The Mutual Fund – A Critical View

Not long ago I received an inquiry from a visitor to a website on which I’ve functioned as the financial consultant over the past year. The questions, short and to the point, read as follows: “What should I look for in a fund? I recently rolled over a 401(k) into an IRA and right now sitting in a money market account (I’m peeved at my advisor about that). I’m looking for some good aggressive growth funds. One more thing: The IRA is about 6K. Should I put it in one mutual fund, or a couple, or a hundred? Thanks, Kelly.”

As I composed my response, I realized that these questions were reflective of hundreds of others I’ve received over the years. For that reason, I’m providing my reply for the many other Kellys who haven’t yet gotten around to asking them. Here’s what I said.

“Dear Kelly,

“You’ve posed a couple of questions that most aspiring investors should ask, but rarely do: What should you look for in a mutual fund and of equal significance, what belongs in an IRA? You then added that you’re peeved with your advisor that your assets are now sitting in a money market account where they’re no doubt earning next to nothing. Whether you realize it or not, you’ve touched at the very heart of investment and what is lacking in most persons’ understanding.

“I’ll start with your first query: ‘What should I look for in a fund?’ Let me make an admission. In case you think that I can recommend with uncanny accuracy just which funds will most prosper in the future, the blunt truth is that I cannot. I do not happen to know where the market is going. I cannot tell you whether the technology sector, the international arena, or the service industries will be higher or lower next month . . . or next year. But, understand that neither do the professionals who advise you. By and large they are as surprised as you by what happens. There’s not a one of them that can tell you with certainty whether the S&P 500 Average will be up or down tomorrow. And why should they really know? They all read the same periodicals, take the same seminars, digest the same reports, tout the same rumors, spew the same hyperbole, and regularly exchange identical views among themselves. Is it any wonder that what goes on in the world of investment is, for most persons employed there, unfathomable? You should note, though, that from their standpoint it really doesn’t matter, for their livelihood doesn’t depend on whether or not you prosper. Your advisor makes a living either by charging for advice—good or bad—or by payment of commission upon your purchase or sale of anything. Nor do the mutual fund personnel particularly care whether your assets shrink or grow, for their remuneration is the result of fees their firms take, normally based on a percentage of the total assets managed, which is why each mutual fund strives to increase its share of overall invested assets. Whether a particular client’s assets increase or decrease is without significance. Of course, the counselors’ lives are less burdensome if they’re not required to defend bad investment choices. For this reason, most prefer the index funds. In this way, they cannot be blamed when things go wrong. They’re off the hook since all losses can be attributed to mythical market forces.

“Now that you understand the complexities—and my limitations—we can approach the industry realistically. The concept of the open-end investment company, commonly known as a mutual fund, has been around and mutating since 1924. Over the past several decades it has become the ‘investment by default’ for most Americans, the majority of whom haven’t the slightest idea what they own, or why. Thanks to effective promotion by the industry, this vehicle has taken on a life of its own, where any suggestion that it’s not appropriate is met with derision. This is the environment in which you find yourself, and if you hope to prosper, you’d better educate yourself. The best way to start is by familiarizing yourself with the elements of the subject. There is a fundamental rule that says: ‘When you know the details, no one can lie to you.’ For this reason, I’ll suggest that you get your hands on a small and inexpensive book in the Barron’s Business Keys series: ‘Keys to Investing in Mutual Funds.’ It contains only 158 pages, can be purchased through Amazon for a few bucks, and is exceptionally easy but enlightening reading. Until you’ve read that, you should leave your IRA money right in the money market account where it is. Though you may not realize it, your advisor provided a most valuable service.

“Let me now inform you of a personal uneasiness I have concerning mutual funds in general that you’ll not read in the Barron’s book. My discomfiture is with the evolution of an industry in which the placing of investors’ money seems, at best, a secondary consideration. The fact that a substantial and growing percentage of the nation’s assets is now committed to funds fuels a part of the concern. The rapid growth in the numbers and varieties of funds offered triggers more uneasiness. But it is the synergistic effect, coupled with basic human nature, that could result in unpredictable problems for the economy of the nation.

“I’ll run the risk of asking rhetorical questions. Who are the thousands of officers and directors of the funds? How did the investor’s interests advance when the average fund manager’s annual compensation increased to over $1,000,000 in 1996? What is the background and experience of the multitude of securities analysts employed? Who will benefit from the growing trend in fund mergers, and in what fashion? Is the investor really well served by a fund that merely places its monies in proportion to a specifically designed index or another that simply acquires shares of other funds? What does the scandal that rocked many of the prominent mutual funds in the autumn of 2003 portend for the future of the industry? And above all, who in God’s name is watching the store? Incidentally, in case you don’t recall those events in 2003, you might visit my Website www.onthemoneytrail.com, click onto Newsletter Archives, and read the December 2003 article ‘Investment Guidelines for the Year Ahead.’ I’ll repeat what I said then. What the future holds for the mutual fund industry is hard to say, but one thing is certain: The fortunes to be made, legally or otherwise, fuel an insidious attraction. The question we must ask is whether it is becoming a self-propelled labyrinth, with few realistic controls, in the hands of persons who will systematically loot the assets with no compunction. If so, the nation will surely experience a misfortune of momentous proportion.

“I’ll wrap this up with my views on what belongs in an IRA account. Contrary to the recommendations you’ll receive from most financial analysts and advisors, a traditional tax-deferred—or even more favorable tax-free Roth IRA—should not be stuffed with mutual funds, whether they be aggressive growth, balanced, sector, or index. My belief is that these accounts are better utilized when they contain interest-bearing investments. Once again there is not room here to get into details. However, if you again visit the Newsletter Archives of my Website, you’ll find two articles there that spell it out pretty clearly. They are December 2002, ‘Why Bonds Belong in a Retirement Account,’ and February 2003, ‘Junk Bonds Need Not Be a Crapshoot.’

“Although I’m tempted to provide additional advice and information, I think I’ve given you enough data to more than get you started. After you’ve reviewed the reading material I’ve suggested, you’ll probably have some specific questions. Get back to me then at this site so we can get into whatever follow-up matters that require resolution.

“Happy reading to you, Kelly.”

Original article here.