5 Easy Tips for Picking Mutual Funds

In one our recent issues subscriber Jory G. sent us the following question:

“I have a 401(k) with my present employer that has a number of investment options, virtually all of which are mutual funds. Is it possible for Mr. Miller to address in a future letter what we might do to maximize growth or minimize loss in such programs? I realize there are many different 401(k) programs out there, but I just feel overwhelmed when trying to decide which of the funds provide the best growth/protection.”

As all of our readers know, I am neither licensed nor qualified to give personal investment advice. However, I can sure discuss mutual funds in general.

Jory, I would like to back up and start at the beginning.

I recommend that all of our subscribers read The Intelligent Investor by the late Benjamin Graham. While the last revision was about a decade ago, many of his basic principles are still applicable in today’s market.

He classified investors into two groups, active and passive. For Graham, passive investors had to be willing to accept lower returns; that’s the tradeoff for not staying on top of things.

With a mutual fund, you pay an expert to invest your money for you. Ideally, he does a better job than you could individually. In the early days, folks like Sir John Templeton did a darn good job of it. Over time, major brokerage firms saw the huge fees these funds were charging and decided to set up their own funds. Brokers began to channel clients into their in-house funds, often under a great deal of pressure. Some did well and some did poorly, but all generated nice fees for the fund manager.

Two of my adult children have asked me similar questions. Their companies’ retirement brochures asked them to decide between mutual funds described as “index, conservative, aggressive, mid-cap, large-cap, or moderate.” Just a few adjectives without much explanation, and that’s the basis for deciding where to invest a large portion of your life savings!

During the economic boom times, despite some high fees mutual funds did pretty well. Things then began to change. In 1996, The Motley Fool Investment Guide took most of the mutual-fund industry to task. The premise was that the only way to accurately gauge a mutual fund is to compare its performance to the S&P 500. If could buy an S&P 500 index fund, pay much lower fees, and still beat 80% of mutual funds, what was the point of paying a fund manager?

Basically, when economic times were good, most mutual funds made money for their investors. But then again, an S&P 500 index fund would have also done the trick.

Vedran Vuk, lead analyst for Money Forever, wrote a piece in the Casey Daily Dispatch a while back about a fund manager named Bill Miller (no relation) – a real Wall Street darling who beat the S&P 500 for 15 straight years. When the market turned in 2007, however, he wagered on financial stocks, and his fund dropped 55%; the S&P only dropped 37%.

So what can we learn from Bill Miller? In boom times, we can all do well. Folks can invest in mutual funds, peek at them every three months or so, and still expect to do reasonably well. That’s the ultimate description of a passive investor – but it won’t work in today’s economy.

Over the last 20 years, Bill Miller did well over the first thirteen; the next six years were terrible; and then last year he had a huge gain. Investors’ results varied depending on when they bought into his fund. As you get closer to retirement, you’re probably looking for a little more stability – for both your wallet and your peace of mind.

Please do not misunderstand my message. I am a firm believer in maximizing your contributions to any company-sponsored pension plan, 401(k), IRA, or whatever other retirement plan is available to you. Most are tax deferred, so they lower your tax bill while helping you accumulate long-term wealth.

With that said, you should not approach any company-sponsored retirement account as a passive investor. Here are a few tips for understanding your options and investing wisely:

1.      Look at the fees. Some mutual funds charge up to 2% to manage your money. That’s a heck of an obstacle to overcome in a tough market; you have to earn at 2% just to break even. Only a terrific performance can justify those high fees.

2.      Five-Point Balancing Test. Look at each fund in light of our five criteria. Go online and see where the bulk of their investments stack up.

3.      Diversify. If your company has more than one investment option, diversifying among funds is not a bad idea, particularly if some are specialized funds (small cap, energy, etc.). If you can instruct your fund manager on what percentage of your money to put in each fund, that’s even better.

4.      Index Funds. In 2012, 65.44% of the large-cap active managers lagged behind the S&P 500, 81.57% of mid-cap funds were outperformed by the S&P MidCap 400, and 77.73% of the small-cap funds were outperformed by the S&P SmallCap 600. Over the last five years, approximately 24% of domestic equity funds, 22% of international equity funds, and 15% of fixed-income funds merged or liquidated.

The goal with any company-sponsored retirement plan is to have steady growth so you can retire comfortably. Consider all the options. If most of the other funds cannot beat the lower-cost index funds, consider putting a larger percentage of your portfolio into an index fund.

5.      Don’t set it and forget it. Any plan should allow for annual adjustments. Take the time to study its performance and make any necessary changes each year.

I do want to add one final point. If you are investing outside of a company-sponsored plan, there are many ETFs with the advantages of a mutual fund, but without the high fees. Our team covers ETFs at length in two recent reports, The Yield Book and Money Every Month, so take a look, and remember to apply the same points I outlined above for Jory.

By: Dennis Miller

One thought on “5 Easy Tips for Picking Mutual Funds

  1. Thanks for your article. We know it's very important to picking good mutual funds. Here is some on charges and fees. May be helpful:

    Mutual funds make their money by charging fees to the investor. It is important to gain an understanding of the different types of fees that you may face when purchasing an investment.
    Some funds charge a sales fee known as a load fee, which will either be charged upon the initial investment or upon the sale of the investment. A front-end load fee is paid out of the initial investment made by the investor, while a back-end load fee is charged when an investor sells his or her investment, usually prior to a set time period, such as seven years from purchase.

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