Mutual Funds Best Option for Most Investors

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

There are three primary ways to invest in the stock market; mutual funds, exchange traded funds (ETFs) and individual stocks.   With mutual funds and ETFs your money is pooled together with money from other investors and is professionally managed in accordance with a predefined objective.   Some major benefits of investing in mutual funds and ETFs include diversification, professional management and time savings.  Some disadvantages of mutual funds may include management fees and less control on when gains become taxable.

An essential factor in effectively managing your portfolio is diversification and it’s difficult to maintain a diversified portfolio without investing a significant amount of money.  A diversified portfolio should be comprised of a combination of fixed income investments and stock market based investments.  The stock based investments should be comprised of small, medium and large companies in a variety of different industries in both the United States and abroad.    Investing in a wide variety of companies and industries can spread out your risk.  Mutual funds allow you to easily diversify your portfolio by pooling your funds with those of other investors.  Instead of buying 10 individual stocks you can by 5 to 10 mutual funds in different areas of the market, each of which may contain hundreds of companies.

Although managing your finances should be a priority, most investors lead busy lives and don’t have the time to research and monitor individual stocks.   Mutual funds can be a good alternative to doing your own research.   Most mutual fund companies have entire teams of highly skilled analysts who visit companies, analyze data, assess the competition and monitor industry trends.  It would be difficult to attain this level of knowledge and understanding on your own.  Additionally, professional management provides the methodology and discipline to keep emotions out of investment decisions.  When investing in individual stock, investors can become emotionally attached to a company whose stock has performed well.  This can result in dangerously high concentrations in a few individual companies.

Mutual funds and ETFs use a broad approach that generally tracks more closely to the entire stock market or a specific index.  Individual stocks, on the other hand, can provide the opportunity to break away from market performance to make a significant profit, if you select a winner.  However, you many also experience a significant loss if the stock is a loser.

Some potential disadvantages of mutual funds in comparison to individual stocks include management fees and less control over when you pay capital gains tax, within non-retirement accounts. With individual stocks and ETFs you don’t pay capital gains until you sell your shares.  However, when a mutual fund manager sells stock within a fund, gains earned on the stock are passed through to the shareholder as a taxable gain.  This gain is added to the investor’s basis in the mutual fund to avoid double taxation when the fund is eventually sold.

Avoiding the Stock Market Can be a Risky

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

You may be hesitant to invest in the stock market because it feels too risky.  However, consider the risk you are taking with your financial future by avoiding the stock market.  The primary reason to invest in the stock market is the potential for a much higher return, especially in low interest rate environments.  Most of us need the potential for long term growth provided by the stock market to meet our retirement needs.  If you invest all of your money in fixed income you may struggle just to keep up with inflation and you run the risk of outliving your money.

Historically, stock market returns have been almost double those earned by bonds.  According to the Ibbotson SBBI (stock, bonds, bills and inflation) report, between 1926 and 2014 the average annual return on Small Stock was 12.3%, Large Stock was 10.1%, Government Bonds was 5.5%, Treasury Bills was 3.5% and Inflation was 3%.  This illustrates that investing at least some of your portfolio in stock can provide a much greater opportunity than fixed income to meet your financial goals.

Investing in the stock market is not without risk.  As with all investments, we must take on greater risk to earn a greater return.  However, there are many ways to help manage the volatility of the stock market.  Before investing in stocks make sure your financial affairs are in order.  Pay off your credit cards, establish an emergency fund and put money that will be needed over the next five years into less volatile fixed income investments.  The stock market is for long term investing.  It can provide the opportunity to earn higher long term returns but you can count on some volatility along the way.  By creating a buffer to cover short term needs you will be less likely overreact to fluctuations in the market and sell when the market is down.

You can also buffer stock market risk by creating a well-diversified portfolio comprised of mutual funds invested in stocks or bonds from a variety of different size companies, different industries and a variety of different geographies.  Investing in a single company can be very risky but investment in mutual funds can reduce this risk.  When investing in mutual funds your money is combined with that of other investors and invested, by a professional manager, into a large number of stocks or bonds.  Investing in a large number of companies enables you to spread out your risk.

Dollar cost averaging, where you automatically invest a set amount on a regular basis – usually monthly or quarterly, can also reduce risk.  Rather than investing a large amount all at once, when the market may be high, you gradually invest over time.  With dollar cost averaging you buy more shares when the market is low and fewer shares when the market is high.

Selecting the Right Asset Allocation

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

When investing money, one of the first decisions to be made is your asset allocation.  Asset allocation is the division of your assets into different types of investments such as stock mutual funds, bonds, real estate or cash.  In order to maximize the return on your portfolio it’s crucial to maintain a well-diversified asset allocation.  According to many financial experts, asset allocation may be your single most important investment decision, more important than the specific investments or funds that you select.

There is no one size fits all; the right asset allocation is based on your unique situation which may change as your circumstances or perspective changes.  Some major factors to consider include investment time horizon, the need for liquidity, risk tolerance, risks taken in other areas of your life and how much risk is required to achieve your goals.

Arriving at the appropriate asset allocation is largely a balance between risk and return.  If you want or need a higher return you will have to assume a higher level of risk.  If you have a long investment time horizon, you can take on more risk because you don’t need your money right away and you can ride out fluctuations in the market.  However, if you have a short time horizon you should minimize your risk so your money will be readily available.

If you want to minimize risk, invest in fixed income investments such as money market accounts, certificate of deposits, high quality bonds or short term bond funds.   If you are willing to take on more risk, with the expectation of getting higher returns, consider stock mutual funds.  Generally, avoid investing money needed in the next five years into the stock market.   However, the stock market is an excellent option for long term money.

Regardless of your situation, the best allocation is usually a combination of fixed income and stock mutual funds.  With a diversified portfolio you can take advantage of higher returns found in the stock market while buffering your risk and meeting short term needs with fixed income investments.

Once your target asset allocation is set, rebalance on annual basis to stay on target.   Rebalancing will automatically result in selling investments that are high and buying investments that are low.  Avoid changing your target allocation based on emotional reactions to short term market fluctuations.    Stick to your plan unless there are major changes in your circumstances.

If you are unsure where to start, a good rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 120 to arrive at the percentage you should invest in stock market.  In the past it was customary to subtract from 100 but this has increased as life expectancies and the time one spends in retirement have increased.   In the final analysis, select an asset allocation that meets your specific needs and gives you peace of mind.

Mutual Funds Probably Better Option Than Individual Stocks

 

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Mutual funds are a better option than individual stocks for most investors.  The decision to invest in mutual funds or individual stocks depends on the size of your portfolio, your investment knowledge, your level of time and involvement, your risk tolerance, your ability to make objective investment decisions and your tax situation.

Many investors don’t have enough money to adequately diversify their portfolio across a wide range of individual stocks.   To gain true stock diversification, you need to invest in companies of different sizes, in a wide range of different industry sectors and in a variety of different geographies. Mutual funds enable you to gain this broad diversification by pooling your money with a large number of other investors.

Additionally, mutual funds are professionally managed, making them ideal for individuals with limited investment knowledge or a limited amount of time to research and monitor individual stocks.  Most mutual fund companies have a large staff of managers and research analysts who analyze financial reports, visit companies and keep tabs on the economic and political climate.  It is very difficult for most     investors to devote the time and commitment needed to create and maintain a well-diversified portfolio of individual stocks.

Professional managers also have access to more timely information.  Many investors are tempted to buy and sell individual stock based on current events.  However, the market is relatively efficient which means it quickly responds to new information.  What seems like breaking news has probably already been factored into the price of the stock.

Unfortunately, diversification and professional management does not come without a cost.  Most mutual funds charge an annual management fee of between .25 and 1.25%.

Additionally, when investing your own money it is hard to stay objective.  We have a natural inclination to emotionally react to changes in the market and to become emotionally attached to specific stocks.  It is easier for mutual fund managers to make objective decisions.  Performance is usually better when we stay on course and history shows us that investors in individual stocks trade more frequently than mutual fund investors.

Mutual funds can also be a better option for investors who are risk adverse. By investing in a broadly diversified portfolio of mutual funds, most of your risk will come from fluctuations in the market.  A portfolio comprised of several individual stocks is generally more volatile.  It also carries a higher risk of losing money if a company, whose stock you own, has financial problems or goes out of business.

A disadvantage to owning mutual funds, instead of individual stocks can be a lack of control on when you pay capital gains. This is especially true if you are in a high tax bracket and a lot of your money is invested outside of retirement accounts.  When fund managers sell stock, gains must flow through to the investors as they are earned, not when the fund is sole.

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