What is a mutual fund?
Put simply, a mutual fund is a pool of money provided by individual investors, companies, and other organizations. A fund manager is hired to invest the cash the investors have contributed. The goal of the manager depends on the type of fund; a fixed-income fund manager, for example, would strive to provide the highest yield at the lowest risk. A long-term growth manager, on the other hand, should attempt to beat the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500 in a fiscal year (very few funds actually achieve this; to find out why, read Index Funds - The Dumb Money Almost Always Wins).
Closed vs. Open-Ended Funds, Load vs. No-Load
Mutual funds are divided along four lines: closed-end and open-ended funds; the latter is subdivided into load and no load.
This type of fund has a set number of shares issued to the public through an initial public offering. These shares trade on the open market; this, combined with the fact that a closed-end fund does not redeem or issue new shares like a normal mutual fund, subjects the fund shares to the laws of supply and demand. As a result, shares of closed-end funds normally trade at a discount to net asset value.
A majority of mutual funds are open-ended. In simple terms, this means that the fund does not have a set number of shares. Instead, the fund will issue new shares to an investor based upon the current net asset value and redeem the shares when the investor decides to sell. Open-end funds always reflect the net asset value of the fund's underlying investments because shares are created and destroyed as necessary.
A load, in mutual fund speak, is a sales commission. If a fund charges a load, the investor will pay the sales commission on top of the net asset value of the fund’s shares. No load funds tend to generate higher returns for investors due to the lower expenses associated with ownership.