At last count, there were more than 7,000 mutual funds and exchange-traded funds on the market -- a highly intimidating number. Who has time to spend hours researching even a small number of these funds? Fortunately, knowing what to look for can significantly reduce your research time. Here's a five-minute plan for getting to know a mutual fund, using information readily available on most fund companies' websites. Set your stopwatch, and ... we're off!
First, look at how long the fund has been around. In general, Fools should avoid funds lacking at least a few years of experience. Ideally, a fund should have been around long enough to invest in both good and bad markets. If you find a fund with a track record exceeding seven or eight years, make a note.
Management tenure may be the most crucial thing to look for. Studies have shown that funds with long-tenured managers or management teams regularly outperform funds with newer leadership. Again, look for a manager who's been at the fund long enough to have a track record in both bullish and bearish markets.
Next, take a quick look at fund expenses. Many funds charge excessive management fees -- make sure you're not buying one of them. Are the fees reasonable? Are they less than the average fund expense ratio for that asset class? (Overall, the average mutual fund charges a 1.4% expense ratio.) You should also try to avoid funds with front- or back-end loads -- additional fees charged every time you buy or sell a share. By avoiding high expenses, you'll keep more of your eventual returns.
How high is fund turnover -- the frequency with which managers buy and sell a fund's holdings? For the most part, lower turnover is better, since it creates fewer ongoing transaction costs. However, be aware that some fund managers purposely pursue high-turnover strategies. In addition, small-cap funds typically have higher turnover than large-cap funds; remember this when putting your fund under the magnifying glass.
Now look at the fund's sector allocation. Is it overly concentrated in any one or two areas of the market? You want to avoid inadequately diversified funds, so look for funds that invest across all sectors, avoiding large bets in any one area.
Now look at any other portfolio statistics the company may provide. Do they match up with the fund's objective? If a so-called value fund sports a price-to-earnings ratio exceeding that of most growth funds, perhaps it's not as value-oriented as it claims. Likewise, make sure any prospective small-cap fund doesn't sport too large an average or median market cap.
Next, check out the fund's top holdings. Are they consistent with its stated objective? If this is a large-cap fund, are the top holdings companies such as Wal-Mart
Only after you've checked all of these other items off of your list should you begin to look at past performance. Don't focus too closely on short-term results; instead, look at how the fund has performed over the long term. Then, compare its record to that of its benchmark. Does it beat the index more often than not? Is performance consistent, or does it swing wildly from year to year? Examing the fund's performance in both good and bad environments should give you an idea of what to expect.
Now it's time for a gut check. After examining all of these areas, you should have an instinctual feeling about the fund's quality. If you have any lingering doubts, it's better to pass on the fund and find another. The more you perform this kind of fund research, the more you'll hone your skills, making it easier to listen to your inner Fool.
Phew! We just got in under the five-minute mark. Now that you know how to do an initial fund screening in just a few short minutes, you're well on your way to building the mutual fund portfolio of your dreams. Good luck!
Further fund Foolishness:
Fool contributor Amanda Kish lives in Rochester, N.Y., and does not own shares of any of the companies or funds mentioned herein. Wal-Mart is an Inside Value selection. The Fool's disclosure policy always has a few minutes to spare.