How to Read a Mutual Fund Prospectus

Mutual funds offer several advantages over stock investments, including diversification and professional management. A mutual fund may hold investments in hundreds or thousands of stocks, thus reducing risk of any particular stock. Also, the transaction costs associated with buying individual stocks are also spread around among all the mutual fund shareholders. As well, a mutual fund benefits from professional fund managers who can apply their expertise and dedicate time to research investment options. Mutual funds, however, are not immune to risks. Mutual funds share the same risks associated with the types of investments the fund makes. If the fund mainly invests in stocks, the mutual fund is usually subject to the same ups and downs and risks as the stock market.

Net asset value

The net asset value, or NAV, is a fund’s value of its holdings, usually expressed as a per-share amount. For most funds, the NAV is determined daily, after the close of trading on some specified financial exchange, but some funds update their NAV multiple times during the trading day. Open-end funds sell and redeem their shares at the NAV, and so only process orders after the NAV is determined. Closed-end funds may trade at a higher or lower price than their NAV; this is known as a premium or discount, respectively. If a fund is divided into multiple classes of shares, each class will typically have its own NAV, reflecting differences in fees and expenses paid by the different classes.

Some mutual funds own securities which are not regularly traded on any formal exchange. These may be shares in very small or bankrupt companies; they may be derivatives; or they may be private investments in unregistered financial instruments (such as stock in a non-public company). In the absence of a public market for these securities, it is the responsibility of the fund manager to form an estimate of their value when computing the NAV. How much of a fund’s assets may be invested in such securities is stated in the fund’s prospectus.

Turnover

Turnover is a measure of the amount of securities that are bought and sold, usually in a year, and usually expressed as a percentage of net asset value. It shows how actively managed the fund is.

A caveat is that this value is sometimes calculated as the value of all transactions (buying, selling) divided by 2; i.e., the fund counts one security sold and another one bought as one “transaction”. This makes the turnover look half as high as would be according to the standard measure.

Turnover generally has tax consequences for a fund, which are passed through to investors. In particular, when selling an investment from its portfolio, a fund may realize a capital gain, which will ultimately be distributed to investors as taxable income. The very process of buying and selling securities also has its own costs, such as brokerage commissions, which are borne by the fund’s shareholders.

The Dalbar Inc. consultancy studied stock mutual fund returns over the period from 1984 to 2000. Dalbar found that the average stock fund returned 14 percent; during that same period, the typical mutual fund investor had a 5.3 percent return.[4] This finding has made both “personal turnover” (buying and selling mutual funds) and “professional turnover” (buying mutual funds with a turnover above perhaps 5%) unattractive to some people.

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