What is a Mutual fund? Definition from Digimagg

A mutual fund is an investment vehicle that pools money from multiple investors to invest in stocks, bonds, or other assets. It's managed by professional fund managers, offering diversification and potential for growth.

May 9, 2024 - 15:50
May 9, 2024 - 15:51
What is a Mutual fund? Definition from Digimagg
Mutual fund

What is a Mutual fund?

Mutual funds amalgamate funds from numerous investors to purchase a diverse range of investments. Professional managers make decisions on which investments to acquire and offload for the fund. This blend of investments is overseen by a skilled fund manager, with the fund's assets and objectives outlined in its prospectus.

These funds encompass a significant portion of middle-income Americans' retirement savings, a trend that wasn't prevalent in the past. In 1980, less than 6% of U.S. households had investments in mutual funds. However, by 2023, approximately 52% of American households had invested in them, holding shares that accounted for 88% of all mutual fund assets. By investing in mutual funds, these households gain access to a diversified range of investments, reducing their risk compared to investing solely in individual stocks or bonds. Investors receive returns based on the fund's performance after deducting any fees or expenses. Mutual funds have become a preferred investment option for middle America, offering professionally managed portfolios comprising equities, bonds, and various asset classes to a broad spectrum of middle-income workers.

Understanding Mutual funds

A mutual fund possesses a collection of investments funded by all investors who have acquired shares in the fund. Therefore, upon purchasing shares in a mutual fund, an individual obtains partial ownership of all the underlying assets held by the fund. The performance of the fund relies on the performance of its combined assets. As the value of these assets rises, so does the value of the fund's shares. Conversely, if the assets' value declines, the value of the shares also decreases.

The mutual fund manager supervises the portfolio, determining the allocation of funds across various sectors, industries, and companies according to the fund's strategy. Approximately half of the mutual funds owned by American households consist of index equity funds. These funds construct portfolios that replicate and weigh the assets of indexes such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA). Vanguard and Fidelity manage the largest mutual funds, which are also index funds.

What is the method used to determine profits in Mutual funds?

Investors generally earn returns from a mutual fund through three primary avenues:

  1. Dividend/Interest income: Mutual funds distribute dividends from stocks and interest from bonds within their portfolio. Investors often have the option to receive distributions as a check or reinvest earnings for additional shares in the mutual fund.
  2. Portfolio distributions: If the fund sells securities at a profit, it realizes a capital gain, which is typically passed on to investors in a distribution.
  3. Capital gains: When the fund's shares increase in value, investors can sell their mutual fund shares on the market for a profit.

When evaluating the returns of a mutual fund, investors often encounter the figure for "total return," representing the net change in value over a specific period. This encompasses any interest, dividends, or capital gains generated by the fund, along with changes in its market value during the designated period. Typically, total returns are provided for periods of one, five, and ten years, as well as from the fund's inception date.

Types of Mutual funds

Among the over 7,000 mutual funds in the U.S., the majority fall into four main categories: stock, money market, bond, and target-date funds. 

Stock funds

These funds primarily invest in equity or stocks and encompass various subcategories. Some focus on the size of the companies they invest in, such as small-, mid-, or large-cap firms. Others are categorized based on their investment approach, such as aggressive growth, income-oriented, or value. Stock funds can also be classified by whether they invest in U.S. stocks or foreign equities. Understanding how these strategies and asset sizes can be combined is facilitated by using an equity style box.

Value funds

Value funds target stocks perceived as undervalued by their managers, aiming for long-term appreciation when the market recognizes their true worth. These companies typically have low price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios, low price-to-book ratios, and dividend yields.

Large-cap companies are those with market capitalizations exceeding $10 billion, calculated by multiplying the share price by the number of shares outstanding. These companies are often recognized as blue-chip firms due to their widespread familiarity. Conversely, small-cap stocks have market capitalizations ranging from $250 million to $2 billion, typically representing newer and riskier investments. Mid-cap stocks, falling between small- and large-cap, occupy an intermediate position.

Mutual funds frequently blend different investment styles and company sizes. For instance, a large-cap value fund might include large-cap companies with strong financial standings but recently declining share prices, placing them in the upper left quadrant of the style box (large and value). Conversely, a small-cap growth fund might invest in startup technology firms with promising growth prospects, positioning it in the bottom right quadrant (small and growth).

Bond funds

A mutual fund categorized under fixed-income generates a consistent and minimum return, emphasizing investments that offer a predetermined rate of return, such as government bonds, corporate bonds, and other debt instruments. The income generated from these bonds is distributed to the shareholders as interest income.

Additionally, there are actively managed funds that seek relatively undervalued bonds to sell for profit. While these mutual funds may offer higher returns, they also entail risks. For instance, a fund specializing in high-yield junk bonds carries more risk compared to one investing in government securities.

Given the diversity of bonds available, bond funds can vary significantly based on their investment timing and selection. Moreover, all bond funds are susceptible to risks associated with fluctuations in interest rates.

Index Mutual funds

Index mutual funds aim to mirror the performance of a specific index, like the S&P 500 or the DJIA, requiring less research from analysts and advisors. Consequently, fewer expenses are incurred by investors through fees, catering to those who prioritize cost efficiency.

Moreover, index mutual funds often outperform actively managed mutual funds, offering a rare combination of lower costs and superior performance.

Balanced funds

Balanced funds, on the other hand, diversify across various securities, including stocks, bonds, the money market, or alternative investments. These asset-allocation funds aim to mitigate risk through diversification.

Mutual funds transparently outline their allocation strategies, allowing investors to understand the assets they're indirectly investing in. Some funds employ dynamic allocation strategies to meet diverse investor objectives, adapting to market conditions, business cycle changes, or shifts in investors' life phases.

Portfolio managers typically have the flexibility to adjust the ratio of asset classes as necessary to uphold the fund's defined strategy.

Money market Mutual funds

Money market mutual funds comprise safe, short-term debt instruments, primarily government Treasury bills, offering modest returns comparable to regular checking or savings accounts but lower than certificates of deposit (CDs). These funds serve as temporary repositories for cash earmarked for future investments or emergency funds, although they lack Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance.

Income funds

Income funds aim to distribute income consistently and are often favored for retirement investing. They primarily invest in government and high-quality corporate debt, holding these bonds until maturity to generate steady interest income, with the primary objective being a consistent cash flow.

International Mutual funds

International mutual funds, also known as foreign funds, exclusively invest in assets outside an investor's home country, while global funds have a worldwide investment scope. Their volatility is contingent upon the timing and location of their investments. Despite fluctuations, they can bolster a well-diversified portfolio, providing a hedge against domestic market downturns.

Regional Mutual funds

Regional mutual funds, typically internationally focused, concentrate on specific geographic regions such as countries, continents, or economically similar groups of countries. These funds invest in securities of companies headquartered or with significant revenue within the targeted region.

Examples include Europe-focused mutual funds, emerging market mutual funds, and Latin America-focused mutual funds, each tailored to the growth potential and economic characteristics of their respective regions. While offering growth opportunities, regional mutual funds also entail risks like political instability and currency fluctuations, contingent upon the region's circumstances.

Sector and theme Mutual funds

Sector and thematic mutual funds aim to capitalize on the performance of specific sectors of the economy, such as finance, technology, or healthcare. Thematic funds may span multiple sectors, such as a fund focused on artificial intelligence (AI), which may hold positions in healthcare, defense, and other industries leveraging AI beyond technology. These funds can exhibit volatility ranging from low to extreme, with the drawback being that stocks within many sectors often move in tandem.

Socially responsible Mutual funds

Socially responsible mutual funds, also known as ethical funds, exclusively invest in companies and sectors meeting predetermined criteria. For instance, some socially responsible funds avoid investing in industries like tobacco, alcohol, weapons, or nuclear power. Sustainable mutual funds primarily invest in environmentally friendly technologies, such as solar and wind power or recycling initiatives.

Furthermore, certain funds assess environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors when selecting investments. This approach evaluates a company's management practices and their inclination toward environmental and community improvement initiatives.

Mutual fund fees

When considering mutual fund investments, it's crucial to grasp the associated fees, as these expenses can significantly impact your investment returns over time. Here are some common fees associated with mutual funds:

Expense ratio: An annual fee covering the fund's operational expenses, including management fees, administrative costs, and marketing expenses. It's expressed as a percentage of the fund's average net assets and deducted from the fund's returns. Over the past three decades, mutual funds have substantially reduced expense ratios due to competition from index funds and ETFs. In 1996, equity mutual fund investors faced expense ratios averaging 1.04%. By 2022, this average had dropped to 0.44%, according to the Investment Company Institute. Bond mutual funds had slightly lower fees at 0.37%, while hybrid models, requiring more management, averaged 0.59%.

Sales charges or loads: Some mutual funds impose sales fees, known as "loads," when buying or selling shares. Front-end loads are applied when purchasing shares, while back-end loads (contingent and deferred sales charges) are incurred upon selling shares before a specified date. However, management firms may offer no-load mutual funds, which do not entail commission or sales charges.

Redemption fees: Certain mutual funds levy a fee for selling shares within a short period (typically 30 to 180 days) after purchase, limited by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to 2%. This fee aims to deter short-term trading for fund stability.

Other account fees: Some funds or brokerage firms may impose additional charges for account maintenance or transactions, particularly if the balance falls below a specified minimum.

Classes of Mutual fund shares

If you aim to reduce your fees, it's crucial to consider the type of mutual fund shares you purchase. Historically, individual investors acquired mutual funds with A-shares through a broker, incurring a front-end load of up to 5% or more, along with management fees and ongoing fees for distributions (commonly known as 12b-1 fees). Financial advisors selling these products might incentivize clients to opt for higher-load offerings to earn commissions. In front-end funds, investors cover these expenses when buying into the fund.

To address these issues and adhere to fiduciary-rule standards, investment companies have introduced new share classes, such as "level load" C shares, which typically lack a front-end load but carry an annual distribution fee of up to 1% (12b-1 fee).

Class B shares are characterized by funds that impose management and other fees when investors sell their holdings.

What are the steps to Investing in Mutual funds?

Investing in mutual funds follows a straightforward process, outlined as follows:

  1. Before purchasing shares, it's advisable to inquire with your employer about any additional mutual fund offerings, as these may include matching funds or offer tax advantages.
  2. Ensure you have a brokerage account with sufficient funds and access to acquire mutual fund shares.
  3. Identify mutual funds aligned with your investment objectives, considering factors such as risk, returns, fees, and minimum investments. Many platforms provide screening and research tools for fund selection.
  4. Determine the amount you wish to invest and execute your trade. Additionally, you may opt to establish automatic recurring investments according to your preferences.
  5. Although these investments are typically long-term, it's prudent to periodically monitor the fund's performance and make adjustments as necessary.
  6. When ready to liquidate your position, initiate a sell order through your platform.

What determines the pricing of Mutual fund shares?

The valuation of a mutual fund is contingent upon the performance of the securities it holds. When purchasing a unit or share of a mutual fund, investors obtain a portion of its portfolio value. Investing in mutual fund shares differs from investing in stock shares as mutual fund shares do not confer voting rights to their holders, unlike stocks. Additionally, unlike ETFs, mutual fund shares cannot be traded throughout the trading day.

The pricing of mutual fund shares is determined by the net asset value (NAV) per share, sometimes denoted as NAVPS. The NAV of a fund is calculated by dividing the total value of the securities in the portfolio by the number of shares outstanding.

Mutual fund shares are typically bought or redeemed at the fund's NAV, which remains constant during market hours and is settled at the end of each trading day. The price of a mutual fund is also adjusted when the NAVPS is settled.

Pros & cons of Mutual fund investing

Mutual funds have emerged as the preferred investment avenue for retail investors for several reasons, with a significant portion of funds in employer-sponsored retirement plans allocated to them. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has closely scrutinized the operation of these funds over the years, recognizing their critical role in the financial well-being and retirement planning of numerous Americans.

Pros Cons
  • Accessibility to funds
  • Broadening investment portfolio
  • Low initial investment criteria
  • Expert supervision
  • Diverse range of choices
  • Elevated fees, commissions, and additional charges
  • Significant cash holdings within portfolios
  • Absence of FDIC protection
  • Challenges in comparing fund options
  • Limited transparency regarding holdings

Pros of Mutual fund investing


Diversification, which involves spreading investments across various assets to mitigate risk, is a key benefit of mutual fund investing. A diversified portfolio comprises securities of different sizes, industries, bond issuers, and maturities. Mutual funds offer a cost-effective and efficient way to achieve diversification compared to purchasing individual securities.


Mutual funds are highly liquid investments traded on major stock exchanges, allowing for easy buying and selling. They provide individual investors with access to assets such as foreign equities or niche commodities, which might otherwise be challenging to access.

Economies of scale

Mutual funds leverage economies of scale, reducing transaction costs compared to individual securities purchases. Additionally, they enable investors to benefit from dollar-cost averaging by regularly investing fixed amounts, regardless of market fluctuations.

Professional management

Mutual funds are managed by professional investment managers who employ research and trading expertise. This professional management is accessible to small investors at relatively low costs, offering them the opportunity to benefit from skilled portfolio management.


Mutual funds adhere to industry regulations aimed at ensuring transparency and accountability for investors. The underlying securities of each fund are publicly available across various platforms, enabling investors to make informed decisions. Moreover, investors can choose from a wide range of funds with different management styles and objectives, catering to various investment preferences and goals.

Cons of Mutual fund investing

Mutual funds offer attractive features like liquidity, diversification, and professional management, but they also come with drawbacks:

Absence of FDIC guarantee

Mutual funds, like many other investments, lack a guaranteed return. There's a possibility that the fund's value may decrease, particularly with equity mutual funds that experience price fluctuations in their underlying stock portfolios. Unlike bank deposits, mutual fund investments are not insured by the FDIC.

Cash drag

Mutual funds must maintain a portion of their portfolios in cash to meet daily share redemptions. This cash allocation, known as "cash drag," doesn't earn returns and can hinder overall fund performance.

Higher costs

Mutual funds incur fees that can diminish investors' overall returns, regardless of the fund's performance. Actively managed funds, in particular, accrue transaction costs over time, impacting investors' long-term gains.


Successful funds may face dilution as they grow larger. With inflows of new capital, fund managers may struggle to find suitable investments, potentially diluting returns for existing investors.

Investment restrictions

Mutual funds must adhere to SEC regulations requiring at least 80% of assets to be invested in the specific type of investment implied by their title. However, fund managers have discretion over the remaining assets, leading to potential manipulation of investors through misleading fund titles.

End-of-day trading

Unlike stocks and ETFs that trade throughout the day, mutual fund redemptions occur only at the end of the trading day, limiting investors' ability to execute transactions promptly.

Tax implications

Mutual fund managers triggering capital gains taxes when selling securities can result in tax obligations for investors. ETFs mitigate this through their creation and redemption mechanism. Investors can minimize taxes by opting for tax-sensitive funds or holding non-tax-sensitive mutual funds in tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s or IRAs.

Assessing Mutual funds

Assessing and comparing mutual funds can pose more challenges compared to other securities. Unlike stocks, mutual funds lack straightforward metrics like price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, sales growth, or earnings per share (EPS) for direct comparison. While a mutual fund's net asset value (NAV) can serve as a reference point, comparing funds can be complex due to the diversity of portfolios, even among funds with similar objectives or names. Generally, only index funds tracking the same markets are truly comparable.

Beware of "Diworsification," a term coined to highlight the detrimental effects of excessive complexity in investment portfolios. Many mutual fund investors tend to complicate matters by acquiring numerous funds that are too similar, thereby diluting the benefits of diversification.

Mutual funds & Index funds

Index funds are mutual funds designed to replicate the performance of a specific market benchmark or index. For instance, an S&P 500 index fund mirrors this index by investing in the 500 companies in proportions similar to the index. The primary objective of index funds is to minimize expenses in order to closely mimic the performance of their respective index.

In contrast, actively managed mutual funds strive to outperform the market through individual stock selection and allocation adjustments. Fund managers aim to generate returns surpassing a benchmark through their investment strategies and research.

Index funds provide market-level returns with lower expenses, whereas actively managed mutual funds seek higher returns through skilled management, often associated with higher costs. When choosing between investing in index funds or actively managed mutual funds, investors should consider factors such as expenses, investment horizon, and risk tolerance.

Index vs. active Mutual funds

Attribute Index funds Active funds
Goal Match a market index Outperform the market
Management style Passive, automated Active by fund managers
Fees Low expense ratios Higher expense ratios
Performance Average market returns Attempt to beat averages

Mutual Funds & ETFs

Mutual funds and ETFs are collective investment vehicles that provide investors with a share in a diversified portfolio. However, there are notable distinctions between them.

One crucial dissimilarity is that ETF shares are traded on stock exchanges similar to regular stocks, whereas mutual fund shares are traded only once daily, typically after markets close. This distinction implies that ETFs can be traded at any point during market hours, offering greater liquidity, flexibility, and real-time pricing. Consequently, investors can engage in various strategies such as short selling or employing tactics akin to those used with individual stocks.

Another significant variance lies in pricing and valuation. ETF prices, akin to stocks, fluctuate throughout the trading day based on supply and demand dynamics. In contrast, mutual funds are priced solely at the close of each trading day, determined by the net asset value (NAV) of the underlying portfolio. Consequently, ETFs may exhibit larger premiums or discounts to NAV compared to mutual funds.

In comparison with mutual funds, ETFs often present certain tax advantages and are frequently more cost-effective.

Is investing in mutual funds considered safe?

Investing in securities like stocks, bonds, or mutual funds carries inherent risks, with the level of risk varying depending on factors like the investment strategy, holdings, and the competence of the fund manager. Unlike deposits in banks or credit unions, investments in mutual funds are not FDIC insured or covered by similar protections.

What are the tax consequences associated with investing in mutual funds?

Investing in mutual funds carries tax considerations, including taxes on capital gains and dividends, as well as potential capital gains or losses upon selling shares. The tax impact varies based on factors like the fund type, holding duration, and whether the investment is held in a tax-advantaged account. Employing tax-efficient funds and utilizing tax-advantaged accounts can mitigate tax liabilities, but seeking advice from a tax expert is advisable for tailored guidance.

Is it possible to sell mutual fund shares at any given moment?

Indeed, mutual funds are regarded as liquid assets, allowing for the sale of shares at any time. When selling all or a portion of your fund holdings, it's essential to determine the cost basis for that transaction. Although mutual funds set their share prices once per day based on NAV, you can still submit orders to sell mutual fund shares at any point. It's advisable to review the fund's guidelines regarding exchange or redemption fees. Additionally, there may be tax implications related to capital gains earned through mutual fund redemptions.

What is a target date Mutual fund?

When considering investments in a 401(k) or similar retirement savings plan, target-date or life cycle funds are commonly favored. Opting for a fund aligned with your retirement timeline, such as a theoretical "FUND X 2050" aimed at a retirement year of 2050, entails investing in a mutual fund that adjusts its risk profile towards a more conservative stance as the target date approaches.

In summary, mutual funds offer versatility and accessibility for diversifying portfolios. These funds amalgamate funds from various investors for investment in stocks, bonds, real estate, derivatives, and other securities—all managed on behalf of the investors. Key advantages include access to diversified, professionally managed portfolios and a selection among funds tailored to different objectives and risk tolerances. Nonetheless, mutual funds entail fees and expenses, including annual fees, expense ratios, or commissions, which impact overall returns.

Investors can select from various types of mutual funds, such as stock, bond, money market, index, and target-date funds, each with its focus and strategy. Returns on mutual funds stem from income distributions from dividends or interest and profits gained from selling fund securities.

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