I’ve been meaning to do a follow up on the costs of ETFs vs. open-end index mutual funds. My post from February 5 on why ETFs should probably not be the mainstay of your investment diet has inspired interest (much to my surprise it continues to be one the most popular posts here) and a little bit of controversy.
To summarize what I said three weeks ago, the pecking order of low cost for investors is: open-end index mutual funds (best), ETFs, and then open-end active mutual funds (worst.) You will often see ETFs touted as being low cost, and relative to active funds this is certainly true, but the typical investor will do even better in an old-style index mutual fund.
For a change of pace, I thought I would gather some actual data to make my point. Yahoo Finance has a useful list of the largest ETFs. Let’s look at the five biggest, which together account for about a third of all the money in ETFs.
One of the five, at number 3, is a special case, the streetTracks Gold Trust, which strictly speaking is not really an ETF at all. It represents simply the ownership of gold bullion, and Yahoo informs us that it is not registered as an investment company under the 1940 act, which means that it is not a mutual fund. Apparently as a side effect of this, Yahoo does not list an expense ratio for it, so it’s not clear what the fees are. I am going to set this one aside, but I cannot resist remarking what a sign of the times it is that gold is in the top 5.
Numbers 1 and 5 are virtually identical S&P 500 ETFs, the giant SPDR Trust (SPY) and the Pepsi to its Coke, the iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV). Yahoo tells us that the expense ratio, i.e. annual fee charged by the manager, for these two is 0.08% and 0.09% respectively. Fidelity has a pretty big S&P 500 fund, the Spartan 500 (FSMKX) which charges 0.10% and, for investments over $100,000, the Spartan Advantage 500 (FSMAX) which charges 0.07%. Even a precision freak like me will concede that all these tiny numbers are practically the same.
Number 2 is the iShares MSCI EAFE Index (EFA) which charges 0.34% in fees. You can get the same thing from the Vanguard Developed Market Index (VDMIX) which charges only 0.22%.
And at number 4 we have the iShares Emerging Markets Index (EEM) which charges an impressive-in-a-bad-way 0.72%. Vanguard will charge you 0.37% for it’s Emerging Stock Index Fund (VEIEX) or only 0.25% if you have more than $100,000 in the Admiral version (VEMAX). Note that both Vanguard funds have a 0.25% transaction fee to invest or sell.
So from this sample, based only on management fees, you might conclude that ETFs are mostly the same, or sometimes just a little worse than open-end index mutual funds. But with ETFs, you still have more costs to consider. ETFs trade like stocks, which means that you need to pay money to buy them and sell them. You will pay your broker a commission, you will pay the bid-ask spread, and you will pay both of these things twice, on your way in and your way out. These additional costs (shouldn’t be) huge, but they do count and are more than enough to tip the balance in favor of old-school index mutual funds.
As I wrote in the previous post, ETFs do have their role. There are things you can do with them because they are stocks that you cannot do with an open-end fund, such as buy on margin and sell short. And there are some peculiar things that actually are cheaper as, or even available only as, ETFs. Gold might be an example, if only I could work out what that ETF charges. The Nasdaq Composite ETF (QQQQ) is another because there are so few open-end funds that bother tracking it. You might also just enjoy trading your ETFs more than investing in open-end funds. But if you want to know which will, in the long run, make you more money, the answer is open-end mutual funds, not ETFs.