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Related topics: funds, mutual funds, investments, bond funds, investing strategy

In the previous lesson, we examined the mutual fund's NAV, its net asset value (or price per share). NAVs seem similar to stock prices; both represent the price of one share of an investment. Both appear in newspapers and on financial websites. But that's where the similarities between NAVs and stock prices end.

Calculating the NAV

A mutual fund calculates its NAV by adding up the current value of all the stocks, bonds and other securities (including cash) in its portfolio, subtracting the manager's salary and other operating expenses, and dividing that figure by the fund's total number of shares.

For example, a fund with 500,000 shares that owns $9 million in stocks and $1 million in cash has an NAV of $20.

So alike but so very different

NAVs and stock prices differ in five important ways:

  • Stock prices change throughout the trading day, but mutual fund NAVs are calculated only once each day, based on the value of their stocks or bonds at the time the market closes. When you purchase a mutual fund, you buy shares at the NAV as of that day's close. As a result, you don't necessarily know the exact NAV of the fund at the time you put in your order to buy or sell. If you place an order early in a given day, you're likely to get that day's closing price for the fund. If you make your order later in the day or after trading has ended, you'll get the following day's closing price.
  • Stock investors typically specify how many shares they'd like to buy, and buy shares of a given stock in even lots, such as 50 shares of Pfizer (PFE +0.53%, news)or 100 shares of Walt Disney (DIS -0.07%, news). By contrast, most fund investors purchase funds in dollar amounts rather than share amounts. As we noted in the lesson Funds 101, fund companies willingly issue fractional shares. For example, if you have $1,250 that you'd like to put into a fund with an NAV of $14, you'll get 89.286 shares.
  • Stocks have a fixed number of shares available. To change its number of shares, a company can either issue new shares or buy back its own shares in the market. By contrast, mutual funds generally have an unlimited number of shares, and the number changes daily, depending on how many shares investors buy and sell that day.
  • You can determine whether a stock is a bargain or not by its price relative to a "fair value" price, based on such information as earnings estimates or cash flows. (This process is known as "valuing" a stock.) With mutual funds, however, NAV is tied to the value of the fund's underlying holdings. Calculating a fair price for a mutual fund's entire portfolio, while theoretically possible, would be a cumbersome process, particularly when you consider that many funds hold more than 100 stocks or bonds.
  • You can use changes in a stock's price to gauge how well a stock is performing. Mutual funds, however, distribute any income or capital gains they realize to shareholders as dividends, which, in turn, causes their NAVs to fluctuate. Unless you account for such distributions, you could be underestimating a fund's performance by looking solely at its NAV. To accurately gauge a fund's performance, you need to examine its total return, which takes into account both the appreciation of the fund's holdings as well as any distributions the fund has paid out.

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Uses of NAV

After learning a bit more about NAVs, you may be thinking, "What the heck can I use NAV for?" Well, NAVs do provide you with some idea of what your investment is worth each day. And because funds calculate daily NAVs, investors can buy and sell each day. Daily access to NAVs also reassures you that your investment is being watched over, valued and reported on.