Direct Indexing: Everything You Need to Know

Learn the key similarities and differences between direct indexing and ETFs.

Reviewed by: Lisa Barr
Edited by: Lisa Barr

Direct indexing has gained popularity in recent years, driven by advancements in technology that have made it more accessible and cost effective. Various financial institutions and investment platforms, including Vanguard and Wealthfront, offer direct indexing services, allowing individual investors to create customized portfolios aligned with their investment goals and values. 

But how does direct indexing work, and how does it compare to ETF investing? 

What Is Direct Indexing? 

Direct indexing refers to a method of investing where an investor purchases securities, such as stocks, in proportion to a specific index, such as the S&P 500, or a custom index created by the investor. By mimicking the composition of an index, investors can attempt to achieve a similar performance as the index itself. 

Therefore, direct indexing typically involves purchasing individual securities directly from the issuing company, rather than investing in a mutual fund or an exchange-traded fund (ETF) that holds a portfolio of securities. This approach allows investors to own the underlying assets directly, rather than holding shares of a fund that represents ownership in a pool of assets. 

Pros & Cons of Direct Indexing 

Direct indexing offers several advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional index investing. Let's explore the pros and cons of direct indexing: 


  • Customization: By selecting specific stocks or excluding certain stocks/sectors, investors can customize their portfolio, which allows investors to align their investments with their personal preferences, values or investment objectives. 
  • Tax optimization: Investors can selectively sell individual stocks to realize tax losses, offsetting gains in other parts of their portfolio. This flexibility can result in potential tax savings and improved after-tax returns. 
  • Enhanced control: Investors have direct ownership of individual stocks, providing more control over the composition and management of their portfolio. They can make real-time adjustments, rebalance, or implement tactical decisions based on market conditions or personal beliefs. 
  • Potential cost savings: Direct indexing can be more cost effective compared to investing in mutual funds or ETFs. By avoiding fund management fees, investors may achieve cost savings, especially for larger portfolios. 
  • ESG and social impact considerations: Direct indexing allows investors to align their investments with environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. They can exclude companies that don't meet their sustainability criteria, or target investments in specific industries to promote social impact. 


  • Higher capital requirement: Direct indexing typically requires a larger amount of capital compared to investing in mutual funds or ETFs. To achieve adequate diversification and minimize risk, investors may need significant funds to purchase a broad range of individual stocks. 
  • Increased complexity: Direct indexing involves selecting, monitoring and managing individual stocks, which requires more time, knowledge and expertise. Investors need to stay informed about market trends, perform fundamental analysis and make informed decisions regarding their portfolio. 
  • Transaction costs: Buying and selling individual stocks can result in higher transaction costs compared to investing in a mutual fund or ETF. Frequent trading or rebalancing activities may lead to increased brokerage fees and potentially impact overall portfolio returns. 
  • Active management challenges: Direct indexing blurs the line between passive and active investing. While investors have more control over their portfolio, they need to actively manage their holdings, monitor market trends and make timely investment decisions. This active management can be challenging and may lead to suboptimal outcomes if not executed effectively. 

Direct Indexing vs ETFs 

Direct indexing and ETFs share similar investment approaches but have some key differences. Direct indexing may be suitable for those seeking customization, tax optimization and greater control over their portfolios. By comparison, ETFs provide instant diversification, lower capital requirements and ease of use for investors looking for a simpler, more hands-off approach. 

Here are the key differences between direct indexing and ETFs: 

  • Customization and control: With direct indexing, investors can select individual securities and hold them directly in a portfolio, aligning it with their preferences, investment objectives or values. ETFs can provide niche strategies, but investors don’t have control over the portfolio and don’t directly hold the securities. 
  • Tax optimization: Investors can selectively sell individual stocks to realize tax losses, potentially offsetting gains in other parts of the portfolio. This can lead to tax savings and improved after-tax returns. ETFs generally offer tax efficiency, but the investor does not control this aspect of the investment. 
  • Managing costs: Direct indexing can be cost effective compared to ETFs, especially for larger portfolios. By avoiding fund management fees, investors may achieve cost savings. However, direct indexing can potentially have higher transaction costs than ETFs due to higher trading frequency. 
  • Complexity versus simplicity: Direct indexing involves the selection, monitoring and management of individual stocks. By comparison, investing in ETFs is generally simpler and requires less active involvement from investors. They can gain broad market exposure without needing to select and manage individual stocks. 
  • Investment minimum requirements: Direct indexing provides access to a wide range of assets that may be cost prohibitive to hold individually. ETFs allow investors to gain exposure to a diversified portfolio with relatively smaller amounts of capital compared to direct indexing. 
  • Passive management: Direct indexing blurs the lines between active and passive management, whereas most ETFs passively track an index and aim to replicate its performance. 

Wealthfront Classic vs Direct Indexing 

Wealthfront is a digital investment platform that offers various investment strategies, including its "Classic" portfolio and a direct indexing feature. Let's compare Wealthfront Classic to Wealthfront direct indexing: 

Wealthfront Classic 

  • Diversification: Wealthfront Classic provides a diversified portfolio constructed with low-cost ETFs. The portfolio is designed to represent a broad range of asset classes, including stocks, bonds and other investment vehicles.  
  • Automated rebalancing: As market fluctuations cause the portfolio to deviate from the desired asset allocation, Wealthfront automatically buys or sells ETFs to rebalance the portfolio back to its target allocation. 
  • Passive management: The Classic portfolio follows a passive investment approach, aiming to track the performance of various market indexes. It is designed to provide market exposure rather than actively picking individual stocks or timing the market. 
  • Tax-loss harvesting: Wealthfront offers tax-loss harvesting as a feature in its Classic portfolio. This strategy involves selling securities at a loss to offset taxable gains and potentially reduce an investor's tax liability. Tax-loss harvesting can help improve after-tax returns. 
  • Fractional shares: Wealthfront allows fractional share investing, which means investors can own a portion of a share of an ETF. This feature enables investors to use their entire investment amount, potentially increasing diversification and efficiency. 

Wealthfront Direct Indexing 

  • Customization: Wealthfront's direct indexing feature allows investors to customize their portfolio by directly owning individual stocks that mimic a specific index, such as the S&P 500.  
  • Tax optimization: Investors have more control over realizing capital gains or losses by selectively selling individual stocks to offset gains or harvest tax losses. This can potentially lead to tax savings and improved after-tax returns. 
  • Increased control: Investors can make real-time adjustments, rebalance holdings or implement tactical decisions based on market conditions or personal beliefs. 
  • Higher complexity: Direct indexing involves the selection, monitoring and management of individual stocks, requiring more time, knowledge and expertise.  

Bottom Line of Direct Indexing 

Direct indexing allows investors to replicate an index by directly owning stocks within the respective index. This provides greater control and potential for related benefits, including customization and tax efficiency. However, this strategy is more complex and potentially more cost prohibitive than ETF investing. Ultimately, the choice between direct indexing and ETFs depends on an investor's individual preferences and goals. 

Kent Thune is a finance writer for, focusing on educational content. Before coming to, he wrote for numerous investment websites, including Seeking Alpha and Kiplinger. Thune is also a practicing Certified Financial Planner and investment advisor based in Hilton Head Island, SC, where he lives with his wife and two sons.