If you're an investor looking for a simple way to diversify your portfolio, you may look to funds. But how do you decide between exchange-traded funds and mutual funds?

The truth is that ETFs and mutual funds have a lot in common. There are several key differences, however, that could make one a better option for you than the other. In this article we'll go over the similarities and differences and how to determine which of the two instruments is best for you.

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Similarities between ETFs and mutual funds

  • Both pool investor money into a collection of securities.
  • In both cases, a fund manager oversees the portfolio to ensure it meets its investment objectives.
  • Both can track a market index (index fund) or seek to outperform the market (active management).
  • Investors pay a portion of their investment in each to the fund company. This is called an expense ratio.

Both ETFs and mutual funds allow you to own shares in a broad range of companies without having to buy each individual stock yourself. Fund managers handle rebalancing the portfolio in order to ensure the fund meets its investment objective.

The fund's investment objective may be to track a market index like the S&P 500. These funds are called index funds, and are a subset of ETFs and mutual funds. Index funds are sometimes called passively managed funds because the fund manager isn't making decisions about what stocks to buy. Instead, the manager's job is simply to rebalance the portfolio when the benchmark index changes and to manage inflows and outflows of investors' money.

Some funds are actively managed. The purpose of actively managed funds is to outperform a benchmark index by buying and selling stocks based on the fund manager's research. Actively managed mutual funds are much more common than actively managed ETFs.

In exchange for the service provided by fund companies, investors pay a fee called an expense ratio. The expense ratio is calculated as a percentage of the assets managed by the fund company, and it can typically range anywhere between 0% and 2%. Index funds generally have very low expense ratios, while actively managed funds have higher expense ratios.

Differences between ETFs and mutual funds

 

ETF

Mutual Fund

How they're bought

ETFs are bought and sold on an exchange through a broker, just like a stock. Exchanges match buyers and sellers.

Mutual funds are bought directly from a fund company.

Pricing

ETF prices fluctuate throughout the day. Price is determined by the market.

Mutual funds are priced once per day at 4:00 p.m. Eastern. Price is determined by net asset value.

Minimum investment

ETF minimum investments are typically the price of one share.

Minimum investments can range between $500 and $5000 for most mutual funds.

Commissions

Brokers typically charge the standard stock trade commission for ETF purchases and sales.

Mutual fund companies typically do not charge a commission for buying or selling shares.

Fractional shares

Some brokers may require investors to purchase full shares.

Mutual fund companies allow fractional shares.

Tax considerations

Possibly more tax efficient. ETF investors usually face tax implications only when they sell their shares.

If cash outflows exceed cash inflows for a mutual fund, all shareholders may face capital gains taxes regardless of whether they sell shares.

The differences between ETFs and mutual funds can have significant implications for investors.

One big difference to consider is how shares of the funds are priced. Since ETFs are bought and sold on an exchange, market forces dictate the value of the fund itself. If there's sizable demand for the fund, it could be priced higher than its net asset value, the underlying value of the securities held by the fund. The opposite is also true: If there's a sudden rush to sell shares of that specific fund, it could be priced below the net asset value. That's usually not an issue for most ETFs with high liquidity.

By comparison, mutual funds are always priced at their net asset value at the close of every trading day.

Another important consideration is tax efficiency. ETFs are usually more tax efficient than mutual funds. Since ETF shares are traded on an exchange instead of redeemed with the mutual fund company, there's a buyer for every seller. That might not be the case with a mutual fund, and a lot of sellers will cause the mutual fund company to sell shares of the underlying securities. That will have capital gains tax implications for all shareholders regardless of whether they sell.

Other differences -- like the ability to buy fractional shares, commissions, and minimum investments -- will vary based on the funds and brokers you're considering. Some mutual funds have very low minimums, and they'll go down further if you agree to invest on a regular schedule. Many brokers have reduced their standard commission to $0 and allow investors to purchase fractional shares, so you're not leaving cash on the sidelines.

Which is right for you?

Understanding the differences between ETFs and mutual funds can help you decide which is best for you.

Use ETFs if...

  • Tax efficiency is important to you. If you're investing in a taxable brokerage account, having more control over capital gains distributions may be a deciding factor. If you're investing in a tax-advantaged retirement account, tax efficiency is a moot point.
  • You're an active trader. You like to set limit orders and stop-limit orders or use margin in your investing strategies. These options are available because ETFs trade just like stocks, but you can't use these strategies with mutual funds.
  • You want to gain low-cost exposure to a specific market niche without researching individual companies. A lot of ETF options benchmark niche market indexes. While you could gain exposure through mutual funds, they're often less tax efficient or rely on active management, increasing their costs.
  • You may change brokers in the future. ETFs are easily transferred between brokers, but you must typically close mutual fund positions before changing brokers. You'd then have to reinvest the proceeds into mutual funds offered by your new broker.

Use mutual funds if...

  • A comparable ETF you're considering is thinly traded. Limited liquidity for an ETF could result in large bid/ask spreads, often requiring you to pay a premium above the fund's net asset value. Mutual funds are always priced at net asset value.
  • You value the potential to outperform the market through active management. While actively managed ETFs exist, they're few and far between. Most ETFs are index funds, which simply match the market return. To outperform an index, you need active management. Keep in mind, however, that these funds typically have higher fees and higher tax implications -- and you're not guaranteed outperformance even with active management.
  • You're investing in less efficient parts of the market. Actively managed funds have the best potential to outperform in these areas. Highly traded markets like large-cap U.S. stocks are very efficient, but sectors with less trading volume have much more potential to benefit from active management research and strategy.