How Mutual Funds Work

A mutual fund is both an investment and an actual company. This dual nature may seem strange, but it is no different from how a share of AAPL is a representation of Apple, Inc. When an investor buys Apple stock, he is buying part ownership of the company and its assets. Similarly, a mutual fund investor is buying part ownership of the mutual fund company and its assets. The difference is that Apple is in the business of making smartphones and tablets, while a mutual fund company is in the business of making investments.

Investors typically earn a return from a mutual fund in three ways:
Income is earned from dividends on stocks and interest on bonds held in the fund’s portfolio. A fund pays out nearly all of the income it receives over the year to fund owners in the form of a distribution. Funds often give investors a choice either to receive a check for distributions or to reinvest the earnings and get more shares
If the fund sells securities that have increased in price, the fund has a capital gain. Most funds also pass on these gains to investors in a distribution.
If fund holdings increase in price but are not sold by the fund manager, the fund’s shares increase in price. You can then sell your mutual fund shares for a profit in the market.

If a mutual fund is construed as a virtual company, its CEO is the fund manager, sometimes called its investment adviser. The fund manager is hired by a board of directors and is legally obligated to work in the best interest of mutual fund shareholders. Most fund managers are also owners of the fund. There are very few other employees in a mutual fund company. The investment adviser or fund manager may employ some analysts to help pick investments or perform market research. A fund accountant is kept on staff to calculate the fund’s NAV, the daily value of the portfolio that determines if share prices go up or down. Mutual funds need to have a compliance officer or two, and probably an attorney, to keep up with government regulations.

Most mutual funds are part of a much larger investment company; the biggest have hundreds of separate mutual funds. Some of these fund companies are names familiar to the general public, such as Fidelity Investments, the Vanguard Group, T. Rowe Price, and Oppenheimer Funds.

That’s why the price of a mutual fund share is referred to as the net asset value (NAV) per share, sometimes expressed as NAVPS. A fund’s NAV is derived by dividing the total value of the securities in the portfolio by the total amount of shares outstanding. Outstanding shares are those held by all shareholders, institutional investors, and company officers or insiders. Mutual fund shares can typically be purchased or redeemed as needed at the fund’s current NAV, which—unlike a stock price—doesn’t fluctuate during market hours, but is settled at the end of each trading day.