Understanding Total Return

Hands of a young Asian businessman Man putting coins into piggy bank and holding money side by side to save expenses A savings plan that provides enough of his income for payments.A mutual fund’s performance — its total return — can be either positive or negative. In other words, a fund either made or lost money for a measured time period. There are three separate elements that contribute to total return: the distribution of fund income (interest and dividends received on the fund’s investments); the distribution of capital gains; and the rise or fall in the price of fund shares. A fuller understanding of these three elements can help you make more informed decisions as an investor.

Fund Income

Bond issuers, such as corporations and the U.S. government, pay interest on the money loaned to them by the investors that buy the bonds. If you buy a government bond, for example, you know how much interest the bond will pay you over the life of the bond. Bonds are also known as “fixed-income” investments because you can anticipate your earnings.

If you own shares in a bond fund rather than an individual bond, you will share in the interest earned by the bonds in the fund. However, if you own your bond fund through an employer’s retirement plan, you do not actually receive your share of the interest income in cash. Instead, your share of the interest is reinvested in the fund and is used to buy additional shares for your account.

If you own shares in a stock fund, you may receive a distribution of dividends the fund received on its various stock holdings. Your share of the dividends paid to a stock fund you own through an employer’s retirement plan is reinvested in that fund and used to buy additional shares.

Capital Gains Distributions

When fund managers sell an investment that has increased in price, the fund will have a capital gain. Funds, of course, have losers as well as winners. When a fund sells an investment for less than it paid for it, the fund suffers a loss. Most mutual funds distribute capital gains (minus capital losses) to their shareholders at the end of the year. If you own funds through a retirement account, then the capital gains distributions are reinvested in additional fund shares.

Rise or Fall in Fund Share Prices

The market prices of stocks and bonds rarely remain static — they typically rise and fall each trading day. Thus, the share price of a fund depends on the current value of the investments it holds in its portfolio, after deduction of expenses and liabilities. As an investor, it’s important to understand that until you sell your shares in a fund, any gain or loss in their value is only a gain or loss on paper.

Total Return and Fund Performance

There are several ways to measure fund performance, and total return plays a part in each method.

  • Average annual total return: One way to measure the performance of a mutual fund is to look at its average annual total return for different periods of time. A comparison of a fund’s return to a benchmark will show how the fund has performed relative to an index.
  • Cumulative total return: Looking at a fund’s cumulative total return shows how much a fund has earned over a specific period.
  • Year-by-year returns: It can be helpful to compare a fund’s performance from one year to the next. If you notice a wide variation year to year, the fund is most likely a highly volatile one.

You should consider the fund’s investment objectives, charges, expenses, and risks carefully before you invest. The fund’s prospectus, which can be obtained from your financial representative, contains this and other information about the fund. Read the prospectus carefully before you invest or send money. Shares, when redeemed, may be worth more or less than their original cost.

Prices of fixed income securities may fluctuate due to interest rate changes. Investors may lose money if bonds are sold before maturity.

Stock investing involves a high degree of risk. Stock prices fluctuate and investors may lose money.