Investing in ETFs vs Mutual Funds

Exchange-traded funds are the darlings of the investing world right now, due in part to robo-advisors, which often use them in customer portfolios. Their growth has been rapid: In 2005, there were more than 200 ETFs available to U.S. investors; today, there are more than 1,400, holding nearly $2 trillion in assets, according to the Investment Company Institute.

ETFs, like mutual funds, pool investor money into a collection of securities, allowing investors to diversify without having to purchase and manage individual assets. But ETFs have some key differences from mutual funds that make them more attractive to many investors.

Here’s a look at some of the pros and cons of ETFs as compared with mutual funds.

Management

Mutual funds are run by a professional manager who attempts to beat the market. This is called active management, and it often translates into higher costs for investors. ETFs, on the other hand, are index funds, meaning that they’re passively managed and track an index, such as the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq 100. There are a few actively managed ETFs, which function more like mutual funds and have higher fees as a result.

You might think it’s worth paying more for professional portfolio management, but research indicates the opposite: Actively managed funds rarely beat the market, and most investors earn better returns with low-cost index funds, such as ETFs.

Expense ratios

An expense ratio indicates how much investors pay each year to own a fund, as a percentage of the amount invested.

ETFs are considered relatively inexpensive. Some carry expense ratios as low as 0.10%, meaning investors pay just $1 per year for every $1,000 they invest. But don’t assume ETFs are always the cheapest option on the menu. It’s worth comparing ETFs and index funds when considering your investment options. Actively managed mutual funds almost always carry higher expense ratios than ETFs or index funds in general.

Trading

ETFs are index funds, but they’re index funds with a twist: They’re traded throughout the day like stocks, with their prices based on supply and demand. Traditional index funds, on the other hand, are priced and traded at the end of each trading day.

The stock-like trading structure of ETFs also means that when you buy or sell, you often pay a commission, though many brokerages have a selection of commission-free ETFs these days. Pick an account provider that offers at least a few ETFs commission-free. If you’re investing a little bit of money each month, as most investors do, these commissions — which range from $4 to $20 — can add up fast.

If you choose a commission-free ETF, note its expense ratio. Some funds have higher expenses to make up for the lack of commission. And remember that most brokerages require you to hold an ETF for a certain number of days, or they charge you a fee. They aren’t intended for day-trading.

Tax efficiency

Because of how they’re managed, ETFs are usually more tax-efficient than mutual funds. This can be important if the ETF is held within a taxable account and not within a tax-advantaged retirement account, such as an IRA or 401(k).

Investment minimums

Mutual funds and index funds can have high costs of entry: Even target-date funds, which help novice investors save for specific goals, often have minimums of $1,000 or more. ETFs can be purchased by the share, making them less expensive to buy. Just keep in mind the trading commissions mentioned above, and choose a commission-free ETF if you can.

Selection

Selection is one area where ETFs fall short. The number of ETFs has grown substantially over the last 10 years, but there are still many more mutual funds available. Fidelity, for instance, gives its investors access to more than 3,600 transaction-fee-free mutual funds, and only about 90 commission-free ETFs. TD Ameritrade has more than 4,000 transaction-fee-free mutual funds and around 100 commission-free ETFs. Most investors still find an ETF that meets their needs, but selection is not the security’s strongest point.

The takeaway

Investors shouldn’t assume that any investment is low cost. It’s always important to look under the hood at all potential fees, and that’s true for ETFs, in spite of their reputation for being inexpensive. In general, however, ETFs are an affordable option that give investors broad market exposure.

One last point: If you’re not a hands-on investor, you may be happier in a target-date fund, which automatically rebalances for you. Investing in ETFs means taking on that duty or outsourcing it to a financial advisor or robo-advisor.

More from NerdWallet:

Best Brokers for ETFs

Best Brokers for Mutual Funds

Best Robo-Advisors

Arielle O’Shea is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: aoshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @arioshea.