Understanding the Different Types of Mutual Funds

By Rebecca Lake · September 01, 2023 · 12 minute read

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Understanding the Different Types of Mutual Funds

A mutual fund is a portfolio or basket of securities (often stocks or bonds) where investors pool their money. Globally, there are more than 125,000 regulated funds investors can choose from, and they come in many different flavors — from equity funds to government bond funds, as well as growth funds, sector funds, index funds, and more.

While most mutual funds are actively managed (i.e. there is a team of portfolio managers that run the fund), many are passively managed and track an index.

How these types of funds differ typically comes down to their investment objectives and the strategies employed to achieve them.

Mutual Funds Recap

A mutual fund is an investment vehicle that pools money from many investors in order to invest in different securities. For example, mutual funds may hold any combination of stocks, bonds, money market instruments, or cash and cash equivalents. They may also include alternative investments, such as real estate, commodities, or investments in precious metals.

A mutual fund is considered an open-end fund, because its shares are available continuously, versus a closed-end fund which sells a set number of shares at once during an initial public offering.

Mutual fund shares can be purchased through the fund company, from a bank, a brokerage account or through a retirement plan at work. For example, you might hold mutual funds inside a taxable investment account or within an individual retirement account (IRA) with an online brokerage. Or you may invest in mutual funds through your 401(k) at work.

Investing in different types of mutual funds can help with diversification and managing risk in a portfolio. If one investment in a mutual fund underperforms, for example, the other investments in the fund are there to help balance that out.

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9 Types of Mutual Funds

It’s important to understand how and why a mutual fund’s type matters before adding it to your portfolio. Some types of funds may be designed for growth, for example, while others are designed to generate income through dividends. Certain mutual funds may carry a higher risk profile than others, though they may yield the potential for higher rewards.

Knowing more about the different mutual fund options can make it easier to choose investments that align with your goals and risk tolerance.

1. Equity Funds

•   Structure: Open-end

•   Risk Level: High

•   Investment Goals: Growth or income, depending on the fund

•   Asset Class: Equity (i.e. stocks)

Equity funds or stock funds primarily invest in stocks, with one of two goals in mind: capital appreciation or the generation of regular income through dividends. The types of companies an equity fund invests in can depend on the fund’s objectives.

For example, some equity funds may concentrate on blue-chip companies that offer consistent dividends while others may lean toward companies that have significant growth potential. These are often referred to as growth funds. Sector funds, meanwhile, may focus on companies from a single stock market sector. Equity funds can also be categorized based on whether they invest in large-cap, mid-cap or small-cap stocks.

Investing in equity funds can offer the opportunity to earn higher rewards but they tend to present greater risks. Since the prices of underlying equity investments can fluctuate day to day or even hour to hour, equity funds tend to be more volatile than other types of funds overall.

2. Bond Funds or Fixed-Income Funds

•   Structure: Typically open-end though some bond funds may be closed-end

•   Risk Level: Low

•   Investment Goals: To provide fixed income to investors

•   Asset Class: Fixed income/bonds

Bond funds or fixed-income funds are mutual funds that invest in bonds or other investments that are designed to provide consistent income. A bond is a type of debt instrument that pays interest to investors. Like equity funds, bond funds may target a specific type of investment. For example, there are funds that focus exclusively on government bonds while others hold municipal bonds or corporate bonds.

Generally speaking, bonds tend to be lower risk compared with other types of funds. But they’re not 100% risk-free and it’s still possible to lose money on bond fund investments. That’s because bonds tend to be sensitive to interest rate risk and credit risk.

For that reason, it’s important to compare credit ratings when choosing bonds for a portfolio. It’s also helpful to understand the inverse relationship between interest rates and bond yields when choosing different types of funds to invest in.

Recommended: How Do Bonds Work?

3. Money Market Funds

•   Structure: Open-end

•   Risk Level: Low

•   Investment Goals: Income generation

•   Asset Class: Short-term fixed-income securities

Money market funds or money market mutual funds invest in short-term fixed-income securities. For example, these funds may hold government bonds, municipal bonds, corporate bonds, bank debt securities (i.e. certificates of deposit, bankers’ acceptances, etc.), cash and cash equivalents.

Money market funds can be labeled according to what they invest in. For example, Treasury funds invest in U.S. Treasury securities, while government money market funds invest in government securities.

In terms of risk, money market funds are considered to be some of the safest types of mutual funds and some of the safest investments overall. That means, however, that money market mutual funds tend to produce lower returns compared to other mutual funds.

It’s also worth noting that money market funds are not the same thing as money market accounts (MMAs). Money market accounts are deposit accounts offered by banks and credit unions. While these accounts can pay interest to savers, they’re more akin to savings accounts than investment vehicles.

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4. Index Funds

•   Structure: Open-end

•   Risk Level: Moderate

•   Investment Goals: To replicate the performance of an underlying market index

•   Asset Class: Available in all asset classes

Index funds are a type of mutual fund that has a very specific goal: To match the performance of an underlying market index. For example, an index fund may attempt to mirror the returns of the S&P 500 Index or the Russell 2000 Index (or any other of the many market indices). The fund does this by investing in some or all of the securities included in that particular index.

Index funds are considered passively managed or unmanaged because there is no active portfolio manager at the helm. Also, the underlying shares of the companies in the fund rarely change, unlike an active fund, where the portfolio manager and management team may make frequent trades.

An index fund that tracks the S&P 500 index, for instance, primarily invests in large-cap U.S. companies represented in the index itself.

Market capitalization is a commonly used metric for determining the makeup of equity index funds. Market cap measures a company’s size based on the number of shares it has outstanding and the price of those shares. Mega-cap and large-cap companies have higher market capitalization or value than mid- or small-cap companies.

Investing in index funds might appeal to investors who prefer passive investments. These funds often have lower expense ratios, as they are unmanaged and tend to have lower turnover. While they’re not free from risk, index funds can be less risky than actively managed equity funds, where tracking error and underperformance can affect overall returns.

5. Balanced Funds

•   Structure: Open-end

•   Risk Level: Moderate

•   Investment Goals: Balancing risk and reward

•   Asset Class: Equity, fixed income, cash

Balanced funds, sometimes referred to as hybrid funds, include a mix of different asset classes. For example, balanced funds can hold stocks, bonds, and cash investments. The goal in doing so is to create balance between risk and reward. Specifically, these funds aim to provide above-average return potential while mitigating risk to investors as much as possible.

Balanced funds can be growth funds or income funds. Growth balanced funds focus on capital appreciation. Income balanced funds, on the other hand, aim to provide investors with steady income through dividends and/or interest.

Investing in balanced funds could appeal to investors who want to generate potentially higher returns without exposing themselves to more risk than they’re capable of tolerating. They can also be useful for adding diversification to a portfolio that may be stock or bond heavy.

6. Income Funds

•   Structure: Open-end

•   Risk Level: Low to moderate

•   Investment Goals: To provide income to investors

•   Asset Class: Bonds, income-generating assets

Income funds have a singular goal of providing income to investors. While they can sometimes be grouped with bond funds, income funds are their own mutual fund type. While these funds can invest in bonds, they can also hold a wide range of investments, including dividend-paying stocks, money market instruments and preferred stock.

Like bond funds, income funds are subject to many of the same risks including interest rate risk and credit risk. Those apply specifically to bond holdings. Investments in dividend stocks, preferred stock, and money market instruments carry separate risks.

For that reason, income funds are somewhere in the middle between bond funds and fixed-income funds and equity funds in terms of risk. While they can offer potentially higher returns and steady income to investors, it is still possible to lose money if underlying investments in the fund are affected by changing market conditions.

7. International Funds

•   Structure: Generally open-end, though some may be closed-end

•   Risk Level: High

•   Investment Goals: Capital appreciation or income, depending on the fund

•   Asset Class: Equity, though some international funds can include bonds or fixed-income securities

International mutual funds hold investments from securities markets around the world, excluding the United States. So, for example, an international mutual fund may invest in European companies, Asian companies or in companies from emerging markets. The key hallmark of these funds is that U.S. companies are not represented here. (Global funds, on the other hand, can hold a mix of both U.S. and international securities.)

Adding international funds to a portfolio can increase diversification if you’ve primarily invested in U.S. companies or bonds so far. But keep in mind that international funds can carry unique risks. For example, investing in an international fund that holds real estate could be tricky if the real estate market in a particular country experiences a downturn.

For that reason, investing experts often recommend limiting how much of your portfolio you commit to international funds.

8. Specialty Funds

•   Structure: Open or closed-end

•   Risk Level: Varies by fund

•   Investment Goals: Varies by fund

•   Asset Class: Equity, bonds, fixed-income, cash, alternatives

Specialty fund is a catch-all term to describe types of mutual funds that are built around a specific theme. For example, hedge funds are considered to be a specialty fund since they rely on hedge fund trading strategies to achieve their investment objectives. Sector funds could also fall under the specialty fund umbrella since they invest in securities from individual market sectors.

Investing in specialty funds can help diversify a portfolio because it offers an opportunity to look beyond stocks or bonds. Specialty funds can offer exposure to things like real estate, commodities, or even cryptocurrency. You could also use specialty funds to pursue specific investing goals, such as investing with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles in mind.

In terms of risk, specialty funds can be all over the spectrum, with some posing less risk and others carrying higher risk. That also translates to wide variations in the return potential of specialty funds. It’s important to do your research to understand what kind of risk/return profile a particular fund may have.

9. Target Date Funds

•   Structure: Typically a fund of funds

•   Risk Level: These funds are designed to become more conservative (i.e. less risky) over time.

•   Investment Goals: To provide returns and risk that align with a target retirement date

•   Asset Class: Equity, bonds, fixed-income

Target date funds are mutual funds that adjust their asset allocation automatically over time, based on a predetermined glide path. The glide path is simply an automated plan for how the fund will become more conservative over time.

Say you plan to retire in 2050. You could invest in a 2050 target date fund, and as you get closer to retirement the fund will automatically shift its asset allocation to become less aggressive (i.e. dialing back on equities) and more conservative as the target date approaches.

Like mutual funds, target date funds are offered by nearly every investment company. In most cases, they’re recognizable by the year in the fund name.

If you have a 401(k) at work, it’s likely you may have access to various target date funds for your portfolio. These funds have become increasingly popular among 401(k) plan administrators due to their simplicity. Workers can select a target date fund based on when they plan to retire, and the fund’s asset allocation will adjust over time to become more conservative. But there is still the possibility a target fund could lose money.

Also, because the mix of investments in a target fund is predetermined, it’s important to know you cannot change the underlying assets. That’s why it’s best to be cautious when combining target date funds with other mutual funds in your portfolio; you don’t want to inadvertently make your portfolio overweight in a certain asset class, or even a specific security, if there’s an overlap between funds.

What’s the Difference Between Mutual Funds and ETFs?

It might be easy to confuse exchange-traded funds or ETFs with mutual funds, but they are different animals.

•   ETFs are considered funds yet in many ways they behave more like stocks. ETFs trade on an exchange, like stocks, and investors buy and sell shares of the ETF throughout the day, which can cause the share price to fluctuate. By contrast, mutual funds are priced at the end of the day.

•   Some investors prefer ETFs because they are more liquid than mutual funds.

•   Though you can buy actively managed ETFs, the majority of these funds track an index and are passively managed. The reverse is true of mutual funds, where the majority are actively managed (though that balance is shifting toward passive strategies, which have been shown generally to deliver higher returns).

•   Because ETFs are largely passive (i.e. unmanaged), they are often cheaper than mutual funds.

Like mutual funds, though, ETFs provide investors with many different ways to invest in the market. Investors can choose between equity and bond ETFs, sustainable ETFs, ETFs that invest in foreign currency, precious metals ETFs, and more. Some ETFs are also known for using “themed” strategies that allow investors to invest in hyper-specific market segments, e.g. semiconductors, clean water technology, infrastructure, robotics, cloud computing, and so on.

Recommended: A Closer Look at ETFs vs Mutual Funds

The Takeaway

With tens of thousands of mutual funds available to investors, how do you choose the ones that suit your financial goals? Fortunately, mutual funds are among the most versatile and affordable investments, offering investors the ability to incorporate a range of asset classes in their portfolio: from equities and bonds to more specialized assets like dividend-paying stocks or foreign securities.

Investing in mutual funds may provide investors with the potential for higher returns or steady income — or even emerging market opportunities. Of course, all investments also carry the potential for risk, but here investors can also decide whether to invest in lower-risk funds, like bond funds and money market funds — or use a variety of mutual funds to create a well-balanced portfolio.

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