocks and securities according to the style dictated by the fund’s prospectus.

Fees of Mutual Funds

All mutual funds charge fees to operate and manage the fund. Management fees pay the fund companies—or managers—to manage the funds. Some funds also charge investors an upfront sales charge/load when they first purchase shares in the fund. Other funds charge a back-end load—contingent deferred sales charge—upon the sale of fund shares. Some funds have no sales charge and are known as “no-load funds.”

Further, 12b-1 fees are imposed by some funds to cover marketing and distribution costs. There are also various share classes of funds that differ in fee structure according to class, such as Class A, Class B, and Class C.

Structure of Mutual Funds

Technically, mutual funds are “open-end” funds—one of four basic types of an investment company. Closed-end funds, exchange-traded funds, and unit investment trusts are three other types. As investment companies, mutual funds are regulated under the Investment Company Act of 1940.

Regulation of Mutual Funds

Regulation of mutual funds—compared to other pooled investment options like hedge funds—is extensive. Mutual funds must comply with a strict set of rules monitored by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC monitors the fund’s compliance with the Investment Company Act of 1940 and its adherence to other federal rules and regulations. Since their development, the regulation of mutual funds has provided investors with confidence in terms of the investment structure.

Diversification of Mutual Funds

The beauty of mutual funds is that you can invest a few thousand dollars in one fund and obtain instant access to a diversified portfolio. Otherwise, to diversify your portfolio, you might have to buy individual securities, which exposes you to more risk and difficulty.

Another reason to invest in mutual funds is their adherence to a basic principle of investing: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. In other words, many different types of investments in one portfolio decrease your risk of loss from any one of those investments. For example, if you put all of your money into the stock of one company and it files for bankruptcy, you lose all of your money. On the other hand, if you invest in a mutual fund that owns many different stocks, it is more likely that you will eventually grow your money. At the very least, one company’s bankruptcy will not mean that you lose your entire investment.

Professional Money Management of Mutual Funds

Many investors don’t have the resources or time to buy individual stocks. Investing in individual securities, such as stocks, not only takes resources but a considerable amount of time. By contrast, managers and analysts of mutual funds wake up each morning dedicating their professional lives to researching and analyzing their holdings and potential holdings for their funds.

Variety of Mutual Funds

There are many types and styles of mutual funds. There are stock funds, bond funds, sector funds, money market funds, and balanced funds. Mutual funds allow you to invest in the market, whether you believe in active portfolio management (actively managed funds) or you prefer to buy a segment of the market with no interference from a manager (passive funds and index funds). The availability of different fund types allows you to build a diversified portfolio at a low cost and without much difficulty.

The Balance does not provide tax, investment, or financial services and advice. The information is presented without consideration of the investment objectives, risk tolerance, or financial circumstances of any specific investor and might not be suitable for all investors. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal.