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Are Best Mutual Fund Lists a Good Investing Tool?

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We all like to read article with lists that rank things. Top colleges, top new cars, best and worst dressed and the like are just a few lists we see periodically. Mutual rankings have been around for a while.  Many top personal finance publications such as Money Magazine, Kiplinger’s, and U.S. News publish such lists that rank mutual funds based upon performance. Are these Best Mutual Fund lists useful to you as an investor?

Money (magazine)

Best compared to what?

In order for any mutual fund ranking tool to be useful the comparison needs to be apples-to-apples. Comparing a large cap domestic stock fund to a fund that invests in gold mining companies is a pretty useless exercise. Make sure that you understand what is being compared and the basis for the rankings.

Past performance is not an indication of future performance 

This is a pretty common disclaimer in the investment industry and it is one that should be heeded. Last year’s top mutual fund might finish on top again this year or it might end up at the bottom of the pack. This is especially true for actively managed mutual funds where results can often depend upon the manager’s investment style and whether or not their style is still in favor. Mutual funds that have a big year often find themselves inundated with new money from investors who chase performance, this influx of new money can make it harder for the manager to replicate their past success.

Who’s in charge? 

It is not uncommon for a top mutual fund manager to be wooed by a rival fund company or for them to go off and start their own mutual fund. This is not such a big deal with index funds, but when looking at any actively managed fund be sure to understand whether or not the manager(s) who compiled the enviable track record are still in place.

What period of time is being used? 

Make sure that you understand the time period used in the rankings. Returns over a single year can vary much more than returns compiled over a three, five, or ten year time period. Understand that one or two outstanding years can skew longer-term rankings. Longer periods of time tend to smooth out these blips in performance.

Why didn’t you tell me about this fund a year ago? 

I recall looking at many of these lists over the years and wondering why the publication didn’t write about how wonderful the fund was a year ago before it chalked up this large gain. Well the answer is that this isn’t the job of the publication and they and most of us can’t really predict this.

Is looking at performance worthless? 

No it isn’t but you need to look at performance in context. Look at performance over varying time periods and always in relation to the fund’s peers. Among the things to look at:

  • Risk adjusted performance
  • Performance in up and down markets
  • Performance over rolling periods of time
  • Adherence to the fund’s stated style
  • Costs and expenses
  • Consistency of relative performance
  • Changes in the level of assets in the fund

In short selecting and monitoring mutual funds is about more than looking for the top performers of the past. Like any other investment vehicle, mutual funds need to be viewed in terms of potential future performance and in terms of how they fit into your overall investment strategy and your financial plan.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Do you want an independent review of your mutual fund holdings and your overall investment strategy? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service.

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