The first thing you should look for is whether the mutual fund you are planning to invest in is outperforming or under-performing with respect to the market. Good and safe mutual funds are those that consistently outperform the market. Changes in the net asset values (NAVs) of such mutual funds are consistently one step ahead of the market. For example, if the index that measures market movements goes up, the NAV of most good and safe mutual funds will also move up at least as much as the market or even more than the market. On the other hand, when the market moves southwards, the NAV of most good and safe mutual funds will move down but such depreciation will be less than or at the most equal to the market’s downward movement.
Churn and earn
The next thing to watch out for is whether the mutual fund is undergoing too much “churn and earn”. This means you have to check whether too many transactions by the mutual fund are resulting in higher fees or costs to the investor. In this context, the worst offenders are those mutual funds that have a lot of spurious churn. Every time a mutual fund buys or sells stocks, the broker or brokers it employs make a neat pile from the commissions. So, these brokers try to encourage a lot of churn or buying and selling of stocks by giving a kickback to the mutual fund manager. Although direct bribery is illegal, payment of soft money through a sponsored trip to Hawaii or letting the mutual fund manager have a swanky Wall Street office for $1 a month is not.
Lack of clarity
Mutual Funds that have prospectus, annual reports or statements of additional information written in such a way that they are difficult to understand should also be avoided. The lack of clarity in their documents is almost a sure sign of lack of honesty in their dealings or a lack of competency in managing funds – both of which are strong reasons for avoiding them for investment purposes.
Risky and unsafe mutual funds are also characterised by having too many restrictions on how and when investors can sell or redeem their mutual fund shares. Mutual funds that have too long lock-in periods or those which slap a hefty exit load at the time of redemption should be eyed with suspicion and are likely to prove to be unsafe and risky.
Beware of scams
Finally, there are mutual funds that are outright scams. There have been reports of fund mangers selling stocks at prices other than what has been reported to the investor. For example, the fund manager may have sold stock at prices that prevailed before closing of the day’s trade although the investor is told that the transaction took place at closing prices which were lower. The manager then pockets the difference and with most such transactions involving large volumes, even a fractional price difference can lead to substantial gains for the manger. Again the only loser in all this is the investor who gets short-changed by the mutual fund operator!