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Funds: the basics

April 2020

Categories: First time investors

Funds, traditionally referred to as mutual funds, are collective investments that pool investors’ money to buy and sell shares or other assets in a range of companies to maximise profits and reduce risks.


Funds are can be ‘active’ – run by investment professionals seeking to outperform the market – or ‘passive’ – tracker funds seeking to return the performance of an index or sector. Active funds include a fee for the expertise and professional investment management.


Types of active funds

  • Unit trusts
  • Open Ended Investment Companies (OEICs)
  • Investment trusts

These funds may concentrate on a particular market, asset class or sector, and differ in their investment objective – either targeting regular income or long-term capital growth.


Growth, preservation or income? You can read more about investing outcomes here


Unit Trusts, OEICs and Investment Trusts differ in the way they are constituted, which has a bearing on how they operate and potentially the risks they take and returns they can deliver.

How does it work?

When you invest in a unit trust, you buy a number of units that represent your share of the fund; new units are created when you invest and are cancelled if you sell your units back.

Once a day, the fund manager calculates the total value of the underlying investments (net asset value or NAV) and establishes the price a new investor has to pay for units; the price moves up and down with the value of the fund - some are dual priced, with ‘bid’ and ‘offer’ prices, others have a single price.


Read more about investment trusts


Since the government’s 2012 Retail Distribution Review (RDR) delivered greater price transparency, the cost of ownership of actively managed funds plummeted; ‘clean’ or unbundled funds scrapped many of the previously ‘hidden’ fees and charges.

OEICs are similar to unit trusts but the fund is run as a company and creates and cancels shares rather than units.

Unit trusts and OEICs are ‘open ended’ in that the number of units in existence can, in theory, be limitless; by contrast investment trusts are investment companies that issue a limited number of shares that trade on an exchange, their price determined by supply and demand rather than NAV.


What are the benefits?

By pooling your investment, you can achieve a more diversified portfolio than you might on your own, spreading your risk and increasing your chances of making a profit; large funds can make investments that individuals may not be able to and with lower transaction costs.

Many funds are specialists in regions, such as South America, themes such as energy or high-yielding assets like certain bonds or stocks, so you should be able to find a fund with the market exposure and risk profile you want for your portfolio.

Rather than research companies yourself, a professional fund manager will do this on your behalf and as ‘institutional investors’ they sometimes have preferential access to fundraisings – often at a discount.

A fund manager may also have greater influence over a company’s strategy than an individual share holder and as most funds allow investors to drip-feed their money in, if you have only £50 to invest each month, you will still be able to gain exposure to the stock market.

If its investments perform well, the value of the fund will rise and the value of your individual units will rise; you may also receive ‘distributions’, i.e. your portion of the dividend or rental income the fund has received from its assets, monthly, quarterly or every six months.

Most funds give you two options for payment – income or accumulation; income units pay the distributions as income, while accumulation units wrap them up and reinvest in the fund, to increase the capital value of your investment.
Income payments, or the compounding of income within a fund, can be a major attraction for investors; managers also look for long term capital growth by growing the value of their assets over time.


Where do funds invest?

There are almost 3,000 different unit trusts and OEICs available to investors in the UK, investing in over 30 sectors.

The sectors are categorised by the Investment Association (IA) and split between asset class (equities, fixed interest, and property), geography (UK Equity, Europe and Emerging Markets), sector (agriculture, energy) and investment style (normally growth or income).
There are also funds that invest in other funds, called multi-manager or fund of funds which rather than investing directly into individual assets, invest in other collective investments in the hope that specialist managers in the various asset classes will deliver market beating performance.


Fund charges

Previously, investors in unit trusts and OEICs faced two charges – an initial fee, and an annual management charge (AMC).
At around 5% the initial fee was often discounted by the fund ‘supermarkets’; the AMC was typically 1.5%, but with the addition of admin, legal and custodian fees, the total annual cost of a fund was often much higher, quoted as the total expense ratio or TER.
However, RDR reduced fund charges significantly therefore most fund groups have done away with initial charges and ongoing fees have typically reduced by half.

The average AMC on an active fund is now around 0.75%, rising to around 0.85% with additional expenses added to make up the full ongoing charge figure (OCF) which replaces the old TER.

Costs are a drag on performance and levied whether the fund makes money or not. If you’re paying a premium for active management it is well worth doing some homework into the funds you are considering.

Ultimately, the long term performance of your investment is dependent upon the decisions that the manager of the fund or funds you choose makes and you should look carefully at a fund’s risk profile before deciding to invest.

EQi's fund lists

Use our fund lists to find funds based on insight and ratings from Square Mile, one of the largest and most respected investment research teams in the UK. Our lists are a great way to narrow down your choice before you select which fund best suits your investment goals.

View our fund lists

Focus on Funds

This article has been updated and was originally published in March 2019.

The views and opinions expressed by the author, Focus on Funds magazine or associated third parties may not necessarily represent views expressed or reflected by EQi.

The content in Focus on Funds magazine is non-partisan and we receive no commissions or incentives from anything featured in the magazine.

The value of investments can fall as well as rise and any income from them is not guaranteed and you may get back less than you invested. Past performance is not a guide to future performance.

Focus on Funds Magazine delivers education and information, it does not offer advice. Copyright© DIY Investor (2016) Ltd, Registered in England and Wales. No. 9978366 Registered office: Mill Barn, Mill Lane, Chiddingstone, Kent TN8 7AA.

You can find all editions of Focus on Funds here.