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Course 102
Mutual Funds and NAVs

Introduction

In the previous lesson, we examined the mutual fund's NAV, its net asset value (or price per share). NAVs seem similar to stock prices; after all, both represent the price of one share of an investment. Both appear in newspapers and on financial Web sites. But that's where the similarities between NAVs and stock prices end.

Calculating the NAV

A mutual fund calculates its NAV by adding up the current value of all the stocks, bonds, and other securities (including cash) in its portfolio, subtracting the manager's salary and other operating expenses, and then dividing that figure by the fund's total number of shares. For example, a fund with 500,000 shares that owns $9 million in stocks and $1 million in cash has an NAV of $20.

So Alike but So Very Different

NAVs and stock prices differ in five important ways.

Difference One. Stock prices change throughout the trading day, but mutual fund NAVs are calculated only once each day, based on the value of their stocks or bonds at the time the market closes. When you purchase a mutual fund, you buy shares at the NAV as of that day's close. As a result, you don't necessarily know the exact NAV of the fund at the time you put in your order to buy or sell. If you place an order early in a given day, you're likely to get that day's closing price for the fund. If you make your order later in the day or after trading has ended, you'll get the following day's closing price.

Difference Two. Stock investors typically specify how many shares they'd like to buy, and buy shares of a given stock in even lots, such as 50 shares of Coca-Cola or 100 shares of Microsoft. By contrast, most fund investors purchase funds in dollar amounts rather than share amounts. As we noted in Lesson 101, fund companies willingly issue fractional shares. For example, if you have $1,250 that you'd like to put into a fund with an NAV of $14, you'll get exactly 89.286 shares.

Difference Three. Stocks have a fixed number of shares available. To change its number of shares, a company can either issue new shares or buy back its own shares in the market. By contrast, mutual funds generally have an unlimited number of shares, and the number changes on a daily basis, depending on how many shares investors buy and sell that day.

Difference Four. You can determine whether a stock is a bargain or not by its current price relative to a "fair value" price, based on such information as earnings estimates or cash flows. (This process is known as "valuing" a stock.) With mutual funds, however, NAV is tied to the current value of the fund's underlying holdings. Calculating a fair price for an entire mutual fund's portfolio, while theoretically possible, would be a cumbersome process, particularly when you consider that many funds hold well more than 100 stocks or bonds.

Difference Five. You can often use changes in a stock's price to gauge how well a stock is performing. Mutual funds, however, distribute any income or capital gains they realize to shareholders as dividends, which, in turn, causes their NAVs to fluctuate. Unless you account for such distributions, you could be underestimating a fund's actual performance by looking solely at its NAV. To accurately gauge a fund's performance, you need to examine its total return, which takes into account both the appreciation of the fund's holdings as well as any distributions the fund has paid out. (We'll explore this topic in our next lesson.)

Uses of NAV

After learning a bit more about NAVs, you may be thinking, "What the heck can I use NAV for?" Well, NAVs do provide you with some idea of what your investment is worth each day. And because funds calculate daily NAVs, investors can buy and sell each day. Daily access to NAVs also reassures you that your investment is being watched over, valued, and reported on.

Quiz 102
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 A fund with $10 million in stock holdings and $2 million in cash (after expenses are taken into account), and 1 million shares outstanding has an NAV of:
a. $8.30.
b. $10.
c. $12.
2 You buy a fund at 11:00 (Eastern Standard Time) on Tuesday morning. In most cases, what NAV do you get?
a. The NAV at Monday's close.
b. The NAV at 11:00 a.m. EST on Tuesday.
c. The NAV at Tuesday's close.
3 A fund's number of shares outstanding increases from 1 million to 2 million in a year. Over the course of that year, what happens to the fund's NAV?
a. It depends on how its underlying portfolio holdings perform.
b. It expands.
c. It contracts.
4 Fund A's NAV is $10 while Fund B's is $110, and both funds have minimum initial investments of $100. Which fund is within reach of someone with just $100 to invest?
a. Fund A.
b. Fund B.
c. Both funds.
5 What's the best way to determine how well a fund has performed during the past three months?
a. Compare its NAV today with what it was three months ago.
b. Examine its three-month total return.
c. See how much it has paid out in dividends during that time.
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