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Course 210
Your First Fund

Introduction

You've learned how to evaluate funds so that you can answer five key questions: how has it performed, how risky has it been, what's in its portfolio, who's in charge, and how much does it cost. Those are questions you need to be able to answer whether you're choosing your first or your thirty-first fund. (Yes, some people own that many.)

When selecting your first stock fund, though, you need to focus on a few additional, specific things. Why? Because for some of you, your first fund may be your only fund—or your only fund for awhile.

Here are the qualities to look for in your first fund.

Seek Diversification

Whether you're investing for a goal that's five or 50 years away, your first stock fund should be well diversified. That means the fund should hold a large number of stocks (100 or more) from a wide range of industries, or sectors. By looking at Morningstar's fund reports on Morningstar.com, you can find how many stocks a fund owns as well as which sectors it favors.

What's the big deal about diversification? Funds that own many stocks from many different sectors are generally more stable than funds holding few stocks from only one or two industries. For example, the average natural resources fund carried a standard deviation (a measure of volatility) of 31.1 in May 2011, while the average large-blend fund's standard deviation was a more sedate 22.4.

While you may own some of these more concentrated types of funds at some point in your investment life—say, to rev up your returns or to add some variety to your investments—they aren't suitable first-time investments. (We'll talk more about diversification and when you might focus on concentrated investments in later lessons.)

Favor Large Companies

Next, focus on funds that buy stocks of large U.S. companies. Funds with a collection of stocks such as Coca-Cola KO, Procter & Gamble PG, and Wal-Mart WMT may not always offer the most exciting returns, but they tend to hold up better than smaller companies when times get tough.

Morningstar groups these funds, which are called large-cap funds, into three categories: large value, large blend, and large growth. Large-value funds own stocks that are undervalued, large-growth funds buy stocks that have strong growth prospects, and large-blend funds own a combination of the two.

Which should you choose? Large-growth funds are the most volatile of the three categories, because they tend to own stocks in higher-growth, and therefore higher-risk, sectors, such as health care and technology. Large-value funds are generally less volatile but tend to perform in fits and starts, too, as they have their own pet sectors, such as financials and industrials. When these sectors suffer, so will most large-value funds.

Your best choice would be a large-blend fund that owns both types of stocks. It has exposure to a blend of the aforementioned sectors.

Go with a Big Family

When buying your first fund, start with one of the larger fund families. Why? Giants such as Fidelity, Vanguard, and T. Rowe Price are closely monitored by the media and by investors. Intense public scrutiny has made it difficult for these shops to wield really poor players for too long, and while it's unlikely their funds will top the charts year in and year out, they're generally reliable.

Going with one of the bigger families has another benefit: Your first fund may not be your last fund, and the big families boast a range of offerings, from domestic large- and small-company funds to international options; taxable and tax-free bond offerings to single-sector funds. It's possible to build an entire portfolio from just one family.

But don't confuse big with diversified. PIMCO, for example, is one of the industry's largest fund families. While the group does offer some equity funds, it's made its name as a bond-fund manager.

To see how much variety a family offers, type in the name of the family in our Quotes/Reports box on Morningstar.com's home page. You'll find a list of Fund Reports for the family's funds. Go through some of the reports to get an idea of the types of funds the group offers or visit the fund family's Web site.

Quiz 210
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Which would make the best first fund?
a. One that owns 20 technology stocks.
b. One that owns 100 financial stocks.
c. One that owns 100 stocks from various sectors.
2 Why should your first fund be one that favors large companies?
a. Because these funds are always the highest returning.
b. Because these funds tend to be less volatile than funds owning smaller companies.
c. Because these funds are cheap.
3 Which type of large-company fund generally makes the best first fund?
a. Large value.
b. Large blend.
c. Large growth.
4 Why is it a bad idea to buy a single-sector fund as your first fund?
a. Such funds are volatile.
b. Such funds are poor performers.
c. Such funds are expensive.
5 Which is not a reason for buying your first fund through one of the big fund families?
a. Because their funds tend to be reliable.
b. Because of the variety that big families usually offer.
c. Because their funds are always the best performers.
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