ETFs vs. Index Funds: Comparison Guide

ETFs vs. Index Funds: Comparison Guide

Which is better, ETFs or index funds? Here’s what you need to know to decide.

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Research Lead
Reviewed by: Kent Thune
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Edited by: Kent Thune

ETFs and index funds have many similarities, including many of the same benefits and risks. However, there are differences in these fund types that are important for investors to understand before choosing between the two. 

Here’s what you need to know about ETFs versus index funds. 

ETFs vs. Index Funds: The Basics 

ETFs and index funds are both low-cost investments that enable investors to gain exposure to a diversified basket of investment assets, such as stocks or bonds, all within a single packaged security. Choosing the type of fund that is best suited to achieve an investor’s goals comes down to comparing and clarifying the key features and benefits of each.

What Is an ETF? 

An ETF, or exchange-traded fund, is a type of investment fund that trades on stock exchanges, similar to stocks. Most ETFs are designed to track the performance of an underlying index, such as the S&P 500, by holding a portfolio of assets that reflect the composition of the index. 

ETFs can contain various types of investments, including stocks, bonds, commodities and currencies, and they offer investors the ability to invest in a particular market or sector without them having to buy individual stocks or bonds. 

ETFs also typically have lower fees and expenses compared to mutual funds, making them a popular choice among investors who want to achieve diversified exposure to a specific market or sector. Additionally, since ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the trading day, investors are given the flexibility to adjust their positions quickly based on market conditions. 

What Is an Index Fund? 

An index fund is a type of mutual fund that is designed to track the performance of a specific financial market index, such as the S&P 500. The fund's investment strategy is to purchase the same stocks or other securities that are included in the index it tracks, in the same proportion as the index. The goal is to replicate the performance of the index as closely as possible, rather than trying to beat it. 

Index funds offer several advantages over actively managed funds. They tend to have lower fees and expenses because the investment strategy is passive, and they require less ongoing management. They also provide investors with diversified exposure to the market, reducing the risk of relying on the performance of a single company or sector. 

Index funds are often recommended as a core investment option for long-term investors who are looking for a simple, low-cost way to build a diversified portfolio. For this reason, index funds are commonly found in 401(k) plans. 

ETFs vs. Index Funds: Performance 

In general, ETFs can outperform index funds if they track the same benchmark index. This is because ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than index funds. However, there are multiple factors, such as trading costs, liquidity and tracking error, that can impact the performance of one over the other. 

For example, since ETFs trade like stocks on an exchange, they may provide more flexibility in trading since they can be bought and sold throughout the day. However, ETFs may have higher trading costs due to bid/ask spreads that can result from poor liquidity. Higher trading costs can erode an ETF’s net return to the investor, thus potentially minimizing or removing the low-cost advantage they may have over index funds. 

On the other hand, index funds can have lower trading costs and may track their underlying index more accurately than some ETFs. 

ETFs vs. Index Funds: The Similarities and Differences 

Overall, both ETFs and index funds offer investors a low-cost, diversified way to invest in broad markets or specific sectors. However, there are some important differences in trading flexibility, minimum investment requirements, expenses, trading costs, tax efficiency and investment strategies, which investors should consider when selecting the best investment option for their individual needs. 

Similarities of ETFs and Index Funds 

ETFs and index funds share several similarities, including: 

  • Passive management: Index funds and most ETFs are passive investment vehicles that seek to replicate the performance of a specific market index. 
  • Diversification: Both ETFs and index funds can provide investors with diversified exposure to a broad market or an entire sector. By holding a basket of securities that mirrors the index, they help reduce the risk of relying on the performance of a single company. 
  • Low expense ratios: Both ETFs and index funds typically have lower expense ratios than actively managed funds because they require less ongoing management. 
  • Tax efficiency: Both ETFs and index funds are generally more tax efficient than actively managed funds because they have lower turnover rates, which means fewer capital gains distributions. 
  • Accessibility: Both ETFs and index funds can be easily bought and sold by individual investors through brokerage accounts. 

Differences of ETFs and Index Funds 

ETFs and index funds differ in several ways, including: 

  • Trading flexibility: ETFs can be bought and sold throughout the trading day, whereas index funds can only be traded at the end of the trading day after the net asset value (NAV) is calculated. 
  • Minimum investment requirements: ETFs typically have lower minimum investment requirements than index funds., Investors can get started investing in ETFs for the cost of just one share, or sometimes a fractional share, while many index funds require a minimum investment of $100 to $3,000. 
  • Expense ratios: ETFs generally have lower expense ratios than index funds. However, this is not always the case, and it's important to compare the expense ratios of individual funds before investing. 
  • Trading costs: ETFs may have higher trading costs than index funds due to bid/ask spreads. In contrast, index funds may have lower trading costs due to their structure, which allows for block trades. 
  • Tax efficiency: ETFs may be more tax efficient than index funds because they are structured to minimize capital gains distributions. However, this depends on the individual fund's investment strategy and turnover rate. 
  • Investment strategies: ETFs may offer more investment strategies and options than index funds, including actively managed ETFs, leveraged and inverse ETFs, sector-specific ETFs and commodity ETFs. 

ETFs vs. Index Funds: Comparing the Risks 

ETFs and index funds carry many of the same risks, including market risk and tracking error risk. However, there are some risks that are unique to each fund type that investors should consider before choosing between the two. 

ETFs and index funds have these risks in common: 

  • Volatility: ETFs and index funds are subject to market risk, which means their value can fluctuate based on changes in the underlying index or market. 
  • Tracking error: Some ETFs and index funds may not track their underlying index as closely as others, leading to a tracking error and potential underperformance. 
  • Concentration: Some ETFs and index funds may be concentrated in a particular sector or geographic region, which can increase the risk of losses if that sector or region underperforms. 

ETFs and index funds differ regarding these risks: 

  • Liquidity: Since ETFs trade intraday on an exchange, some ETFs may have low trading volume and liquidity, which can increase the risk of large bid/ask spreads and the difficulty in buying or selling shares. However, index funds trade in bulk at the close of the market.
  • Tax efficiency: Both ETFs and index funds can be tax efficient. However, ETFs have a tax-efficiency edge over index funds. For example, when an investor wants to redeem shares of an index fund, the index fund manager may have to sell securities to pay the investor. This means that index funds may have to realize capital gains and the associated taxes, which are then passed on to all shareholders.

Bottom Line 

ETFs and index funds share many similarities and offer investors a low-cost, diversified way to gain exposure to specific markets or sectors. However, it's important to note that there are also some differences between the two, such as trading flexibility, trading costs and minimum investment requirements, which should be considered when making investment decisions. 

Ultimately, the decision to invest in ETFs or index funds depends on an individual's investment goals and preferred strategies.

Kent Thune is Research Lead for etf.com, focusing on educational content, thought leadership, content management and search engine optimization. Before joining etf.com, he wrote for numerous investment websites, including Seeking Alpha and Kiplinger. 

 

Kent holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and is a practicing Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) with 25 years of experience managing investments, guiding clients through some of the worst economic and market environments in U.S. history. He has also served as an adjunct professor, teaching classes for The College of Charleston and Trident Technical College on the topics of retirement planning, business finance, and entrepreneurship. 

 

Kent founded a registered investment advisory firm in 2006 and is based in Hilton Head Island, SC, where he lives with his wife and two sons. Outside of work, Kent enjoys spending time with his family, playing guitar, and working on his philosophy book, which he plans to publish in the coming year.