Exchange-Traded Funds vs. Index Mutual Funds

Exchange-Traded Funds vs. Index Mutual Funds

6 Min.

Index investing has been a popular form of passive investing since 1975, when Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, created the first index fund. ETFs, which are the second most popular form of passive investing, have experienced significant growth since they were first launched in the 1990s. Because ETFs are flexible investment vehicles, they are attractive to a wide range of investors, including both active and passive investors. Passive retail investors often choose index funds due to their simplicity and low cost. The choice between ETFs and index funds usually depends on factors such as management fees, shareholder transaction costs, taxation, and other qualitative differences.


Passive investment strategies, which aim to replicate market performance without the costs associated with active management teams, have gained popularity. Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and index mutual funds are prominent examples. Unlike active approaches that involve expensive portfolio management to outperform the market, passive strategies focus on mirroring a financial market index, such as the S&P 500. In recent years, the appeal of passive strategies, particularly ETFs and index funds, has surged due to lower management fees and superior returns compared to active counterparts. Research by investment firms indicates that few if any, active funds consistently outperform passive funds in the long term.

Index investing, the predominant form of passive investment, traces back to 1975 when Vanguard's Jack Bogle pioneered the first index fund. The second most popular form, ETFs, emerged in the 1990s. These funds enable investment firms to construct "baskets" of major stocks aligned with specific indices or sectors, contributing to their substantial growth.

Both ETFs and index funds are passively managed pooled investment vehicles. The main difference is that ETFs are tradable on the stock exchange, similar to individual stocks, while index funds don't have this feature.

ETFs: A Dynamic Approach to Diversified Investments

Exchange-traded funds function as pooled investment vehicles, forming a diverse "basket" of stocks, bonds, or other assets to provide investors exposure across various sectors. These versatile funds can mirror specific indices, sectors, commodities, securities collections, investment strategies, or other funds.

In contrast to index funds, ETFs offer high liquidity, facilitating real-time buying and selling on stock exchanges akin to individual stocks. This liquidity feature appeals to a broad spectrum of investors, including both active traders (such as hedge funds) and passive investors (like institutional investors), as market entry and exit are possible during trading hours.

An additional allure for investors, both active and passive, is the inclusion of derivatives in certain ETFs. These financial instruments, particularly futures, derive their value from an underlying asset's price. ETFs incorporating derivatives provide an avenue for diverse investment strategies. Exchange-traded funds stand out as accessible investment options, as they can be traded like stocks through a basic brokerage account. This eliminates the need for specialized accounts and allows investors to purchase them in smaller quantities without requiring special documentation or incurring rollover costs.

Index Funds: Tracking Market Performance

Index funds, encompassing those aligned with financial market indices, strictly adhere to their benchmarks, executing orders once daily after the market closes. Despite reduced liquidity and flexibility compared to ETFs, the underlying passive strategy assumes that mirroring a specific index's composition guarantees comparable long-term performance, with the market surpassing individual investments.

These funds can mirror various financial markets, including the popular S&P 500, the extensive FT Wilshire 5000 Index, the Bloomberg Aggregate Bond Index, the MSCI EAFE Index, the Nasdaq Composite Index, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) featuring 30 large-cap companies. For instance, a DJIA-tracking index fund invests in the same 30 companies, changing its portfolio only if the DJIA alters its composition. In cases of price-weighted indices, periodic rebalancing ensures securities align with benchmark weights.

Despite less flexibility than ETFs, index funds consistently deliver strong long-term returns. Their simplicity makes them appealing to buy-and-hold investors, who can easily purchase them through a bank without requiring a brokerage account. This has contributed significantly to their widespread popularity.

Cost Variances Between ETFs and Index Funds

Examining cost disparities between ETFs and index funds reveals notable distinctions in their approaches to index tracking and trading. While both are cost-effective passive investment options compared to actively managed funds, structural nuances result in unique advantages and disadvantages. ETFs, in particular, exhibit a cost advantage over index funds.

One significant difference lies in redemption fees, where ETFs outperform index funds by maintaining lower costs. The constant rebalancing inherent in index funds incurs explicit costs (such as commissions) and implicit costs (trade fees), mitigated by ETFs through in-kind redemptions. Cash drag, a performance drag in index funds due to holding cash for daily net redemptions, is less pronounced in ETFs. With in-kind redemption, ETFs invest all cash in the market, yielding better returns.

Conversely, index funds excel in dividend policy efficiency, reinvesting dividends automatically for maximum compound growth. ETFs accumulate dividends until quarter-end, distributing them as cash or ETF shares. Tax efficiency also favors ETFs, experiencing fewer taxable events compared to index funds. ETF structures, trading baskets of assets, shield investors from individual security capital gains exposure inherent in constant rebalancing index funds.

Investment Considerations: ETFs vs. Index Funds

Debates surrounding the merits and drawbacks of ETFs versus index funds have persisted in the investment industry for decades. However, the decision between the two ultimately hinges on investor preferences related to management fees, transaction costs, taxation, and other qualitative factors.

Index funds are typically favored by retail investors, valuing simplicity, shareholder services, and investment options that facilitate automatic contributions, despite the potential advantages of lower expense ratios and tax benefits associated with ETFs.

Throughout the 2010s, increased awareness of ETFs among retail investors and financial advisers became apparent. However, institutional investors have been the primary drivers of demand for ETFs, utilizing them as convenient vehicles for broad market participation or hedging. The superior liquidity management, transition capabilities, and flexibility of ETFs make them particularly appealing to institutional investors, allowing for ease in portfolio adjustments and transitions between managers.


The landscape of passive investing has evolved since Jack Bogle pioneered the first index fund in 1975. Exchange-traded funds introduced a dynamic approach in the 1990s, offering high liquidity and accessibility. Despite their flexibility, ETFs have cost advantages and disadvantages compared to index funds.

Index funds, mirroring specific indices, consistently deliver strong long-term returns. The choice between ETFs and index funds rests on investor preferences related to management fees, transaction costs, taxation, and other factors. Retail investors favor index funds for simplicity, while institutional investors drive demand for ETFs due to their superior liquidity and flexibility. The ongoing discourse underscores the nuanced decision-making in the investment industry.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)
Index Mutual Fund
Passive Income