BOSTON (CBS) – With thousands of mutual funds to choose from, you need a disciplined process to whittle down the number to something that is manageable. This process will work if you are just choosing among the funds in your 401(k) as well.

[Audio|titles=Picking The Right Funds|artists=Dee Lee]

You want to think long term. Therefore, it is worth taking some time to select your funds. Start with Morningstar to being your research. Look for:

  • A fund manager with a good 5 and 10 year performance record; you may need to settle for a 3 and 5 year record. You are interested in the comparative performance over 3, 5 and 10 year period. One-year ratings are not very meaningful.
  • An average or lower than average expense ratio. Fees and expenses can make a huge difference in your return over the years. These dollars are taken out of the mutual fund whether the fund makes money or loses money.
  • A lower than average annual turnover ratio. Turnover increases expenses as the manager buys and sells securities. The idea is that the manager sells something at a high price and buys something else at a better value. As long as this works you come out ahead. You’ll find that growth funds, especially small-cap growth funds have the highest turnover. Compare each funds annual turnover ratio with other funds in the same style category.
  • A low Beta. Beta represents risk. Volatility is measured by a statistical tool called beta which represents how much a fund or a stock moved up and down compared to the stock market over short periods in the past, usually a year. The market’s volatility is represented by a beta of 1.0. Funds with a higher beta went up and down more than the market while those below 1.0 went up and down less than the market.
  • The minimum investment required? Funds have widely varying minimums, $1,000 to $100,000. The minimums are often waived for 401(k)s or IRAs.
  • An above average Sharpe ratio. The Sharpe Ratio combines beta with the return of the fund over the same period. It measures whether the amount of volatility the fund experienced was justified based on the actual return of the fund compared to the return of Treasury bills which aren’t very volatile because they mature in less than a year. A Sharpe Ratio greater than 1.0 means the manager got a bigger bang for the bucks in the fund than the volatility would indicate. According to Professor William Sharpe, the 1990 Nobel Prize winner for Economic Science who created the ratio, this measure does have a weak predictive value. So use the measure cautiously.

Once you have the universe of funds narrowed down using the guidelines above, you probably still have more funds than you need. Take your search one step further and look at the ease of purchasing the funds.

Can you use one of the supermarkets like Fidelity or Schwab or does one fund family fit your needs in the beginning. You want to be sure what ever fund family you choose that there is a money market fund available. Selling your fund or transferring the fund will be so much easier if you have a money market fund to use as a holding place.

One more thing: Money magazine and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine almost always have articles about mutual funds they would recommend. Check them out at your local library. The library may also have some other tools you can use in your research such as financial newsletters and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and Barrons.

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