Rather than trying to beat the market, many people choose to be the market by investing in passively managed funds. Over the long term, passive investment vehicles—like exchange traded funds (ETFs) and index funds—have consistently outperformed the vast majority of active funds, making them great choices for most investors. So what’s the difference between an index fund and an ETF? Which is best for your portfolio?
ETF vs Index Fund—Similarities
All index funds and the vast majority of ETFs use the same strategy: Passive index investing. This approach seeks to passively replicate the performance of an underlying index, providing easy diversification and sustainable long-term returns.
Index funds and ETFs provide a simple way to diversify your portfolio. Both offer exposure to hundreds or even thousands of securities, depending on the index they emulate. This can greatly decrease the likelihood your portfolio will be adversely impacted by big market swings.
Prices of individual stocks may swing wildly day to day, but the Nifty 50 loses or gains less than 1% per day, on average. Investing in an index fund or an ETF that tracks the Nifty 50 doesn’t protect you from all or any losses, but it does reduce the risks and volatility you’d experience if you only held a few individual stocks.
Sustainable Long Term Gains
Broad-based, passively managed ETFs and index funds have outperformed actively managed mutual funds over the long term.
An elite minority of active managers may deliver impressive results over shorter periods of time by picking individual securities, but it’s exceedingly rare that they can sustain a winning record over decades. Over the last 10 years ending in December 2020, more than 65% of actively managed funds have underperformed their benchmarks, according to BSE India.
What does that mean for your investment in an index fund or ETF? Since June 1999 to Feb 2021, the Nifty 50 Index has seen returns of 13.5 % pa You won’t get that number every year—some years it’ll be higher; some years it’ll be lower—but on average, it’s enough to double your money every 7.2 years or so.
Index funds and index ETFs generally have much lower expense ratios than actively managed funds. Morningstar looked at the average expense ratios of actively managed equity mutual funds versus index equity funds and index equity ETFs.
- Indian actively managed diversified mutual funds charged on an average to a smaller proportion of months, 5% of all months.
- Under direct plan, Nifty index funds have an average expense ratio of 0.25%
- Equity index ETFs charged an average of less than 1% expense ratio. (It’s not uncommon to see index ETFs with much lower expense ratios, though.)
While they may seem insignificant, expense ratios can really eat into your total returns over time. Assuming you invested INR 12,000 a year for 30 years and saw an average annual return of 6%, investing in the average index mutual fund would save you almost INR 1,20,000 over the cost of the average actively managed mutual fund.
Indexed, passive investing reduces your overall costs and leaves more of your money at work in your portfolio.
ETF vs Index Fund—Differences
One of the most significant differences between an index fund and an ETFs is how they trade. Shares of ETFs trade like stocks; they’re bought and sold whenever markets are open. While you can order index fund shares whenever you wish, share purchases only happen once a day, after the markets close. This means that the price of any given ETF fluctuates throughout the trading day, while the price of an index fund only changes once a day.
While both index funds and ETFs charge low expense ratios, additional fees beyond the expense ratio may look very different.
Most brokers have eliminated trading commissions on nearly all stock trades, and many charge no commission for ETF trades, either. Meanwhile, a broker’s sales commissions for index funds can be very expensive. That said, online brokers generally offer a selection of commission-free funds. There’s just no guarantee that the funds you want to buy are free of commissions.
Then there are load fees, another form of sales commission. Front-end load fees may be charged for buying funds while back-end load fees may be charged for selling funds. Load fees can be a percentage of your total purchase or a flat fee. ETFs lack load fees entirely.
So a given ETF may charge a higher annual expense ratio than an index fund you have your eye on, but you need to take into account the potential commissions and sales load fees charged by a comparable index fund.
Minimum Investment Amounts
Many index funds have minimum investment requirements, sometimes in the thousands of dollars. ETFs have no minimum purchase requirements.
While some index fund providers have lower minimums if you set up regular contributions to a tax-advantaged retirement account, they can still be substantial.
Until recently, most ETFs were not available as fractional shares (depending on your brokerage, they still might not be). Index funds, on the other hand, have always been available in fractional amounts.
When you buy into an index fund, managers convert the INR value of your investment into the correct number of shares based on the NAV the day of your purchase, regardless of whether you end up with a fractional share or not.
Fractional shares have the potential to help you get your money in the market sooner by letting you buy parts of full shares of funds instead of purchasing full, pricier shares. This also lets you better take advantage of rupee cost averaging, which may help you pay less per share overall over time.
ETFs are generally more tax efficient than mutual funds. While you will pay capital gains taxes on any gains you realize when you sell shares of an index fund or an ETF, you do not pay taxes when the holdings in the ETF portfolio are adjusted by managers.
Index funds, on the other hand, must buy and sell assets to adjust their portfolio to track the underlying index. The cost of any capital gains taxes from these sales are taken out of the fund portfolio NAV, which impacts the value of your index fund shares. That said, index fund holdings rarely change, so this may not be a huge issue for you.
ETFs are very rarely available as investment options in defined contribution plans, like Public Provident Fund (PPF). Generally, index funds and actively managed mutual funds are your only choice. When index fund and mutual fund shares are purchased in a retirement plan, there generally aren’t minimum purchase requirements.
If you save for retirement in a National Pension Scheme (NPS), you’ll have access to a very wide range of ETFs and index funds. If you invest extra funds in a taxable investment account via an online brokerage, you’ll probably have access to all available funds and ETFs. In this case, minimum investment amounts and the availability of fractional shares may impact your choice of ETF vs index fund.
Should You Invest in ETFs or Mutual Funds?
In the end, the choice of an ETF vs an index fund is probably less important than the fact that you’re decided to invest for your long-term goals using a passive investing vehicle. Whether you choose an index ETF or index mutual fund, you’ll benefit from lower fees, diversification and historically superior performance of index-based investing.