There are thousands of mutual funds on the market -- a highly intimidating number. Who has time to spend hours researching even a small number of them? Fortunately, knowing what to look for can significantly reduce your research time.
The previous sections of this series went into plenty of detail on important criteria to use in evaluating a fund. But in essence, you can boil them all down into a five-minute plan for getting to know a mutual fund, by 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? 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 do; remember that 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 stay away from inadequately diversified funds, so look for funds that invest across all sectors and avoid large bets in any one area.
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 familiar big companies you already know about? Are there any foreign holdings in a domestic fund? Also check to see whether any one of the top holdings takes up a particularly big chunk of total assets. If so, the fund might be too concentrated for Foolish tastes.
Only after you've checked all of these other items off 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 with 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? Examining 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. Listening to your inner Fool will become easier.
Phew! We just got in at 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!