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In 2001, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adopted a new rule to supposedly prohibit mutual fund names that may mislead investors about a fund’s investments and risks. The rule required a fund with a name suggesting that the fund focuses on a particular type of investment (e.g., "stocks" or "bonds") to invest at least 80% of its assets accordingly. Previously, funds were subject to a 65% investment requirement.

This rule resulted in many funds changing their names, changing their investments, or both. In general, things are better now than they were before the 2001 rule. However, today’s mutual fund names and categories can still be confusing and/or misleading.

Blurred Boundaries

For example, let’s look at names that connote where the fund buys its investments. These names usually contain words like “Domestic,” “International,” “Global,” and “World.” Imagine a Domestic Large-Cap fund, whose name suggests it buys large, U.S. companies. But if the fund owns mostly companies in the S&P 500 Index, those companies might be generating up to 50% of their revenues outside of the U.S. The large multinational firm might be based in the U.S. but do business in countries all around the world. The opposite may be true of funds with “Global” or “World” in their name; those companies based in foreign countries may be deriving some or all of their revenue from dealings with the U.S.

Undefined Jargon

Another confusing category of funds is called “smart beta”. Investopedia defines Beta this way1:

“Beta is a measure of the volatility, or systematic risk, of a security or a portfolio in comparison to the market as a whole. Beta is used in the capital asset pricing model (CAPM), which calculates the expected return of an asset based on its beta and expected market returns.”

Got that? Let’s assume you totally understand beta and CAPM. So, what is “smart” beta? If beta is a measure of volatility, then a reasonable person might assume that “smart beta” is a more intelligent measure of volatility, right? Let’s see if the definition of smart beta contains the word “volatility." 

Investopedia defines smart beta this way2:

The goal of smart beta is to obtain alpha, lower risk or increase diversification at a cost lower than traditional active management and marginally higher than straight index investing. It seeks the best construction of an optimally diversified portfolio. In effect, smart beta is a combination of efficient-market hypothesis and value investing. Smart beta defines a set of investment strategies that emphasize the use of alternative index construction rules to traditional market capitalization-based indices. Smart beta emphasizes capturing investment factors or market inefficiencies in a rules-based and transparent way. The increased popularity of smart beta is linked to a desire for portfolio risk management and diversification along factor dimensions, as well as seeking to enhance risk-adjusted returns above cap-weighted indices.

Hmm. Not a single mention of volatility. Are you confused yet?

Growth, Aggressive Growth, Capital Appreciation, Equity Income

Growth sounds good, but how is it different from capital appreciation? Don’t they mean the same thing? Does aggressive mean faster, riskier, meaner, or something else? Equity income funds are supposed to be stocks that pay dividends, right? So, what category do you think the Dividend Growth Small & Mid-Cap Fund3 is? It has both “dividend” and “growth” in its name, but are they separate or together? Does the fund invest in companies whose dividends are growing, or does it invest in growth companies that also pay dividends? An investor would need to read the fund’s prospectus to find out for sure. I’m sure all good investors thoroughly read those prospectuses from cover to cover.

Reporting Problem

The SEC requires mutual funds to report complete lists of their holdings on a quarterly basis. So, the manager of the hypothetical Blah-Blah Domestic Large Cap Fund could buy a bunch of foreign small-cap stocks on January 1 and hold them until March 28. Then, the manager could sell them and replace them with domestic large-cap stocks, and report on March 31 that the fund was properly holding domestic large cap stocks as required. On April 1, the manager could buy back the foreign small cap stocks and repeat that process every quarter.

Conclusion

Mutual fund names and categories are more informative than they used to be, but they can still be quite confusing or misleading. Investors (and advisors) need to do their due diligence, fully read those prospectuses, and closely follow the actions of the fund managers. Is your advisor recommending mutual funds? Are they confident of what’s really in those funds? Are you? If you have any questions about the mutual funds in your portfolio, email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and I if I can’t answer your question, I will find someone who can.

1. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/beta.asp

2. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/smart-beta.asp

 

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