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ETFs or Mutual Funds: Which Are Better?

If you look at your investment portfolio, you are bound to see two kinds of assets – if you have a diversified portfolio, that is. Those assets are ETFs and mutual funds. You’ve also probably heard a lot about them and maybe even heard people arguing over which is better. They both come with their own benefits and drawbacks that we will discuss in this article. Hopefully, you’ll come out with a better understanding of them and be able to make more informed decisions for your investment portfolio! If you work with a financial advisor already, you’ll have deeper insights into the rationale behind your advisor’s investment decisions.

What are Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs)?

ETFs are investment funds that hold a diverse bundle of assets, such as stocks or bonds. Usually, they are designed to track the performance of a specific index or market sector, providing investors with exposure to a wide variety of securities in one investment vehicle. One of the most significant differences between an ETF and a mutual fund is that ETFs are traded like stocks, meaning you can buy and sell them throughout the trading day, unlike a mutual fund. They are relatively new to the investing world – the first ETF didn’t hit the market until 1993 and didn’t catch on as a popular investment vehicle until the late 1990s and early 2000s as a potentially cheaper and more tax-efficient alternative to mutual funds.

The Advantages of ETFs

Lower expense ratios

ETFs generally have lower expense ratios compared to mutual funds, meaning lower costs for investors. ETFs are generally passively managed, while mutual funds are usually actively managed. As previously mentioned, ETFs are mainly index-tracking funds – a manager doesn’t have to decide which stocks or bonds to purchase. All managers have to do is keep the ETF’s holdings in line with the underlying index, such as the S&P 500. There is simply no need to spend hours researching the fundamentals or the charts of companies, all of which are costly.

Tax efficiency

Due to their unique structure, ETFs are typically more tax-efficient than mutual funds. ETFs accomplish this by distributing fewer capital gains distributions by utilizing in-kind exchanges rather than selling securities to raise funds.
ETFs can also use their baskets of securities to create a new ETF rather than selling the security and forcing a capital gains distribution. ETF tax benefits increase when purchased through a tax-advantaged account such as an IRA.

Accessibility

ETFs typically have lower investment barriers than mutual funds, meaning investors with fewer funds can more easily tap into the benefits of ETFs. At the time of writing, Vanguard’s popular S&P 500 ETF is trading for $375, while its equivalent mutual fund has a minimum investment of $3,000.
Essentially, you can purchase just one ETF and buy more as you see fit rather than putting down a sizeable chunk of money to invest in a mutual fund.

Intraday trading flexibility

ETFs can be traded throughout the day, allowing adventure seeking daytraders to take advantage of market fluctuations to buy low and sell high. However, of more important note is that ETFs are highly liquid. If you need cash fast, you can quickly sell your ETFs – if there is high trading volume, that is.

Disadvantages of ETFs

Liquidity concerns

Some niche or specialized ETFs may have lower trading volumes, leading to liquidity concerns and wider bid-ask spreads. You may find yourself in need of cash and decide to sell off some ETFs to raise the necessary funds, just to find that your niche ETF isn’t selling on the open market right away.
Additionally, you have an increased chance of losing money due to a greater-than-average bid/ask spread. The wider the spread, the greater your ETF has to gain in value to begin making a profit. When accounting for brokerage fees on purchases and sales, you may find yourself losing money overall even though the ETF gained in value.

Tracking errors

Some ETFs may not perfectly track their underlying index, resulting in a tracking error. For example, managers of an ETF may not realize that the proportions of the ETF are out of line with the index or perhaps don’t reach in time. An ETF’s returns may not match an index’s returns due to SEC diversification rules, transaction costs, and management fees.
Finally, an ETF may not fully replicate an index and opt for a sampling technique instead, meaning the ETF only holds the most influential securities in an index. Tracking errors tend to be small but may add up over time.

What are mutual funds?

Mutual funds have been around much longer than ETFs, stretching back to 1924, with the arrival of the Massachusets Investors’ Trust. Mutual funds pool money from many investors to purchase a diverse array of stocks and bonds, just like ETFs. These funds are managed by professional portfolio managers who make investment decisions on behalf of the fund’s shareholders. They can be actively or passively managed, but more often than not, mutual funds are actively managed.
Mutual funds are bought and sold through the fund company at the end of the trading day at the net asset value (NAV) price, determined by the total value of the fund’s assets divided by the number of shares outstanding.

Advantages of mutual funds

Professional management

Mutual funds are managed by financial professionals, offering investors access to expert investment management. While not all mutual fund managers beat the market, there is the potential for substantially greater returns than a passive index fund can provide.

Illiquidity and high investment minimums

Now, you may be thinking that this is a disadvantage. After all, these were some of the advantages of ETFs. But these kinds of things dissuade investors from trying to time the market and promote a stay-the-course mentality vital for long-term investment success.
Buying and selling mutual funds at the end of the day prevents investors from panic selling during the daytime, giving the mutual fund time to go back up in price. Alternatively, it gives an investor time to calm down before the end of the trading day.

Tax Efficiency

Mutual fund managers can use tax-loss harvesting strategies to reduce the taxable profit a mutual fund provides. Also, mutual funds are often the mainstays of retirement plans such as 401(K)s, which provide excellent tax advantages. So, if you have the choice of purchasing an ETF in a non-retirement plan or a mutual fund in a 401(K), the mutual fund may win out due to its tax-advantageousness, even if it comes with higher fees. This difference is felt even more if your company provides matching contributions. It’s hard to say no to free money!

The disadvantages of mutual funds

Higher expense ratios

High fees are a serious disadvantage that you shouldn’t take lightly. High investment costs can significantly reduce the performance of your retirement portfolio, and mutual funds typically have higher expense ratios than ETFs. Many of the most famous investors of our time, such as Jack Bogle and Warren Buffett, stress that keeping costs low is one of the most significant factors in investment success.

Illiquidity

Yes, this may be a good thing, depending on how you view it. But in times of crisis, you may be unable to cash out your mutual funds quickly. The chances of needing cash by the end of the trading day may be slight, but you should consider this when choosing between mutual funds and ETFs.

Tax Efficiency

Overall, mutual funds are less tax efficient than ETFs as they create a greater amount of uncontrollable taxable events. For example, a portfolio manager may need to sell securities to align with the mutual fund’s prospectus, potentially triggering capital gains taxes.
If the underlying securities were held for less than a year, they might get charged at ordinary income rates, leaving you with a higher tax bill than expected. Also, mutual funds must distribute capital gains regularly, triggering another tax.

Which is better?

There is a reason ETFs have surged in popularity over the years. Lower barriers to entry, fewer costs, and returns that mainly beat actively managed funds are all great reasons to invest in ETFs. For your average investor, ETFs probably tip the scales, especially with easy-to-implement and cheap strategies such as the 3-Fund ETF Portfolio, just a few clicks away. But one should carefully evaluate all factors in their investment decisions, such as the psychological safety factor of mutual funds, retirement plan offerings, and higher potential returns. As always, consult with a trusted fiduciary financial advisor to determine the best investment strategy tailored to your individual needs.
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About the Authors

  • Douglas Walters

    Doug is the Managing Partner of Walters Strategic Partners, LLC, a licensed Registered Investment Advisory firm. Doug is a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the state of Florida and holds a Series 65 Investment Advisor Representative securities license. He is also a member of the AICPA. With over 28 years of experience as a CPA, he believes investment decisions should be based on decades of peer-reviewed research rather than relying on the latest “hot tip” from media outlets. This empirical evidence puts the science of investing to work for his clients.

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  • Jose Joia

    Jose M. Joia is a Wealth Advisor at Walters Strategic Advisors, LLC. As a member of the team, Jose’s responsibilities involve comprehensive wealth management, planning and customer service. He has over 6 years of industry experience specializing in planning and solving unique issues his clients encounter. Jose has experience serving individual clients, business owners and non-profit organizations.

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