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Why you shouldn't toss those midyear fund reports in the trash

  • Review how much the fund is costing you.
  • Check the holdings to make sure there are no surprises.
  • Get info on managers: their outlook and possible changes in who is running the fund.

If you're among the many mutual fund investors who just received a semiannual shareholder report, be sure to take a look before you toss it in the recycling.

"There's a treasure trove of information in these reports," said certified financial planner Avani Ramnani, director of financial planning and wealth management at Francis Financial. "Some of it is dry and technical, but [investors] can look for things to make sure the fund is doing everything they thought it was doing."

For starters, just because you keep hearing about how strong the stock market has been since the November election, your fund might not have followed suit.

Most references to the market's gains are based on the major stock indexes.

"There's a treasure trove of information in these reports." -Avani Ramnani, director of financial planning and wealth management at Francis Financial

For instance, the Standard & Poor's 500 index, generally considered a broad indication of how U.S. companies are faring, has gained 7.63 percent this year through July 6. The Dow Jones industrial average, which measures the performance of 30 large U.S. stocks, rose 7.88 percent, and the tech-laden Nasdaq Composite Index is up 13.12 percent.

The Barclays Capital Aggregate Bond Index, which focuses on U.S. investment-grade bonds, has posted a 2 percent gain.

But not all stocks and bonds are moving in lockstep. The S&P Retail Select Industry index, for example, was down more than 7 percent through July 3. While that might come as no surprise given the challenges facing the industry, there's always a chance your fund was overweighted in retail or another poor-performing asset that served as a drag on gains.

So depending on the specific investments, a fund's performance could vary wildly from that of the broader market. And even though the data in the report is typically a couple of months old, it's worth checking to see if the fund performed as you expected and to see how it compared to whichever index it uses as a benchmark.

Beyond returns, here are a few other things to check out:

Ongoing fees

You can typically find this in a chart near the front, after a management discussion and some performance data.

The data shows the dollar cost associated with a hypothetical $1,000 invested in the fund during the six months covered in the report. This number excludes transaction-related expenses like a sales charge when you buy the fund (called a front-end load) or a redemption fee (back-end load). However, it lets you figure out exactly how much the fund is costing you versus seeing a complicated explanation of fees in a prospectus.

Say the chart shows that a $1,000 investment paid $1.15 in expenses during the six months covered. If you have $100,000 invested, it cost you 100 times that amount or $115. Also, semiannual reports are required to include the cost of a hypothetical $1,000 invested at a return rate of 5 percent. This information lets you more easily compare different funds' costs.

Meanwhile, funds' so-called expense ratios can range from less than 0.10 percent of assets (i.e., index funds and exchange-traded funds) to as much as 2 percent or more for specialized actively managed funds.

Just remember that the costs deducted from your investment reduce your overall returns. If you pay 1 percent annually, for example, your account balance after holding it for 20 years is reduced by 18 percent.

"Make sure the cost is palatable to you," Ramnani said.

Check the holdings

You'll find a table (usually near the front of the report) that includes a breakdown of the fund's investments by category (i.e., industry sector, geographical region, etc.).

Look at this to make sure there are no surprises. For example, if you think you're in an international fund and see a lot of emerging-market stocks, the fund might be riskier than you thought. Or, in a bond fund, where credit quality differs among types of bonds, you could discover that junk bonds comprise an uncomfortable amount of the fund's holdings.

These things matter not only as a measure of your risk exposure but also because they are tied to performance. If your fund held too many poor performers or investments you thought were off the table, the fund's results can differ from expectations. "You want to make sure the fund's management is investing as you thought they were," Ramnani said.

While the mid-year reports are not required to include their top 50 holdings, some funds will include it (or a partial list). It's worth checking this information for surprises as well.

Read (or glance at) the manager's letter

Although semiannual reports are not required to include this, many funds provide one. This gives you the chance to peek into the thinking of the people running the fund. The discussion might explain factors that contributed to the fund's performance.

It also could include an outlook, which is where you can get a feel for management's expectations going forward.

"You can get a sense for if they're nervous or feeling positive," Ramnani said. That, in turn, could affect how you feel about remaining in the fund, depending on how it meshes with your other investments and goals.

Look for management changes

Semiannual reports are required to include information related to the people in charge of the fund. Beyond compensation — which varies among funds — you can look to see if there's been a change in management. While not necessarily a bad thing, it's worth noting.

Ramnani said that when her firm is choosing funds, they look for investment teams who've been running the portfolio for at least three years.

"A new team of managers haven't proven their performance yet," Ramnani said.