What is the Difference Between ETFs and Index Funds?

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ETFs and index funds attempt to mimic the growth of the stock market. The general trend of the stock market in its few hundred years of existence has been upward, even if it has its daily ups and downs. So, the goal of a diversified portfolio, like those available in both ETFs and index funds, is to tap into that growth for individual consumers. Usually, these assets are geared toward slow and steady, long-term growth.

Before you start looking for your next investment opportunity, it’s smart to become more familiar with the different kinds of financial products available. This post will cover what you need to know about the difference between ETFs, or exchange-traded funds, and index funds. The two investment tools are fairly similar, share many of the same perks, and are often suitable for similar long-term investing goals. However, they do differ in a few interesting ways. Some of the topics we’ll cover related to ETFs vs index funds include:

Before you call your broker, let’s cover the basics.

Understanding ETFs

An ETF stands for exchange-traded fund. There’s a lot going on in that term, so let’s break it down. “Exchange-traded” means it’s traded on a stock exchange, the same way that investors might trade shares in an individual company. “Fund” simply means it’s a large collection of money that many people can add to. Put the two together, and you get a fund where investors can pool their money into a collection of stocks and bonds.

ETFs come in two broad categories that are important to know about before investing any capital: index ETFs and actively managed ETFs.

  • Indexed ETFs track a market index, like the Dow Jones or S&P 500. These are collections of large companies whose overall trajectory closely mirrors the progress of the market as a whole. Over history, the general trend of the economy has been upward. So, the idea behind an index-based ETF is to simply tap into that growth by putting the pooled funds into a collection of stocks that will track market trends.
  • Actively managed ETFs are managed by a fund manager who intentionally invests in certain securities in order to reach a specific investment goal. The idea behind an actively managed fund is that the investors, and the fund manager, are hoping to grow high-yielding assets faster than they might by simply matching a market index.

For the sake of this post, we are mostly concerned with the difference between index funds and ETFs, so we’ll focus more on index-based ETFs because they are much more common than their actively managed counterparts.

Index fund basics

Index funds are a general name for a fund that seeks to track a market index. So, technically speaking, an indexed ETF is a type of index fund. Index funds, however, can also be mutual funds, which are another investment product that you can purchase.

A mutual fund is a company that bundles investors’ money and puts it toward a set of securities and bonds with a particular investment goal in mind. Index mutual funds try to track a market index, and so they tend to grow with the economy over time. Other mutual funds may try to out-perform the market, or try to cash in on a new and exciting innovation that presents an investment opportunity.

Index funds, however, tend to be the “slow and steady wins the race” option. In fact, 80% of actively managed funds (funds that are attempting to out-perform the market) did worse over time than the S&P 500. This means that, if you had invested in an index fund tracking the S&P 500 instead, you would likely have made more money than someone who invested in an actively managed fund.

If it sounds a lot like an index-tracking ETF and an index-tracking mutual fund are pretty similar, don’t worry; that’s because they are. However. there are still a few important differences to point out, which we will go over next.

Index funds vs ETFs: What’s the difference?

The difference between an index-based ETF and an index-based mutual fund is pretty technical, but understanding investing often requires working through technical terms. First, in a certain sense, simply comparing ETFs vs index funds is a bit of a false dichotomy. That’s because ETFs can be index funds, as long as they’re structured to track an index.

In a broad sense, the two vehicles are geared toward the same purpose, too: earning you money slowly but (mostly) surely over the long term (years to decades). You’re likely to find both ETFs and indexed mutual funds included as part of retirement portfolios.

Both ETFs and mutual funds (indexed or not) are SEC-registered investment companies. ETFs, however, trade just like stocks meaning that you can buy or sell shares at any time the market is open. Mutual funds, on the other hand, can not be traded during the day. Mutual Funds are priced at the end of each trading day, so if you placed a buy trade for a mutual fund on Monday the shares would not be purchased until Tuesday. This main difference is because ETFs, like stocks, can only be purchased in whole shares. So if an ETF is priced at $25 per share and you had $80 to invest you could only buy 3 shares for $75 dollars. In a mutual fund you can buy decimals of shares. For example, if you still had $80 to invest and a share of a mutual fund was $25 then you could get 3.2 shares.

Mutual funds may have simpler, more hands-off reinvestment opportunities. That is, if you earn dividends, they may be immediately reinvested in your fund. ETFs, on the other hand, may charge a small fee for this transaction; however, you can also turn on automatic reinvestment of dividends for ETFs, as well.

Ultimately, choosing to invest in an ETF or Mutual fund will depend on your personal preference and the options you have based on where you are investing.

How do I know what’s right for me?

Once you’re ready to start investing, it’s normal to wonder what options are right for you, and for your specific situation. Your particular investment path will depend primarily on three key variables:

  1. Your goals: What are you investing for? Are you saving for retirement, or are you planning a destination wedding or dream house?
  2. Your time horizon: How long do you have to reach your goals?
  3. Your risk tolerance: Are you okay with being a little risky in hope of a larger return, or would you rather play it safe and let slow and steady win the race?

Knowing what investment strategy is right given your answers to questions 1, 2, and 3 above is the first step in finding the portfolio that’s right for you. Whatever your specific situation, however, ETFs and index funds may be a solid choice.

Here are some of the benefits of investing through an ETF or index fund.

Long-term growth potential

As we noted above, the focus with index-based mutual funds and ETFs is to match the slow and steady growth of the market. While downturns do occur, and there may be periods where your investment portfolio is looking rougher than you’d like, chances are still good that you’ll be able to grow your investments in the long run.

In fact, the average historical growth of the S&P 500 is around 10% a year. That means, by investing in index funds that track that market index, you may be able to make similar gains — averaged over the long term.

Higher chance of long-term gains vs other assets

Take another look at the chart displayed above. It states that over 80% of actively managed funds under-performed the S&P 500. This suggests that, when investors try to be clever and invest in such a way that they beat the growth of the stock market, eight out of ten times, they fail to do so.

Again, if your aim is long-term growth, you may have a higher chance of achieving it by simply using an index-based ETF or index-based mutual fund to steadily grow your money, rather than risking it on an actively managed ETF or mutual fund that tries to out-perform the market.

Relatively low fees

Actively managed funds also tend to cost more. That’s because they require fund managers to actively research and pick out securities to invest in. Index funds (whether mutual funds or ETFs) avoid this by requiring little maintenance from fund managers. So, fees for investing tend to be lower.

ETF & index fund essentials: How to get started investing

Getting started investing can seem daunting, especially with so many options and technical terms floating around. Don’t worry; there are simple, concrete steps you can take to start taking advantage of ETFs and index funds. Consider these options:

  • Brokerage services: Brokerage services professionally manage your personal investment portfolio. They might help you plan for retirement, help you take advantage of tax breaks, or help you optimize investments for a specific goal. You can let them know you’re interested in investing in ETFs or through a mutual fund.
  • Robo investors: Rather than paying for an expensive human broker, a robo investor allows you to open a retirement account or personal investment portfolio with just a few taps of your phone. Cleverly programmed algorithms tailor an account to your preferences, including investing in ETFs and index funds.
  • Solo investing: You can choose to manage on your own and purchase a mutual fund directly from the company that runs it, or buy an ETF directly from a stock exchange. This might be a better option for those who know a bit about how to invest in stocks. (You may also want to take a look at our guide to investing mistakes to avoid before rushing to the exchanges.)
  • Retirement allocation: If you have an IRA that you’ve set up on your own, or you have a 401k through your employer, there’s a good chance you may already be invested in ETFs or an index-based mutual fund. If not, it’s a good idea to consider these options as part of your portfolio.

ETFs vs mutual funds vs index funds, and actively managed vs index-based — the terms can be tricky, but with the right background knowledge, you can make informed investment decisions to help grow your future.

Sources:

Investor.gov | Investopedia | SPIVA Statistics & Reports

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