A mutual fund is a professionally managed type of collective investment scheme that pools money from many investors and invests it in stocks, bonds, short-term money market instruments, and/or other securities. The mutual fund will have a fund manager that trades the pooled money on a regular basis.
A mutual fund is a pool of money that is invested according to a common investment objective by an asset management company (AMC). The AMC offers to invest the money of hundreds of investors according to a certain objective - to keep money liquid or give a regular income or grow the money long term. Investors buy a scheme if it fits in with their investment goals, like getting a regular income now or letting the money accumulate over the long term. Investors pay a small fraction of their total funds to the AMC each year as investment management fees.
There are three broad categories of funds in the Indian market - money market, debt and equity. A money market fund invests in short-term government debt paper and is good for parking money for the short term since the principal is safe, returns better than a bank deposit and liquidity high. Debt funds invest mainly in debt instruments like government securities, corporate and institutional debt paper. They are also called income funds since people buy them for their income needs. Equity funds invest in the stock market and suit long term investors who want capital appreciation. Commodity, property and gold funds are yet to come into India.
Investors with small portfolios may not have the necessary expertise nor get the required diversification across debt and equity products. For example, equity-seeking investors may find their money insufficient to buy enough companies to spread their risk. Or they may find funds insufficient to spread between cash, debt and equity products. Mutual funds offer a way out, for as little as Rs 1,000, an investor can approach most schemes and get well-diversified portfolios, across product classes and instruments. The money is invested by market experts. As markets mature, funds begin to customise products according to need. It is possible to match a unique need to a specific scheme from a fund house.
There are two ways of making money from a mutual fund - through dividend or through capital appreciation. Suppose a mutual fund scheme collects Rs 500 crore by selling units priced at Rs 10 each. The fund invests this in stocks and debt paper. After a year the corpus grows to Rs 600 crore. This Rs 100 crore can now be distribted amongst the unit holders as dividend. Or it can remain in the fund, taking the net asset value (NAV) or the price of the unit, higher, to say Rs 12. Investors can now sell and realise a gain of Rs 2 per unit or can hold on for future appreciation. (We are ignoring costs in this simplification) But mutual funds do not guarantee performance or returns. Risk depends on the type of fund bought and its performance. So, a debt fund is less risky than an equity fund. But within equity, an index fund is less risky than a sector fund.
The mutual fund industry is well regulated in India. The market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has ensured that a repeat of the vanishing companies does not happen here. Therefore, mutual funds in India are in the form of a Trust. This means that the money belongs to the investors and is only held in the name of the Trust. The investment arm, the AMC, acts as a fee-for investment manager and does not own the money. This does not mean that the investments are risk-free. Investors need to take the risk of volatility or bad management and money can grow or lose value depending on the market and investment decisions. However, sensible mutual fund investing is a good way to include equity and debt in individual portfolios to see realistic growth.