There is a common misconception that mutual funds, index funds and ETFs are all the same type of investment vehicles. And while there are similarities, there are also some significant differences to know about before investing. Let’s explore.
Active vs. PassiveInvestors can select from two main investment strategies: active and passive portfolio management. Active portfolio management is exactly how it sounds: the portfolio manager focuses on outperforming an index by “actively” making buy/sell decisions. This includes adjusting asset allocation ranges and employing other portfolio management techniques. Passive portfolio management on the other hand simply aims to replicate an index – not outperform and not underperform – replicate. Therefore, there is no portfolio manager making buy/sell decisions. Mutual funds are either active or passive – if passive, then they are called index funds. ETFs can also be considered either passive or active.
Mutual Funds vs. Index Funds vs. ETFsAn active mutual fund is a diversified basket of securities that is professionally managed. They typically use a combination of stocks, bonds, and cash. Pricing for mutual funds are set at the end of every trading day – once the markets close at 4 PM EST. Index funds are designed to track a specific index, like the S&P 500 Index or Russell 2000 Index. Since they are technically mutual funds, they are also priced once a day when the markets close. But since index funds are not actively managed, they will offer lower costs to shareholders relative to mutual funds. ETFs, like index funds, are designed to track a specific index. ETFs can be traded throughout the day like a stock unlike mutual funds – including index funds.
Fees Are Different and ComplicatedBefore we discuss the differences in fees, it’s important to remember that there are almost 10,000 different mutual funds, index funds and ETFs. So it’s impossible to speak in absolutes. That being said, index fund and ETF fees are generally lower when compared to mutual funds. In fact, the Investment Company Institute reports in 2017 the following:
- Mutual Fund Expenses: The average expense ratio of actively managed equity mutual funds fell to 0.78%, from 0.82% in 2016, and the average expense ratio for actively managed bond mutual funds fell to 0.55%, from 0.58%.
- Index Funds Expenses: Over the same period, the average expense ratios for index equity mutual funds and for index bond mutual funds remained unchanged at 0.09% and 0.07%, respectively.
- ETF Expenses: In 2017, the average expense ratio of index equity ETFs fell to 0.21%, down from 0.22% in 2016, and the average bond ETF expense ratio was 0.18% in 2017, down from 0.20% in 2016.
- Many mutual funds charge sales commissions – as high as 5.75% for Class A shares. In addition, they might charge transaction fees of $10 or $75 per trade. Both really depend on the mutual fund and how you’re buying.
- Index funds don’t charge sales commissions but might have similar mutual fund transactional fees. Again, it depends on the fund and how you’re buying
- ETFs, since they are traded throughout the day just like a common stock on a stock exchange, charge fees every time you make a trade. These fees are generally around $5-$10 per trade. So for low dollar amounts or high-frequency trading, the commissions on ETFs can really add up.