ETF’s vs. index funds: fight!

Though the financial media buzz has faded somewhat in recent years, ETF’s (exchange-traded funds) exploded in popularity in the mid-2000’s as an alternative to index funds. What are they, and should you invest in them?

An exchange-traded fund is exactly what it says: a fund (mix of securities) that sells on a stock exchange. A regular mutual fund has its price re-computed at the end of the day by looking at the value of all of the securities that are in it; shares of an ETF, on the other hand, are actually bought and sold themselves. This seemingly small change can make all the difference in the world:

  • ETF’s often (but not always) have lower expense ratios than their corresponding indexes. Why? Because a mutual fund firm has to deal with a lot of paperwork when mutual funds are bought and sold, because they are the ones that have to process it. Not so with an ETF; since they’re sold on a stock exchange, the brokers do all the work there. (The ETF has some work to do — I’ve sidestepped the whole issue of how the price is maintained — but it’s comparatively small peanuts.) This alone can be a good reason to invest in ETF’s, as expense ratios are just about the only way to differentiate between funds that follow the same index, but that advantage comes with several less-obvious disadvantages:
  • ETF’s often (but not always) have commissions. Since you have to buy and sell ETF’s through a brokerage like Schwab or Fidelity, they’ll often charge you a commission to make the trade. If you’re putting a part of your paycheck into an IRA every month, this can quickly eat up any gains you may have gotten over an index fund (and then some!). However, many of the ETF’s most investors are interested in are offered commission-free by the broker; you just have to be careful what you buy. (Of course, mutual funds often have commissions, too.)
  • ETF’s are very difficult to auto-invest. As of this writing, the only popular brokerage I know of that allows you to automatically invest in an ETF is ING’s Sharebuilder, which, while cheap at $4 per automatic investment, is not commission-free. The others only allow automatic investment for mutual funds. Of course, if your ETF has a commission, you probably won’t be automatically investing monthly anyway; likely, you’ll save up in a money market account every month, then invest in ETF’s once every three or four months, so you’re only charged the commission three or four times a year. Either way, it’s not as easy as mutual funds.
  • ETF shares are generally more cumbersome to trade. With mutual funds, you just tell your mutual fund company how many dollars of your funds you want to buy, sell, or exchange (in the case of rebalancing), and the firm takes care of it all at the end of the day, no muss, no fuss. With ETF’s, if you’re rebalancing, you have to sell the shares from the too-high ETF, wait for everthing to clear, then buy the shares from the too-low ETF. And in the meantime, because you can only buy whole shares, you’ve got money piling up in your money market account, leftover from each trade. On the whole, annoying.
  • ETF’s have a bid/ask spread. Because they’re traded on an exchange, there’s a small amount of “friction” involved in buying or selling an ETF, in the form of a bid/ask spread. The more you trade, the more the spread will eat into your returns. Mutual funds do not have this problem.

So, are all the disadvantages worth the lower expense? They can be; however, it’s worth it to sit down and plot out how much you would save in dollars per year if you moved from an index fund to an ETF, and make your decision based on that.

(One note: if you use Vanguard (and I highly recommend you do), there’s virtually no reason to use an ETF. Why? Because they recently lowered the minimum for purchasing Admiral Shares of many of their funds to $10,000, making them very accessible, and in just about every instance, the expense ratio for Admiral Shares is exactly that of the corresponding ETF!)

Got a preference? Tell us about it in the comments!

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