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Mutual Funds 101

What's the Definition of a Mutual Fund?

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Ninety million people—roughly one out of three Americans—invest in mutual funds1, and it’s easy to understand why. Mutual funds offer access to the stock and bond markets for a relatively modest initial investment and may provide great potential to grow your money or generate income. Whether you’re looking to invest for the short-term or the long haul, mutual funds may be flexible enough to meet your needs. 

The Mutual Fund Basics

A mutual fund is a collection of stocks and/or bonds selected by a professional fund manager based on a set investing strategy. Some funds, such as asset allocation funds, are designed to align with the level of risk investors are willing to tolerate in exchange for greater growth potential. Other funds are designed to focus holdings on particular parts of the economy, like natural resources or utilities. There are also funds targeted to match particular investing goal timelines, and funds that focus on certain types of stocks and bonds. The list goes on. This variety of investing approaches and structures is one of the many appealing qualities of mutual funds. No matter what your style or goal, there’s a fund out there for you. 

Another fundamental aspect of mutual funds is that they help investors diversify their investment across a number of securities (stocks and/or bonds) in a single investment. For example, trying to buy individual stocks in a number of companies on your own can take a lot of time, money, and expertise. With a mutual fund, you’re investing in all of the underlying securities that have been pre-selected for you by the fund manager. In addition, spreading out your money across a larger number of securities can help manage risk and volatility. Keep in mind, though, that while this diversification can help mitigate the volatility of the mutual fund, it will not eliminate it. 

When you invest in a mutual fund, you’re buying shares of it based on the value of the fund’s assets at that time (its Net Asset Value, or NAV). The NAV of a fund can move up or down daily depending on how the individual stocks, bonds or other securities in the fund are performing in the market. Knowing the mix of a fund’s assets helps determine how much market movement may impact the fund’s daily NAV. For example, if a fund’s strategic goal is aggressive long-term growth, it may hold stock in companies that experience more day-to-day price fluctuations, but may have the potential for greater gains in value over time. When you hear the phrase “risk tolerance,” it refers to how much of this market volatility you’re willing to endure for the potential of a future benefit. 

When the fund sells off some of its holdings at a profit, your share of the profit from that sale (minus the fund’s operating expenses) is paid to you. This is called a capital gain. Typically these are distributed once a year. A dividend, on the other hand, is a distribution of earnings on securities in the fund's portfolio and is typically in the form of a cash payment.

You can take these capital gain and dividend payments (together often referred to as distributions) either as cash or reinvest them by purchasing additional shares of the fund. Depending on the type of account (tax deferred vs. taxable) there may be tax ramifications associated with distributions. You’ll want to consider your overall goals and tax preferences before making a decision about distributions.

If the NAV of your mutual fund shares increases from your initial purchase cost, you can sell your shares and take the profit (minus any sales charges, fees, or taxes). Something to keep in mind when deciding to sell your mutual funds shares is which shares you’re going to sell based on a calculation of the cost basis of those shares. Since fund shares are purchased at different times and held for different periods of time, the amount you’ve paid for those funds varies. The cost basis is how the value of the shares is determined for tax purposes. You can find out more about cost basis in the Thrivent Mutual Funds Tax Resource Center. 

How Mutual Funds Stack Up

Mutual funds are one of many investments you may choose. So, how do they compare to some other popular options?

  • Savings Accounts
    These accounts are a vital part of day-to-day finances, but may offer a lower return when compared to mutual funds. However, these accounts are typically insured by either the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Mutual funds are NOT insured.
  • Stocks
    Purchasing individual shares of stock can be expensive and risky in that your investment is tied to a company’s financial health, good or bad, in addition to potentially a host of other factors. A mutual fund allows you to include stocks as part of your investment mix, but with enough other holdings to mitigate the affect from fluctuations in the individual stock and the greater market. This is called diversification.
  • Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)
    You’ll often hear ETFs compared to mutual funds in that both are made up of assets like stocks, bonds, and other commodities, but there are important differences. Unlike mutual funds, ETFs trade like a stock and typically incur sales commission fees with every purchase. However, ETFs may have lower expenses than similar mutual funds as their operating expenses may be lower. Whereas ETF prices fluctuate throughout the day just like stocks, the price of a mutual fund does not vary as it is set at the end of each trading day.

What Thrivent Mutual Funds Offers

Ultimately, choosing a mutual fund depends on your stage in life, financial goals and the level of risk you’re willing to take on in exchange for potential return. Our investment team brings deep expertise and proprietary research to actively managing each fund. When you choose to invest with Thrivent Mutual Funds, you’ll benefit from the expertise of our investment professionals and the convenience and choices we provide to make investing easier.

Mutual fund highlights.

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1 2015 Investment Company Fact Book