Over the next few weeks, most mutual fund investors will receive - and ignore - important documents.
They'll focus on their annual statement - the one showing how well or poorly they did in 2007 - without bothering to look at the annual report or their tax paperwork.
They're not only throwing their own money away - because postage and production costs are a sliver of a fund's expenses - but they're missing out on a resource, particularly after a year like 2007, when many performance trends took a turn for the worse and left shareholders nervous about the future.
Going through fund paperwork doesn't have to be a big chore. It can take a few minutes if you know what to look for, and you examine those items with the following question in mind: "Did my fund and my manager do what I would have expected them to do in this kind of investment environment?"
Armed with that question, look through the annual report (and any proxies or tax forms) for these items:
Funds must compare returns with at least one benchmark, either the particular market index they try to beat or the average performance of the asset class. Good annual reports show both.
Find out why the fund has beaten or lagged behind its benchmarks. Maybe the fund shoots for average performance with reduced risk. Or maybe it's just poorly managed.
Statements from management.
Funds should provide candid, clear explanations of what happened, what to expect and why. Management should say what it plans to do with your money. At a bare minimum, it should answer questions that any normal, curious shareholder would have, such as how the fund's strategy jibes with current market conditions, and what to expect in the next 12 months. If management says "Don't worry, be happy," you should "Get nervous, be angry."
Look, too, for changes in management. Most funds don't notify shareholders, and simply put it in the next report. If there's a new manager, make sure you are comfortable that the fund will not change its character, pursuing a discipline or assets favored by the new manager.
The fund's portfolio.
While it's out-of-date by the time the semiannual report is printed, a fund's holdings give a glimpse of strategy and performance.
Look for a portfolio that is consistent with your expectations in terms of diversification, international exposure and size of companies. If holdings are concentrated in a few stocks or industries, the fund may be more volatile than its peers. Volatility is not a problem, so long as you know to expect it. If all of your funds have similar holdings, your portfolio has an overlap problem, and you might be less diversified than you think.
Expenses and portfolio turnover.
Dig into the "financial highlights" to get these telling numbers. A fund with high or rising expense ratios is not maximizing your returns. High turnover can lead to big capital gains tax liabilities, which you end up paying.
A fund that is shrinking or standing still is losing either money, investors or both. That's one investment trend that, eventually, you may want to follow.
The auditor's report.
Don't bother reading it, just count the paragraphs. If there are more than three, there could be trouble; avoid any fund that has real auditing problems. (Some large fund firms add a fourth paragraph naming all of their funds.)
If you are determined to read auditors' reports, you'll want to see these words in the last paragraph: " ... financial statements ... present(s) fairly ... the financial position ... in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles."
Changes in structure.
If your fund sends a proxy, it may be giving you a glimpse of what management wants to do next. While many issues are boilerplate and legalese, some proxies seek your approval for major changes in style and strategy.
If you don't want that change, you need to be prepared to move your money if the vote passes.
Most people pass their 1099-DIV to the tax preparer or extract the numbers for their return without considering their impact.
Investors in taxable accounts must pay the taxes due on any capital gains they receive from the fund, even if they reinvest the proceeds. A fund that is tax inefficient - where the bulk of its returns come from trading profits and dividends rather than long-term buy-and-hold investing - forces investors to pay taxes for big chunks of their gains annually, while a fund that is tax-efficient can delay those taxes indefinitely.
Frequently, however, investors hold onto funds, believing that a sale would mean a big tax hit. That's true with a tax-efficient fund, but usually wrong when a fund makes big, regular payouts. In the latter case, an investor has been paying the taxes all along, which means he might be able to dump the fund without unleashing the tax man.
Charles Jaffe is senior columnist for MarketWatch and the host of Your Money Radio (www.yourmoneyradio.com). His postal address is: Box 70, Cohasset, MA 02025-0070.