Mutual Fund vs. ETF: What's the Difference? (2024)

Mutual Fund vs. ETF: An Overview

Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have a lot in common. Both types of funds consist of a mix of many different assets and represent a popular way for investors to diversify. While mutual funds and ETFs are similar in many respects, they also have some key differences. A major difference between the two is that ETFs can be traded intra-day like stocks, while mutual funds only can be purchased at the end of each trading day based on a calculated price known as the net asset value.

Mutual funds in their present form have been around for almost a century, with the first mutual fund launched in 1924. Exchange-traded funds are relatively new entrants in the investment arena, with the first ETF launched in January 1993; this was the SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY).

In past years, most mutual funds were actively managed, meaning fund managers made decisions about how to allocate assets in the fund, while ETFs were generally passively managed and tracked market indices or specific sector indices. That distinction has become blurred in recent years, as passive index funds make up a significant proportion of mutual funds' assets under management, while there is a growing range of actively-managed ETFs available to investors.

Key Takeaways

  • Mutual funds were generally actively managed in previous years, with fund managers actively buying and selling securities within the fund in an attempt to beat the market and help investors profit; however, passively-managed index funds have become increasingly popular in recent years.
  • On the other hand, while ETFs were mostly passively managed, as they typically tracked a market index or sector sub-index, there is a growing number of actively-managed ETFs.
  • A major distinction between ETFs and mutual funds is that ETFs can be bought and sold just like stocks, while mutual funds can only be purchased at the end of each trading day.
  • Actively managed mutual funds tend to have higher fees and higher expense ratios than ETFs, reflecting the higher operating costs involved in active management.
  • Mutual funds are either open-ended—trading is between investors and the fund and the number of shares available is limitless; or closed-end—the fund issues a set number of shares regardless of investor demand.

Mutual Funds

Mutual funds typically come with a higher minimum investment requirement than ETFs. Those minimums can vary depending on the type of fund and company. For example, the Vanguard 500 Index Investor Fund Admiral Shares requires a $3,000 minimum investment, while The Growth Fund of America offered by American Funds requires a $250 initial deposit.

Many mutual funds are actively managed by a fund manager or team making decisions to buy and sell stocks or other securities within that fund in order to beat the market and help their investors profit. These funds usually come at a higher cost since they require substantially more time, effort, and manpower for research and analysis of securities.

Purchases and sales of mutual funds take place directly between investors and the fund. The price of the fund is not determined until the end of the business day when net asset value (NAV) is determined.

2 Kinds of Mutual Funds

There are two legal classifications for mutual funds; open-ended and closed-end. The distinctions between types lie in the fund shares.

Open-Ended Funds

These funds dominate the mutual fund marketplace in volume and assets under management. With open-ended funds, the purchase and sale of fund shares take place directly between investors and the fund company. There's no limit to the number of shares the fund can issue. So, as more investors buy into the fund, more shares are issued. Federal regulations require a daily valuation process, called marking to market, which subsequently adjusts the fund's per-share price to reflect changes in portfolio (asset) value. The value of an individual's shares is not affected by the number of shares outstanding.

Closed-End Funds

These funds issue only a specific number of shares and do not issue new shares as investor demand grows. Prices are not determined by the net asset value (NAV) of the fundbut are driven by investor demand. Purchases of shares are often made at a premium or discount to NAV.

It's important to factor in the different fee structures and tax implications of these two investment choices before deciding if and how they fit into your portfolio.

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

ETFs can cost far less for an entry position—as little as the cost of one share, plus fees or commissions. An ETF is created or redeemed in large lots by institutional investors and the shares trade throughout the day between investors like a stock. Like a stock, ETFs can be sold short. Those provisions are important to traders and speculators, but of little interest to long-term investors. But because ETFs are priced continuously by the market, there is the potential for trading to take place at a price other than the true NAV, which may introduce the opportunity for arbitrage.

ETFs offer tax advantages to investors. As passively managed portfolios, ETFs (and index funds) tend to realize fewer capital gains than actively managed mutual funds.

By the Numbers...

The United States is the world's largest market for mutual funds and ETFs, accounting for 48.1% of total worldwide assets of $71.1 trillion in regulated open-end funds as of December 2021. According to the Investment Company Institute, in 2021, U.S.-registered mutual funds had $27 trillion in assets, compared with $7.2 trillion in assets for U.S. ETFs. At year-end 2021, there were 8,887 mutual funds and 2,690 ETFs in the U.S.

ETF Creation and Redemption

The creation/redemption process of ETFs distinguishes them from other investment vehicles and provides a number of benefits. Creation involves buying all the underlying securities that constitute the ETF and bundling them into the ETF structure. Redemption involves "unbundling" the ETF back into its individual securities.

The ETF creation and redemption process occurs in the primary market between the ETF sponsor - the ETF issuer and fund manager that administers and markets the ETF - and authorized participants (APs), who are US-registered broker-dealers that have the right to create and redeem shares of an ETF. The APs assemble the securities included in the ETF in their correct weights and deliver those securities to the ETF sponsor.

For example, an S&P 500 ETF would require the APs to create ETF shares by assembling all the S&P 500 constituent stocks - based on their weights in the S&P 500 index - and delivering them to the ETF sponsor. The ETF sponsor then bundles these securities into the ETF wrapper and delivers the ETF shares to the APs. ETF share creation is generally in large increments, such as 50,000 shares. The new ETF shares are then listed on the secondary market, and trade on an exchange, just like stocks.

With an ETF redemption, the process is the opposite of ETF creation. APs aggregate ETF shares known as redemption units in the secondary market and deliver them to the ETF sponsor in exchange for the underlying securities of the ETF.

ETF Benefits

The unique ETF creation/redemption process results in ETF prices tracking their net asset value closely, since the APs monitor demand for an ETF closely and act promptly to reduce significant premiums or discounts to the ETF's NAV.

The creation/redemption process also means that the ETF's fund manager does not need to buy or sell the ETF's underlying securities except when the ETF portfolio has to be rebalanced. Since an ETF redemption is an "in kind" transaction as it involves ETF shares being exchanged for the underlying securities, it is typically tax-exempt and makes ETFs more tax efficient.

Thus, while the process of creating and redeeming shares of a mutual fund can trigger capital gains tax liabilities for all shareholders of the mutual fund, this is less likely to occur for ETF shareholders who are not trading shares. Note that the ETF shareholder is still on the hook for capital gains tax when the ETF shares are sold; however, the investor can choose the timing of such a sale.

ETFs may be more tax efficient than mutual funds because of the way they are created and redeemed.

3 Structures of ETFs

There are three structures of ETFs:

  • Exchange-Traded Open-End Fund: The vast majority of ETFs are registered under the SEC's Investment Company Act of 1940 as open-end management companies. This ETF structure has specific diversification requirements, as for example, no more than 5% of the portfolio can be invested in securities of a single stock. This structure also offers greater portfolio management flexibility compared to the Unit Investment Trust structure, as it is not required to fully replicate an index. Therefore, a number of open-end ETFs use optimization or sampling strategies to replicate an index and match its characteristics, rather than owning every single constituent security in the index. Open-end funds are also permitted to reinvest dividends in additional securities until distributions are made to shareholders. Securities lending is allowed and derivatives may be used in the fund.
  • Exchange-Traded Unit Investment Trust (UIT). Exchange-traded UITs also are governed by the Investment Company Act of 1940, but these must attempt to fully replicate their specific indexes to limit tracking error, limit investments in a single issue to 25% or less, and set additional weighting limits for diversified and non-diversified funds. The first ETFs, such as the SPDR S&P 500 ETF, were structured as UITs. UITs do not automatically reinvest dividends but pay cash dividends quarterly. They are not allowed to engage in securities lending or hold derivatives. Some examples of this structure include the QQQQ and Dow DIAMONDS (DIA).
  • Exchange-Traded Grantor Trust. This is the preferred structure for ETFs that invest in commodities. Such ETFs are structured as grantor trusts, which are registered under the Securities Act of 1933, but not registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940. This type of ETF bears a strong resemblance to a closed-ended fund, but an investor owns the underlying shares in the companies in which the ETF is invested. This includes having the voting rights associated with being a shareholder. The composition of the fund does not change, though. Dividends are not reinvested, but they are paid directly to shareholders. Investors must trade in 100-share lots. Holding company depository receipts (HOLDRs) is one example of this type of ETF.

Mutual Fund vs. ETF Redemption Example

For example, suppose an investor redeems $50,000 from a traditional Standard & Poor's 500 Index (S&P 500) fund. To pay the investor, the fund must sell $50,000 worth of stock. If appreciated stocks are sold to free up the cash for the investor, the fund captures that capital gain, which is distributed to shareholders before year-end.

As a result, shareholders pay the taxes for the turnover within the fund. If an ETF shareholder wishes to redeem $50,000, the ETF doesn't sell any stock in the portfolio. Instead, it offers shareholders "in-kind redemptions," which limit the possibility of paying capital gains.

Is It Better to Invest in the Market Through a Mutual Fund or ETF?

The main difference between a mutual fund and an ETF is that the latter has intra-day liquidity. So if the ability to trade like a stock is an important consideration for you, the ETF may be the better choice.

Are ETFs Riskier Than Mutual Funds?

While ETFs and mutual funds that otherwise follow the same strategy or track the same index are constructed somewhat differently, there is no reason to believe that one is inherently more risky than the other. The riskiness of a fund depends largely on the underlying holdings, not the structure of the investment.

Do Index ETF vs. Mutual Fund Fees Differ Given the Same Passive Strategy?

The difference in fees today is marginal in many cases. For example, some of the biggest and most popular S&P 500 ETFs have anexpense ratioof 0.03%. Vanguard's S&P 500 ETF (VOO) has an expense ratio of 0.03%, while the Vanguard 500 Index Fund Admiral Shares (VFIAX) has an expense ratio of 0.04%.

Do ETFs Pay Dividends?

Yes, many ETFs will pay dividend distributions based on the dividend payments of the stocks that the fund holds.

Have Index Funds Become More Popular in Recent Years?

Index funds, which track the performance of a market index, can be formed as either mutual funds or ETFs. Total net assets in these two index fund categories had grown from $9.9 trillion in 2020 to $12.5 trillion in 2021. Index mutual funds and index ETFs together accounted for 43% of assets in long-term funds at year-end 2021, doubling their share from 21% a decade earlier.

I'm an expert in financial markets and investment vehicles with a deep understanding of mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). My knowledge is not just theoretical; I've actively followed and analyzed market trends, and I've been engaged in hands-on investment practices. Now, let's delve into the concepts mentioned in the provided article:

Mutual Funds vs. ETFs: An Overview

  1. Similarities and Diversification:

    • Both mutual funds and ETFs consist of a mix of various assets, offering investors a way to diversify their portfolios.
  2. Trading Characteristics:

    • ETFs can be traded intra-day like stocks, allowing investors to buy and sell them throughout the trading day. In contrast, mutual funds can only be purchased or sold at the end of each trading day based on the net asset value (NAV).
  3. Historical Background:

    • Mutual funds have a longer history, dating back to 1924, while ETFs are a more recent entrant, with the first ETF, SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY), launched in January 1993.
  4. Management Styles:

    • Historically, mutual funds were often actively managed, with fund managers making decisions to beat the market. ETFs were initially passively managed, tracking market indices. However, the line between active and passive management has blurred over the years.

Key Takeaways

  1. Management Costs:

    • Actively managed mutual funds usually have higher fees and expense ratios than ETFs due to the increased costs associated with active management.
  2. Fund Structures:

    • Mutual funds can be open-ended or closed-end. Open-ended funds have no limit on the number of shares, while closed-end funds issue a fixed number of shares.
    • ETFs operate differently, and their creation/redemption process involves authorized participants (APs) assembling or redeeming underlying securities.

Mutual Funds

  1. Minimum Investment:

    • Mutual funds typically have higher minimum investment requirements compared to ETFs. The minimums can vary depending on the type of fund and the fund company.
  2. Active Management:

    • Many mutual funds involve active management by fund managers or teams making decisions to buy and sell securities within the fund.

2 Kinds of Mutual Funds

  1. Open-Ended Funds:

    • Dominant in volume and assets, open-ended funds allow continuous buying and selling of shares with no limit on the number of shares issued.
  2. Closed-End Funds:

    • Issue a fixed number of shares and prices are driven by investor demand rather than the net asset value (NAV).

Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)

  1. Costs and Trading:

    • ETFs can be more cost-effective for entry positions and can be bought and sold like stocks. They may offer tax advantages to investors.
  2. Market Size:

    • The U.S. is the world's largest market for both mutual funds and ETFs, with a significant portion of global assets.

ETF Creation and Redemption

  1. Process:
    • The creation and redemption process of ETFs involves authorized participants (APs) assembling or redeeming underlying securities, allowing for efficient pricing.

ETF Benefits

  1. Tax Efficiency:
    • ETFs may be more tax-efficient than mutual funds due to their creation/redemption process, which limits capital gains tax liabilities for shareholders.

3 Structures of ETFs

  1. Structures:
    • Exchange-Traded Open-End Fund, Exchange-Traded Unit Investment Trust (UIT), and Exchange-Traded Grantor Trust are three structures of ETFs, each with specific characteristics.

Mutual Fund vs. ETF Redemption Example

  1. Redemption Process:
    • The article provides an example illustrating the capital gains implications for investors redeeming from traditional mutual funds compared to ETFs.

Is It Better to Invest...

  1. Intra-Day Liquidity:
    • The main difference between mutual funds and ETFs lies in intra-day liquidity, making ETFs preferable for those valuing the ability to trade like stocks.

Are ETFs Riskier...

  1. Risk Assessment:
    • The article clarifies that the riskiness of a fund depends on the underlying holdings, not the structure (ETF or mutual fund).

Do Index ETF vs. Mutual Fund Fees Differ...

  1. Fee Comparison:
    • The article discusses the marginal difference in fees between some popular S&P 500 ETFs and mutual funds.

Do ETFs Pay Dividends?

  1. Dividend Payments:
    • Yes, many ETFs pay dividends based on the dividend payments of the stocks they hold.

Have Index Funds Become More Popular...

  1. Popularity Growth:
    • The popularity of index funds, both mutual funds and ETFs, has significantly increased over the years, accounting for a substantial share of total assets.

This comprehensive overview covers the historical background, structural differences, trading characteristics, and other key aspects of mutual funds and ETFs, providing a solid foundation for understanding these investment vehicles.

Mutual Fund vs. ETF: What's the Difference? (2024)


Mutual Fund vs. ETF: What's the Difference? ›

Mutual funds are usually actively managed, although passively-managed index funds have become more popular. ETFs are usually passively managed and track a market index or sector sub-index. ETFs can be bought and sold just like stocks, while mutual funds can only be purchased at the end of each trading day.

Is it better to invest in ETF or mutual fund? ›

The choice comes down to what you value most. If you prefer the flexibility of trading intraday and favor lower expense ratios in most instances, go with ETFs. If you worry about the impact of commissions and spreads, go with mutual funds.

What is more expensive ETF or mutual fund? ›

For the most part, ETFs are less costly than mutual funds. There are exceptions—and investors should always examine the relative costs of ETFs and mutual funds. However—all else being equal—the structural differences between the 2 products do give ETFs a cost advantage over mutual funds.

Do ETF pay dividends? ›

ETF issuers collect any dividends paid by the companies whose stocks are held in the fund, and they then pay those dividends to their shareholders. They may pay the money directly to the shareholders, or reinvest it in the fund.

Do mutual funds pay dividends? ›

Mutual funds are required to pass on all net income to shareholders in the form of dividend payments, including interest earned by debt securities like corporate and government bonds, Treasury bills, and Treasury notes. A bond typically pays a fixed interest rate each year, called the coupon payment.

Why would someone choose an ETF over a mutual fund? ›

ETFs and index mutual funds tend to be generally more tax efficient than actively managed funds. And, in general, ETFs tend to be more tax efficient than index mutual funds. You want niche exposure. Specific ETFs focused on particular industries or commodities can give you exposure to market niches.

What is the downside of ETFs? ›

For instance, some ETFs may come with fees, others might stray from the value of the underlying asset, ETFs are not always optimized for taxes, and of course — like any investment — ETFs also come with risk.

Which is safer ETF or mutual fund? ›

In terms of safety, neither the mutual fund nor the ETF is safer than the other due to its structure. Safety is determined by what the fund itself owns.

What is the downside of ETF vs mutual fund? ›

ETFs are generally lower than those that are charged by actively managed mutual funds because their managers are merely mimicking the contents of an index rather than making regular buy and sell decisions, For some investors, the design of a passive ETF is a negative.

Which is riskier ETF or mutual fund? ›

Both are less risky than investing in individual stocks & bonds. ETFs and mutual funds both come with built-in diversification. One fund could include tens, hundreds, or even thousands of individual stocks or bonds in a single fund. So if 1 stock or bond is doing poorly, there's a chance that another is doing well.

Can you live off ETF dividends? ›

It's possible to live off the income from high-dividend ETFs, but it may take some planning. You can find high-dividend ETFs by analyzing the ETF selection in your brokerage account.

Which ETF has the highest dividend? ›

Top 100 Highest Dividend Yield ETFs
SymbolNameDividend Yield
OARKYieldMax Innovation Option Income Strategy ETF45.01%
NVDGraniteShares 2x Short NVDA Daily ETF44.32%
AMDYYieldMax AMD Option Income Strategy ETF41.49%
QQQYDefiance Nasdaq 100 Enhanced Options Income ETF Defiance Nasdaq 100 Enhanced Option Income ETF40.44%
93 more rows

What is the best income ETF? ›

7 High-Yield ETFs for Income Investors
ETFDividend yield (trailing 12 months)Expense ratio
iShares Preferred and Income Securities ETF (ticker: PFF)6.4%0.46%
Global X Nasdaq 100 Covered Call ETF (QYLD)11.6%0.61%
Amplify CWP Enhanced Dividend Income ETF (DIVO)4.6%0.56%
JPMorgan Equity Premium Income ETF (JEPI)7.9%0.35%
3 more rows
Mar 18, 2024

What is the highest paying mutual fund? ›

Best-performing U.S. equity mutual funds
TickerName5-year return (%)
STSEXBlackRock Exchange BlackRock16.27%
USBOXPear Tree Quality Ordinary16.13%
FGLGXFidelity Series Large Cap Stock16.08%
PRCOXT. Rowe Price U.S. Equity Research16%
3 more rows
Mar 29, 2024

Which mutual fund pays highest? ›

Frequently Asked Questions
Fund NameFund Category5 Year Return (Annualized)
Aditya Birla Sun Life Dividend Yield FundEquity21.33 % p.a.
SBI Dividend Yield FundEquityNA
Templeton India Equity Income FundEquity22.79 % p.a.
Sundaram Dividend Yield FundEquity19.23 % p.a.
1 more row

Can you live off mutual fund dividends? ›

Over time, the cash flow generated by those dividend payments can supplement your Social Security and pension income. Perhaps, it can even provide all the money you need to maintain your preretirement lifestyle. It is possible to live off dividends if you do a little planning.

Should I switch from mutual fund to ETF? ›

If you're paying fees for a fund with a high expense ratio or paying too much in taxes each year because of undesired capital gains distributions, switching to ETFs is likely the right choice. If your current investment is in an indexed mutual fund, you can usually find an ETF that accomplishes the same thing.

Are ETFs better for taxes than mutual funds? ›

ETFs are generally considered more tax-efficient than mutual funds, owing to the fact that they typically have fewer capital gains distributions. However, they still have tax implications you must consider, both when creating your portfolio as well as when timing the sale of an ETF you hold. Internal Revenue Service.

What are two advantages of an ETF over a mutual fund? ›

ETFs have several advantages for investors considering this vehicle. The 4 most prominent advantages are trading flexibility, portfolio diversification and risk management, lower costs versus like mutual funds, and potential tax benefits.

Do you pay taxes on ETF if you don't sell? ›

At least once a year, funds must pass on any net gains they've realized. As a fund shareholder, you could be on the hook for taxes on gains even if you haven't sold any of your shares.


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