To REALLY understand mutual funds–and investment vehicles in general–download a mutual fund prospectus, and an SAI, and a shareholder report. If you want the scaled-down, bare-bones disclosure document, download the prospectus or the even slimmer summary prospectus. You’ll find the risks and objectives and policies of the fund, the fees and expenses, the taxation issues, etc. But if you want to see precisely what’s in the portfolio, download the statement of additional information or SAI. For example, when I look at the prospectus for the American Balanced Fund, I see that: “The fund invests in a broad range of securities, including common stocks and investment-grade bonds (rated Baa3 or better or BBB- or better by Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations designated by the fund’s investment adviser or unrated but determined to be of equivalent quality). The fund also invests in securities issued and guaranteed by the U.S. government and by federal agencies and instrumentalities. In addition, the fund may invest a portion of its   assets in common stocks, most of which have a history of paying dividends, bonds and other securities of issuers domiciled outside the United States.” Okay, that’s a good general statement that could attract or repel from an investment in this conservative mutual fund. But if I’m willing to download the statement of additional information/SAI, I can get more detail on the portfolio. For example, I see that within the 69.73% of the portfolio devoted to common stock, there are some 45,386,600 shares of Wells Fargo worth at the time $1.25 billion. The portfolio holds 16 stocks in the “financials” sector, which represents both 10.8% of the fund’s industry allocation and approximately $5.3 billion of market value.  By the way, I notice that this mutual fund holds large positions in at least four other companies that issue and/or manage mutual funds. Hey–why not–it’s a great business? So, the SAI gives a much more detailed look at the mutual fund portfolio than the prospectus or summary prospectus.  If I want to know that and also how much money the fund pays in expenses to all the various service providers, I need to download the shareholder report–either semi-annual or annual. In this report, I discover that the following parties were paid the following amounts:

Investment advisory services   121,350,000
Distribution services  182,738,000
Transfer agent services  42,807,000
Administrative services   30,064,000
Reports to shareholders  2,393,000
Registration statement and prospectus  762,000
Trustees’ compensation  458,000
Auditing and legal   133,000
Custodian   278,000
Other   2,214,000
TOTAL EXPENSES $383,197,000

So, the fund’s income statement shows that the portfolio earned $1,306,571,000 in dividends and interest, and after deducting $383,197,000 for expenses, the net investment income was $923,374,000. Notice that the adviser earned about $121 million managing the portfolio; the distributor earned about $182 million marketing the shares and providing other services. Heck, just generating the semi-annual and annual reports themselves cost about $2.4 million a year! In any case, I find this stuff interesting. It’s painful to dig in at first, but the rewards are pretty high. I mean, if you understand mutual funds to this level, how hard are the test questions really going to be?

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