Maybe I've just lived a sheltered life. But aside from the normal worries about the ills of society -- poverty, hunger, crime, The Apprentice, etc. -- all my life I've kept a concerned eye on a subject so controversial, so personal, and so important to my future that at times I haven't known where to turn.
Indeed, for years, every time I heard the phrase "mutual fund," my heart began to race. Do I put in money? Pull it back out? Should I manage each and every stock individually rather than trust a manager? Are mutual funds the only way to go? Should I forget the whole thing, put my cash in Mason jars, and store them in the attic?
Putting down roots
Growing up the child of a banker and a teacher, I've always had a healthy respect for the stock market and where I ought to put my money. When I was 17, my family encouraged me to open up an account and begin putting money into a mutual fund, which I did with glee. (Yes, I was that kind of child.) After doing as much due diligence as I could, I plunked down my first investment in the T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth Fund, a fund I still hold today. At varying times, it's held large stakes in all the usual suspects: UnitedHealthGroup
I watched as it went up, then down, then waaayyy down, and cheered as it began its upward climb again while I held on for dear life. For a starving student who lacked a significant source of income, I found that putting $50 a month into a mutual fund was both a big commitment and a source of pride. I wasn't sure of the ramifications later in life, but I knew this was something I needed to do to save for the future -- whatever that might bring.
The balloon pops
At about the same time I was navigating my way through college, the bubble began to burst in 1999-2000, and my then-roommate, a bright business and finance student, began to disparage mutual funds in general. They were poor places to invest one's money, he said, and he encouraged me to get out and cut my losses as quickly as possible. And if I wanted to stay in, I oughtn't invest any more.
I argued that though the market was down, my mutual fund was a sound one, and the low prices meant I could pick up more shares while everyone else hunkered down for the storm. No, no, he countered -- mutual funds were vehicles only of the lazy and the ill-informed. Didn't I know a fund manager was just using me for profit?
He made a good point. How did I know what the fund manager was doing with my money and my good faith? For all I knew, he was buying into particular stocks just to pad his own pockets and leave me to my own devices, flailing about in a scary down market, the first bearish period during which I'd ever maintained my investments. I could do my homework and my due diligence, of course, but what if I was wrong? What if I was so wrong that I lost all my money while making the manager rich?
I wouldn't be the first investor to fall prey to an off-its-game fund. Indeed, Shannon Zimmerman spotlights one "Dud of the Month" in every issue of his Motley Fool Champion Funds newsletter service. From GAM American Focus to Morgan Stanley Quality Income, Shannon's seen it all, and he warns subscribers to steer clear of those Duds with less-than-desirable track records -- high expense ratios, short management tenures, and other qualities that should raise red flags in investors' minds. Though their holdings -- such as Wal-Mart, Total SA
I had no reason to believe that my fund was one of those, of course. But my roomie's words of warning went straight to my heart. My faith was shaken. I'd begun my investing quest with confidence and comfort in the market, but I now had to ask myself: Was my fund a dud after all?
Hang on tight -- if you believe
Regardless, I held on, questioning myself all the while and driving myself nearly sick with worry at times. I knew that my fund had maintained a solid performance before this downturn, I continued to believe in the manager, and, in the end, I knew that the occasional bear market was inevitable. But despite that logic, doubts -- and outright fear -- continued to creep into my thoughts.
When I was a teenager, my father had implored me to simply take my fund's quarterly statements from the mailbox, give them a read, and put them straight into a drawer so I wouldn't be tempted to sell when one quarter -- or one year -- looked bad. Though I now view that as good advice for a long-term strategy, I'd long since stopped that practice and was poring over each statement, wondering whether I'd made a grave mistake.
I hadn't. As the dust settled, my fund began to creep upward again and is now neck and neck with the S&P -- a welcome relief after such tumultuous times.
The Foolish bottom line
If you believe in the direction of your investment, stick with it during the inevitable down times. Of course, if you've done your due diligence and you find that your fund is akin to Shannon's Duds, don't hesitate to give it the boot. There are literally thousands of funds out there that have superior characteristics, so there's no need to waste precious time and money on the laggards.
If you'd like some no-nonsense guidance on picking a superior fund, you can sample our Champion Funds service for 30 days -- for free. To date, Shannon has highlighted 30 mutual funds for subscribers; nine of those are up more than 20%. A free trial gives you access to our full roster of picks -- Champs and Duds alike. Simply click here to learn more.
Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool and is still holding her first fund, the T. Rowe Price Blue Chip Growth Fund. Hope does not own shares of any other security mentioned in this article. Dell and UnitedHealth Group are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Total SA is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Motley Fool isinvestors writing for investors.