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You can't open a newspaper or read a magazine without seeing ads promoting the stellar performance of "hot" mutual funds. But past performance is not as important as you may think, especially the short-term performance of relatively new or small funds. As with any investment, a fund's past performance is no guarantee of its future success. Over the long-term, the success (or failure) of your investment in a fund also will depend on factors such as:

  • the fund's sales charges, fees, and expenses;
  • the taxes you may have to pay when you receive a distribution;
  • the age and size of the fund;
  • the fund's risks and volatility; and
  • recent changes in the fund's operations.

So, look at more than the fund's past performance when making your investment decisions. Read the fund's prospectus and shareholder reports, and consider these tips:

Scrutinize the fund's fees and expenses. Funds charge investors fees and expenses. A fund with high costs must perform better than a low-cost fund to generate the same returns for you. Even small differences in fees can translate into large differences in returns over time. For example, if you invested $10,000 in a fund that produced a 10% annual return before expenses and had annual operating expenses of 1.5%, then after 20 years you would have roughly $49,725. But if the fund had expenses of only 0.5%, then you would end up with $60,858. It takes only minutes to use a mutual fund cost calculator to compute how the costs of different mutual funds add up over time and eat into your returns.

Know how the fund impacts your tax bill. The law generally requires a fund to make a capital gains distribution to shareholders if it sells a security for a profit that can't be offset by a loss. If you receive a capital gains distribution from a fund, you will likely owe taxes on it – even if the fund has had a negative return since you invested in it. For this reason, you should call the fund to find out when it makes distributions so you can time your investment in the fund to avoid receiving a capital gains distribution immediately upon investing and paying more than your fair share of taxes. Some funds post that information on their websites.

Consider the age and size of the fund. Before investing in a fund, read the prospectus to find out how long the fund has been operating and the asset size of the fund. Newly created or small funds sometimes have excellent short-term performance records. Because these funds may invest in only a small number of stocks, a few successful stocks can have a large impact on their performance. But as these funds grow larger and increase the number of stocks they own, each stock has less impact on the fund's performance. This may make it more difficult to sustain initial results. You can get a better picture of a fund's performance by looking at how the fund has performed over longer periods and how it has weathered the ups and downs of the market.

Consider the fund's portfolio turnover rate. A fund's portfolio turnover rate measures the frequency with which it buys and sells securities. A fund that rapidly buys and sells securities may generate higher trading costs and capital gains taxes.

Think about the volatility of the fund. While past performance does not necessarily predict future returns, it can tell you how volatile a fund has been. Generally, the more volatile a fund, the higher the investment risk. If you'll need your money to meet a financial goal in one year, you probably can't afford the risk of investing in a fund with a volatile history because you will not have enough time to ride out any declines in the stock market. Read the fund's prospectus and annual report, and compare its year-to-year performance figures. These figures can help tell you whether the fund earned most of its returns in a few small bursts or whether its returns came in a steadier stream. For example, over ten years, two funds may have gained 12% per year on average, but they may have taken drastically different routes to get there. One might have had a few years of spectacular performance and a few years of low (or negative) returns, while the performance of the other may have been much steadier from year to year.

Factor in the risks the fund takes to achieve its returns. Read the fund's prospectus and shareholder reports to learn about its investment strategy and associated risks. Funds with higher rates of return may take risks that are beyond your comfort level and are inconsistent with your financial goals. For example, a fund that invests primarily in stocks whose prices may change quickly – like initial public offerings or high-tech stocks – will usually be riskier than other types of funds. But remember that all funds carry some level of risk. Just because a fund invests in government or corporate bonds does not mean it does not have significant risk. For example, the fund's investments could be very sensitive to interest rate changes. Thinking about your long-term investment strategies and tolerance for risk can help you decide what type of fund is best suited for you.

Ask about recent changes in the fund's operations. Has the fund's investment adviser or investment strategy changed recently? Has the fund merged with another fund? Operational changes such as these can affect future fund performance. For instance, the investment adviser or portfolio manager who generated the fund's successful performance may no longer be managing the fund.

Check the types of services offered and fees charged by the fund. Read the fund's prospectus to learn what services it provides to shareholders. Some funds provide special services, such as toll-free telephone numbers, check-writing privileges, and automatic investment programs. You should find out how easily you can buy and sell shares and whether the fund charges a fee for buying and selling shares. You can expect funds that require extra work by their managers, such as international funds, to have higher costs.

Assess how the fund will impact the diversification of your portfolio. Generally, the success of your investments over time will depend largely on how much money you have invested in each of the major asset classes – stocks, bonds, and cash – rather than on the particular securities you hold. When choosing a mutual fund, you should consider how your interest in that fund affects the overall diversification of your investment portfolio. Maintaining a diversified and balanced portfolio is key to maintaining an acceptable level of risk.

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