When investors discuss mutual funds and wonder "What have you done for me lately?" their focus always centers on performance.
But beyond the numbers, fund companies do a lot for consumers, providing education to make them better investors.
To that end, I ask fund firms to send me their educational freebies, so that I could pick the best available items. About 30 fund companies swamped my office with more than 320 goodies; all had to be available in printed versions - not just online - and had to be free, whether you were a shareholder or not.
Having undertaken this exercise every few years for more than a decade now, I definitely have an eye for the good stuff, specifically material that is easy to understand without being too self-indulgent, self-promotional or self-serving. Dozens of fund firms provide educational brochures, calculators and handouts that are good, so uniqueness counts for something in my book. That said, it is always a good idea to check with the fund companies you work with to see what they offer shareholders. Chances are you will be pleasantly surprised.
Last week, I focused on some handheld cardboard slide-rule calculators and more. This week, it is work sheets, specialty items, and broad investment libraries.
Work sheets. I love having checklists and work sheets, because sitting down with a pencil and paper helps create focus; it also creates a legacy that can be used and rechecked.
John Hancock Mutual Funds (1-800-225-5291) has an emergency-preparedness checklist that is a quick and easy guide that you and your family can follow; it is a fast, easy document that will be useful whether your emergency is a natural disaster forcing you from your home or a death in the family. Fund firms seem to agree with me, because work sheets are popular freebies.
Specialty items. MainStay Investments has developed a series of educational materials and work sheets on the difficult subject matter of death. While the pieces "You've Been Named Executor - Now What?" and "A Death in the Family" are not light reading, you want them in the house so that you can turn to them when the time comes. Part of the firm's much larger collection of booklets and checklists, these pieces can be found in the investor-education area at www.mainstayfunds.com or by calling 1-800-624-6782.
Legg Mason's "Investor's Guide to Separately Managed Accounts" covers a topic that comes up between many consumers and financial advisers these days, and it takes an unbiased look at the difference between separate accounts and mutual funds. If your adviser or money manager is pitching you an SMA, and you do not fully understand the product, check out the Web site that the firm has helped to establish, www.smaeducation.com.
The Rydex funds are built for advanced investors and so are the educational materials they provide investors. Their "Essentials of Futures" brochure should be required reading for anyone who has even contemplated investing in futures; if you cannot understand what the pamphlet says, you do not belong in futures. Go to rydexinvestments.com or call 1-800-820-0888, and while you are there, get the "Education Essentials" CD-ROM if you want to learn about inverse funds, using leverage, and more.
Basic investment libraries. Franklin Templeton has a pocketbook series of investment basics that are designed for the start-up investor. It is the simple, straightforward, all-in-one choice for someone looking for a basics package. And while you are on the phone with Franklin Templeton (1-800-342-5236), ask for their guide on "What You Need to Know About Beneficiary Designations." It is a great specialty piece and work sheet all in one and will help investors organize their documents, make sure they have the correct beneficiaries, and house all relevant information in a central place.
Fidelity Investments' "Planning & Guidance" series is a great intermediate step, more thorough and wide-ranging than the Franklin Templeton series, without getting to where you feel like you are reading an oppressive book. Most of the booklets appear designed to provide an action plan, allowing you to start with the learning and end with a program to follow. You can order the planning and guidance booklets at www.fidelity.com or by calling 1-800-343-3548.
But there is little doubt that if you could tap into just one fund firm for your investment knowledge, you would go with the Vanguard Group. The firm's "Plain Talk Library" is extensive and aptly named, ranging from investment beginnings to whether you should consider an income annuity to estate planning.
Beyond the fund firm's basic educational pieces, Vanguard Investment Counseling and Research has produced a series of in-depth research papers. They are not light reading, but for someone looking for a comprehensive education on financial subjects from soup to nuts, this is the next best thing to taking the courses to become a financial planner (and in some respects, it may be better). The best way to access the information is online, at www.vanguard.com, but Vanguard will also guide you through its educational materials if you call 1-800-662-7447.